Real women have curves

An article in the journal Body Image caught my atten­tion recently: “Con­sid­ering J.Lo and ‘Ugly Betty:’ A qual­i­ta­tive exam­i­na­tion of risk fac­tors and pre­ven­tion tar­gets for body dis­sat­is­fac­tion, eating dis­or­ders and obe­sity in young Latina women.”

When I got down and dirty with the article, I was even more hooked. Deb Franko is a pro­fessor of Coun­seling and Applied Edu­ca­tional Psy­chology in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and first author on the paper. Franko’s work focuses on dis­or­dered eating and body image among ado­les­cent girls. This research is par­tic­u­larly inter­esting because it con­nects the com­peting issues of obesity/​overweight and anorexia/​excessive dieting that both plague our society.

The Latina pop­u­la­tion is par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­tible to dis­or­dered eating while at the same time a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of college-​​aged His­panic women report body mass indices over 25. Franko’s team decided to inves­ti­gate that dichotomy by exploring the cul­tural fac­tors that may con­tribute to decreased body image, which is con­sis­tently asso­ci­ated with both eating dis­or­ders and obesity.

Despite the evi­dence of body dis­sat­is­fac­tion, dis­or­dered eating, eating dis­or­ders and obe­sity among Latinas, little atten­tion has been paid to gath­ering qual­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion to broaden our under­standing of common cul­tural antecedents,” write the authors. This paper, which com­piles the qual­i­ta­tive out­comes of six Latina under­grad­uate stu­dent focus groups car­ried out between 2008 and 2010. There were 27 women in the study with a mean age of just over 19 years. Their average BMI was 24.2, with a range of 22.3–25.7 — right around “normal” range as defined by the National Insti­tutes of Health (18.5–24.9).

The researchers tran­scribed each of the 90 minute con­ver­sa­tions and then went through and coded the text for par­tic­ular “themes.” A couple of dif­ferent researchers did this coding inde­pen­dently to achieve a more objec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Three themes emerged as dom­i­nating the conversations:

  1. Cultural disparities in body-ideals
  2. Messages about body shape and weight received by family, peers and society
  3. Difficulties in making healthy eating and physical activity choices as a function of college life
  4. The influence of peers and potential male partners on body satisfaction and ideals

My ama­teur eye sees the last three of those as pretty uni­versal to all women, not just Latinas. It’s that first one that seems so intriguing to me. The ideal often por­trayed in the Amer­ican media is a skinny, boob-​​less heroin addict… I mean woman. His­panic cul­ture on the other hand values a “curvier, fuller body,” according to the authors. Who wouldn’t struggle with those com­peting messages?

I’m still trying to come to terms with the dif­fer­ence between the White stan­dard and then the His­panic stan­dard, because I kind of want both,” said one par­tic­i­pant. “I want to be thin, but at the same time I want the curves from the Latina side.”

Some par­tic­i­pants talked about their dis­ap­point­ment in America Fer­reira (Ugly Betty) when she “lost all that weight” (after appearing in the movie “Real Women Have Curves.”) They also rec­og­nized that celebri­ties like J.Lo, Kim Kar­dashian, Eva Lon­goria and Bey­oncé are “showing that they can still be really beau­tiful and not be like the 100lb model with the small frame.” So some of the nat­u­rally curvy celebri­ties are trying to squeeze into the skinny norm while others are embracing their curves.

Their fam­i­lies, they said tended to pro­mote the Latin cul­tural norm, won­dering why their daugh­ters would want to lose weight and diet. They said the com­pany they sur­rounded them­selves with had an impact on their body image also — “For example, when I was in high school, I hung out pri­marily in a White com­mu­nity. I was sur­rounded by White girls, there werent’ many His­panic people in my high school. So I always thought that I was kind of like not shaped like everyone else.” When that stu­dent got to col­lege and found her­self in a more eth­ni­cally and racially diverse com­mu­nity, she began to appre­ciate her body more.

The authors of the paper make four rec­om­men­da­tions based on their the­matic find­ings for devel­oping an “inte­grated pre­ven­tion pro­gram,” ie., one that addresses both over and under­weight issues. These include media lit­eracy inter­ven­tion, dis­cus­sions about the con­flicting cul­tural mes­sages, addressing behav­ioral fac­tors specif­i­cally in the con­text of col­lege life (dining hall eating, being away from the family, etc.), and finally, they say “devel­oping inter­per­sonal skills such as assertive­ness and problem solving, as well as learning to decrease body and appearance-​​related com­par­isons, are areas of importance.”

After watching The Weight of the Nation a few weeks ago (did you see it? you should and you still can), I’m finding this dis­cus­sion extremely inter­esting. There’s this weird yo-​​yo problem with our population’s weight. On the one hand we get mes­sages saying we need to be thin and on the other hand mes­sages that say we’ll be happy if we eat this or the other high-​​fat food (imagine sinking your teeth into a juicy cheese­burger right now, wouldn’t that be great? That would solve every­thing!). This study says it’s even more com­pli­cated for women who have not just com­peting mes­sages within one cul­ture, but com­peting mes­sages between cul­tures as well.

Though it still seems to me that the idea of an inte­grated pre­ven­tion pro­gram would ben­efit people of all eth­nic­i­ties, not just Latinas. Over­weight and eating dis­or­ders both stem from strug­gles with body image. It’s not the over eating or the under eating. It’s not the weight of the nation, it’s the state of the nation’s mind.

I appre­ci­ated that at the end of the article Franko and her team rec­og­nized a few short­com­ings of the study: “We rec­og­nize that the term ‘Latino/​a’ covers groups that can differ widely in lin­guistic, his­tor­ical and gen­er­a­tional back­grounds, and these issues were not addressed in this study.”