Body Image Dissertation Abstracts and

Author: Robin Arnsperger Selzer
Title: The Experience and Meaning of Body Image: Hearing the Voices of African American Sorority Women
Dissertation Completed: May, 2006 Loyola University Chicago, Higher Education Program, Chicago, Illinois, USA (Dissertation Advisor: Dr. Suzette L. Speight)

Foundation and rationale of the research

   Study of the body image construct and its influences is important because body image dissatisfaction among women is culturally pervasive and can lead to the development of eating disorders. It has especially been a concern in college environments, where emphasis is placed on appearance (Hoyt & Kogan, 2001; Schulken, Pinciaro, Sawyer, Jensen, & Hoban, 1997). Within college environments, sorority women have been identified as at-risk for developing eating disorders (Alexander, 1998; Crandall, 1988; Hoerr, Bokram, Lugo, Bivins, & Keast, 2002; Sapia, 2001). However, the extant literature falls short of providing a full understanding of body image as it relates to African American college/sorority women. This could be a result of research bias, such as only profiling White women as being affected by body image dissatisfaction and to conceptualizing body image unidimensionally (Harris, 1995; Thompson, 1994).
   Research findings about African American women’s body image satisfaction are limited and contradictory. Some studies conveyed that African American women are satisfied with their bodies (Altabe, 1996; Gore, 1999; Hawkins, 2005; Henriques & Calhoun, 1996; Malloy & Herzberger, 1998; Nichter, 2000; Powell & Kahn, 1995; Rhea, 1999; Smith et al., 1991) and therefore, less at risk for struggling with their body image. These studies commonly reference “protective factors,” such as acceptance of large body size, family support, accurate perceptions of African American men’s preference, a strong racial identity, and a masculine gender role orientation as reasons for body image satisfaction. Other studies found that African American women are just as likely as White women to have body image concerns (Brooks, 2000; Dacosta & Wilson, 1996; Demarest & Allen, 2000; Fitzgibbon & Stolley, 2000; LeGrange, Telch, & Tibbs, 1998; Patel & Gray, 2001; Pumariega et al., 1994; Thompson, 1994).
   Feminist philosophy motivated this research. The purpose of this study was to describe how African American sorority women experience and make meaning of body image. This study is significant because it created a knowledge base and made a contribution to our understanding of body image.


   A short-term observation of an African American sorority event and in-depth interviews with eight African American sorority women between the ages of 20 and 30 years old were conducted. The observation preceded the interviews in an attempt to understand the social and cultural context in which African American sorority women behave and conduct their lives. Seidman’s (1998) Three-Interview Series was utilized to produce data pertaining to: (1) the participant’s body image history; (2) details of her body image experience, including levels of satisfaction, standards of beauty, influences; and (3) the meaning assigned to her body image experience. Access to the research population was gained through the use of liaisons. Well-researched methods of data analysis and strategies for addressing ethical, validity, and reliability concerns were used.


  The following themes were discovered: Weight Trumps Everything Else, Family Criticism and Comparison, How I Look in Clothes, Intra-cultural Understanding of Black Women’s Bodies, Health Awareness, Media Responsibility, and Age. According to the data, the majority of participants defined body image holistically, as “how you feel about yourself on the inside and how you look on the outside.” They also described the perfect woman as having internal (confidence) and external (being a smaller size) qualities. All of the participants thought about body image “everyday.” Weight was reported to be a defining feature of body image; and the majority of participants expressed that they were dissatisfied with their bodies because of their weight.
  Five influences were noted as having an impact on their body image: family, clothes, health awareness, media, and age. The participants explained that their families expressed criticism about their weight. They also compared themselves to members of their families. Wearing and shopping for clothes also negatively affected the participants’ experience of body image. Having a history of family health problems increased the participants’ body image awareness. It also led to a desire to make healthy choices about diet and exercise in order to prevent such health problems. The media were described as promoting an unattainable standard of beauty and as a negative influence on their body image. In terms of age, as the participants got older, some of them accepted their bodies more; while others experienced pressure to look young. The participants also expressed an intra-cultural understanding of Black women’s bodies. They agreed that a White standard of beauty exists, although some said it was “evolving.” A majority of the participants acknowledged the belief that the African American community accepts women with larger body shapes and sizes. Yet, they spoke at length about their own struggles with weight.
  Stereotypical images of sororities were discussed. Even though the participants did not necessarily connect their sorority’s image to body image, the data revealed that many of the sorority images related to body image. In addition, half of the participants thought their body image had changed as a result of sorority participation; two participants thought it changed for the better. After reflecting on their experience of body image, participants expressed that their body image awareness had increased as a result of participating in the interviews. This led them to question the motivation (self versus society) for their feelings and behaviors. Many wanted to help others on this topic in the future.
  African American women who identify with White standards of beauty are said to be acculturated. In this study, acculturation was explored by asking participants about whether they comply with mainstream standards of beauty. Half of the participants agreed that they comply with societal standards related to weight, but not skin color or hair.
  Several topics in the literature were considered missing information in this study: acculturation, media stereotypes regarding African American women’s bodies, and feminist perspectives on body image. Often African American women do not relate to Feminist philosophy because of its neglect to mention that dominant patriarchal culture is racialized as well.

Conclusions and Implications

   Body image dissatisfaction is pervasive among women in our culture. According to this study, African American sorority women appear to be no exception. Contradictions about African American women’s body image satisfaction exist in the literature. The results of this study, however, were not contradictory. Weight mattered to the participants and the majority of them were dissatisfied with their bodies, especially with their weight. Thinness was found to relate to happiness.
    Cultural protective factors, such as the belief that the African American community accepts larger body shapes and sizes among women, are often mentioned in the literature. Even though many participants in this study acknowledged that the Black community accepts larger body shapes and sizes, most of the interview data refuted the notion that African American women are “culturally protected” from body image dissatisfaction. To illustrate an extreme example, three participants resorted to using diet pills and laxatives to cope with their body dissatisfaction. Furthermore, the literature suggests that the African American family serves as “cultural protection” from the development of body image dissatisfaction. However, in this study, the family was not found to be supportive. Instead, participants dealt with family criticisms about their bodies. The findings of this study challenge the cultural protection argument. Essentially, this study supports Dacosta and Wilson’s (1996) claim that cultural protection should be questioned.


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