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
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
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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