While female per­fec­tion is often por­trayed in the media as young, white and thin, body-​​image issues and eating dis­or­ders affect all ethnic groups, says a North­eastern psychologist.

There are some eating dis­or­ders like anorexia ner­vosa, that are more likely to show them­selves in white women, but women in all ethnic and racial groups show symp­toms and signs of diag­nos­able clin­ical eating dis­or­ders,” said Debra Franko, a pro­fessor in the depart­ment of coun­seling and applied edu­ca­tional psy­chology in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sciences.

Franko has done more than 70 studies in this area. Most recently, she and Heather Thompson-​​Brenner from Boston Uni­ver­sity com­pleted a study funded by the National Insti­tutes of Health that exam­ined African Amer­ican, His­panic and Cau­casian people with binge eating disorders.

The team gath­ered a sample of nearly 1,500 people from pre­vi­ously com­pleted clin­ical trials on binge eating and ana­lyzed the raw data to iden­tify atti­tu­dinal and behav­ioral trends related to ethnicity.

The researchers assessed par­tic­i­pants’ con­cerns related to shape, weight, self-​​restraint and eating, as well as knowl­edge, atti­tudes and behav­iors asso­ci­ated with binge eating disorders.

Although all eth­nic­i­ties in the study exhib­ited sim­ilar binge eating prob­lems, the find­ings show there may be cul­tural expla­na­tions, such as larger body ideals or dif­ferent eating habits.

For example, His­panic par­tic­i­pants showed a higher con­cern for how their shape or the amount of food they eat influ­ences how they think about or judge themselves.

It would sug­gest that per­haps, we need to take cul­tural vari­ables into account when we are designing treat­ments for people from diverse back­grounds,” Franko noted.

Recently, Franko and her team com­pleted focus groups with Latina stu­dents at North­eastern and asked ques­tions about how their family, friends, cul­ture, and the media have shaped the way they per­ceive their body image.

Most of the women expressed a feeling of con­flict between cul­tural values — where food and larger bodies are cel­e­brated — and how those values are con­tra­dicted in the media, where images of women are thin and not curvy.

This is a big battle,” said Franko. “We are sat­u­rated with these kinds of images and we have to con­tinue to encourage women to see them­selves in much broader terms than what they look like, despite what they see in the media. Women have to think about their strengths, per­son­al­i­ties, tal­ents, and be more crit­ical of the media to not take these images as some­thing they need to aspire to, but rather some­thing they need to question.”

While media lit­eracy is impor­tant, friends and family can play a crit­ical role in shaping a young women’s body per­cep­tion. “Peers really do matter,” she said. “Young women should sur­round them­selves with people who are pos­i­tive, who are not so caught up in body image.”