Body Image and Health: The Role of Gender and Race

Body image is an important topic for a number of reasons. First, people who have negative images of their body are more likely than their peers to engage in poor health behaviors and experience negative psychological consequences. At an interpersonal level, body shaming is increasingly common, where one is derided by others because of her or his body size (for an excellent article discussing how this has been combatted, see the Buzzfeed page here). Finally, there is evidence that women are more likely than men to experience negative body image and be the targets of body shaming; hence, as the dad of two girls, the topic is of particular interest to me. 

It is with this background in mind that a recent article from Brooke Burk piqued my interest.* While others have noted a racial difference in ideal body types, Burk was interested in learning how girls thought about their bodies and their health, as well as factors that affect these perceptions.

To do so, she interviewed 18 girls who were participating in an after school program. The girls in her study thought about health along two dimensions: exercising and type of food consumed. They suggested, for example, that "healthy people go exercising" and that they were healthy "because I eat fruits and vegetables, and I exercise sometimes."

Burk also asked the girls about their body image. The girls mentioned fat, skinny, and thick body types. They noted that health was not necessarily associated with one body type or another. For example, one girl noted that her mom, despite being fat, was healthy because she exercised. Nevertheless, there was a stigma associated with being fat, and the participants had observed others being shamed and bullied because of their fatness. 

The ideal body type for the girls in this study was thick, where one was "not fat or skinny, but like both mixed together." Thick girls were not seen as being fat and frequently had muscle tone and bulk resulting from exercise. The girls also noted that thickness was difficult to achieve and not associated with stigma. 

Finally, being skinny "means that you are really thin like a piece of paper." The participants noted that skinny girls were not always healthy, as one could be skinny but still eat junk food and lead a sedentary lifestyle. Others noted that skinny women they knew did not eat as a way of maintaining their body size: a practice that was seen as healthy, either. Because of this, skinny girls also face stigma and shaming. 

Burk suggests the findings show (1) that there are multiple conceptualizations of what it means to be healthy, and (2) health is shaped within a social context, as people's reactions to different body sizes affect their perceived appropriateness. Importantly, the findings offer new insights into what it means to be healthy and allows public health professionals to "re-examine the current social meanings" of health. The girls in the study offered different ways for considering what it meant to be healthy. 

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* Burk, B. N. (2015). Black girls' perceptions of health and ideal body types. Journal of Gender Studies, 24, 496-511.