THE QUOTE ABOVE, WHICH IS from one of the interviews I conducted for my book Fat Talk: What Girls and their Parents Say about Dieting reminds me of my own childhood, growing up in a Jewish home in Brooklyn with a mother who was always either actively dieting or searching for dieting tips in the pages of Ladies Home Journal or Good Housekeeping.
For my mother, who was first generation and had grown up on the Lower East Side, having the right body was an important part of fitting in.
Although attentive to her own weight, she was not overly concerned when I gained about twenty pounds during puberty. She didn’t impose her diets on me. When I complained about my weight, she told me I was going through a stage and that I would outgrow it. By age 15, I was still waiting impatiently for “it” to melt away. I knew that my older sister had gotten diet pills from our family doctor, and when I asked my mother if I could get them too, her approval was clear. She immediately called and made an appointment for me. After taking amphetamines for a month, I experienced a new-found pride in my thinner body. Like my mother and sister, I wanted a body that would mark us as somehow different from the rounded bodies that characterized my grandmother’s generation. I had received a message about Jewish women, weight and our relationship to food that was to stay with me for many years to come. Here are excerpts from what I say in a chapter called “Looking Good among African-American Girls”
• My readings on the subject showed that African American girls were more satisfied with their body weight and were less likely to diet than white or Latino girls. But there were few explanations given for why these ethnic differences existed, although the reports all made vague references to “cultural factors.” As anthropologists interested in the culture of teenage girls, we wanted to explore what led African-American girls to accept their body shape while so many of their white peers were dissatisfied with theirs.
• Nationwide survey results indicate that, in contrast to African-American girls, white and Latino girls perceive themselves to be overweight even when their weight falls within “normal” parameters for their height as established by the National Center for Health Statistics. As they get older, white girls express increasing dissatisfaction with themselves, whereas African-American girls report a relatively stable and positive sense of self-worth.
• [However] drawing on in-depth interviews with African- American and Latino women, sociologist Becky Thompson highlights the risk of generalizing about class and thinness among women of color. The diversity of experiences among the women she interviewed makes it clear that African- American and Latino women may be equally vulnerable to the emphasis on thinness. “Media presentation in even the most remote areas of the country,” writes Thompson, “makes it unlikely that any ethnic or racial group is unaware of the premium placed on dieting and thinness.”
• In order to assess differences between white and African- American girls with regard to weight related issues, we compared responses to the survey question, “How satisfied are you with your weight?” Responses show distinct differences between the two groups. Seventy percent of the African- American girls responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their current weight. While 82 percent of these girls were at or below the normal weight-for-height range of African-American girls their age, 18 percent were significantly overweight (defined as above the eighty fifth percentile). Only 15 percent of the girls who were of normal weight expressed dissatisfaction with their present weight. By contrast, a similar survey question about body shape directed at white girls revealed that almost 90 percent were dissatisfied with their bodies.
•Girls wrote comments such as: “White girls have to look like Barbie dolls and Cindy Crawford to be beautiful,” and “White girls want to be perfect.” African-American girls noted that “their attitudes and the way they wear their clothes is different,” and that white girls “want to be tall, thin, and have long hair.”
• When we asked the African-American girls for their description of an ideal black girl, their response often began with a list of personality traits rather than physical attributes. …. What was particularly striking in African-American girls’ descriptions, when compared with those of white adolescents, was the de-emphasis on external beauty as a prerequisite for popularity.
• African-American girls were notably less concerned than their white counterparts with the standards for an “ideal girl” depicted in the media. Having a positive attitude and “not worrying about your looks too much” were important components of a beautiful woman. Attitude eclipsed body parts as a measure of value…Community reinforcement is an important component that sustains this self-esteem at high levels.
• African-American girls receive far more positive than negative feedback about how they look from their family and friends… receiving positive feedback for creating their own style around their given attributes. In contrast, white girls received support for altering their looks to fit established beauty ideals.
Reprinted by permission from “Looking Good Among African American Girls” in Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say About Dieting by Mimi Nechter, p. 159-180. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press. (c) 2000 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.