Body image and ethnic background
How does body image vary across people from different ethnic backgrounds?
Body dissatisfaction or feeling negatively about appearance or abilities is a common experience across different racial and ethnic groups.
Body image is a multi-dimensional construct; however, the tools used to assess body image in research often focus on body weight or shape. This can be limiting when trying to understand body image and ethnicity, as people from different groups have different body ideals (102,103). Concerns around body image may not always fall into the categories of body weight and shape. For instance, some concerns may be around skin tone, hair texture or size and shape of facial features (104–106).
The tools used to assess body image in research often focus on body weight or shape. This can be limiting when trying to understand body image and ethnicity.
Generally, differences between people with different ethnic backgrounds in levels of body dissatisfaction are small and there appear to be more similarities between people from various ethnic backgrounds rather than differences (1, 107). Ethnicity may have less of an influence on body image than factors like age, gender or weight (1, 108). Rather, the way in which ethnic minority groups experience body image and the factors that can affect their own body image may be slightly different.
While the differences across ethnicities may be small, where such differences have been observed, they tend to show that, in general, Black women are more satisfied with their bodies than White women. This is mirrored in some analysis that looks at body image in Black British girls, which finds they are more likely to express a positive body image and less likely to show disordered eating behaviours than White British girls (109). Similarly, Black males (adult and children) reported being more satisfied with their bodies compared to their White counterparts (110,111).
There is a suggestion that Asian American men and women (which is typically used to refer to Americans of East Asian descent) tend to have lower body satisfaction than their White American counterparts (105). Similar findings can be found for Asian adolescents, who reported greater body dissatisfaction than other racial groups (112).
Cultural influences on body image
Looking more broadly at culture as opposed to only ethnicity or race can enhance our understanding of body image across groups. Findings from a cross-cultural study (103) highlighted significant differences across world regions in body weight ideals and body dissatisfaction, though these differences were small in terms of overall effect.
Though researchers no longer believe that body image is a concern only for White women in Western countries (107), research suggests that body dissatisfaction is more pronounced in affluent countries where people lead a lifestyle more characterised by high levels of individualism and consumption (106,113). In these countries, people may experience greater pressures to conform to the ‘ideal body’ due to having greater access to body-centred information and images through the media.
The impact of the media on body image may vary across different ethnic groups. Research from the US found that the strongest sources of thinness pressures for White women, are from the media, peers and family, whereas, for Black women, peer attitudes (114) and family pressures are more pronounced (115). One study, which examined whether there were differences in positive body image among British female undergraduates of different ethnicities, found that Hispanic female undergraduates reported the lowest score on media influence and the highest score on self-esteem; the authors proposed that high self-esteem could serve as a protective factor against media influence in this group (116).
Findings from a qualitative study with Dutch children of non-Western ethnic minorities suggest that they had, to some extent, internalised the ‘thin ideal’, as they expressed a preference for a thin body size that corresponded with Western bodily ideals in contrast with their parents’ preference for a fuller body size (117). This was echoed in a review of the research, which found greater body image dissatisfaction among individuals who had emigrated from Africa to Europe compared to those who had not (113). In this way, the level of acculturation (i.e. the degree to which ethnic minorities adopt Western customs and values) may negatively affect the way in which individuals view their bodies (113,118,119).
As well as exposure to the media, body image in immigrant communities may also be influenced by the experience of adapting to a new culture, which is something that can be very stressful (120). This stress and discrimination were found to be important risk factors in understanding the development and maintenance of eating disorder symptoms among ethnic minority populations (121). Discrimination was found to be associated with greater eating disorder and depressive symptomology via body shame (122).