Looking at Body Image Through the Lens of Race & Culture

In a nutshell, your body image is how you think of your appearance and your attractiveness in comparison to some socially validated ideal. Everyone has some idea of how they’re supposed to look, and those ideas draw from many of the same sources: popular culture, advertising media, art, fashion, and tradition.

Ironically, there is no one version of perfect that we’re all aiming for. Beauty standards vary over time and across cultures. We interviewed three women about how their racial and cultural identity influenced their body image.

‘Beauty is a lifelong commitment.’

lipstick-605298_1280“If you don’t believe me, Google it,” Janette tells us. “You’ll find stats on how much Latinas spend on anything that improves our physical appearance – hair, nails, make-up, perfume, skin creams, and, of course, cosmetic surgery!”

(We did, just out of curiosity, and a reputable source confirms it: “Half of the top 20 spending categories in which Hispanics spend at a greater rate than the general population are in the health and beauty categories.” –Chicago Tribune, Feb. 2015)

Janette grew up in Miami, Florida, where “it was a sign of self-respect to wear sky-high heels, have bright red lipstick, and smell like an Abercrombie & Fitch store.”

“And the booty! Every time I visit, I love walking down Lincoln Road and watching all the beautiful women of South Florida strut their stuff … stuffed jeans overflowing with booty. These women embrace their curves. They love their curves. They eat lots of arroz con frijoles and flan to maintain those curves. And why not? It’s beautiful.”

The women in Jackie’s family also embraced their curves. “My grandmother and mother would always tell me that men wanted a woman that they could hold on to,” she says. “Instead of trying to conform to a certain standard of beauty, they embraced their bodies wholeheartedly. Instead of placing importance on being thin or skinny, my family wanted us all to be healthy.  They encouraged us to eat, and if you lost weight or didn’t eat enough, someone would say something.”

Victoria’s height made her stand out against cultural expectations of petite Asian women. “Since childhood and during my teenage years, I observed that I was much taller with a larger frame than most other Asian women of petite build, and many Chinese men as well. I was sometimes referred to as the Amazon Asian.”

As Seen On TV

bootiesJanette feels conflicted about how Latina women are represented in pop culture. “All this talk about big hair, heels, and booties should make me happy when I watch J-Lo sing ‘Big Big Booty.’ Right? And yet, I find myself disappointed. I don’t want it to be all about our curves. Some Latina women don’t have all those curves. We are all different. We come in all shapes and colors –black, white, blond, brunette, etc.  We are more than the stereotypes presented in pop culture.”

Jackie, meanwhile, is noticing a trend in the media towards a more inclusive definition of black beauty. “There has been a shift in society’s perception of black women in regards to beauty and sex appeal. Instead of only seeing lighter skinned black women on television and other forms of media, there have been more women with darker skin. Women are also embracing their natural hair (myself included) and realizing that beauty doesn’t mean that you have to have light skin and straight hair.”

“As someone of a darker complexion, it is great to see women like myself on television, movies and magazines,” Jackie says. “Now that black women are accepting themselves and their uniqueness, it has been interesting to see how society has reacted to that.”

Stereotypes often point out the very features women want to embrace. “I’m a new mom still trying to get my sexy back,” Janette says. “I dress for function. I don’t wear perfume. Red lipstick is for ‘special occasions’ or when I feel crappy. Even though part of me thinks it’s a bit degrading, sometimes I get a little excited when I hear that ‘Booty’ song. For the first time since I can remember, we have so many successful Latina role models. And I have a big curvy booty just like them.”

How It Affected Them Personally

“I was a late bloomer, and I can remember my family making remarks about me being too thin,” Jackie says. “Then when I entered high school, I started to fill out a little, and I continued to do so in college. As my body changed so did my family’s comments. They made remarks about my ‘big thighs’ and athletic build. At the time, I felt self-conscious because my shape was different from the women in my family.”

Victoria can’t recall any cultural expectations of beauty she was told to follow, but grew up with other kinds of pressure. “My parents had very high expectations of me that I felt I could not meet, as many Asian immigrant parents often do. I believe the pressure to perform academically along with my tendency toward perfectionism and scale-403585_640feelings of inadequacy led me to focus on my body as an arena to represent control and achievement. So although I was never actually overweight according to weight charts, I dieted and restricted my eating to try to achieve the smaller, thinner appearance of other Asian women, along with the general American cultural emphasis on being slender .

“That struggle came to the point where I was hospitalized during my high school years for a period of time to be treated for anorexia nervosa. I was fortunate that those symptoms gradually resolved when I went off to college, with some distance from my family and with the help of treatment groups.”

Since then, Victoria’s thinking has changed, and she measures herself against things other than just the mirror. “Over the years, I have accomplished many of my goals academically and professionally. I feel good about relationships I have built, other meaningful life experiences I have had, and my greatly improved overall self-confidence. Rather than measuring my achievement or self-worth by trying to be a certain size or number on a scale or by any particular standard of expectations set by my parents or my Asian culture, I now focus on overall health and fitness so I can continue to be strong and active in doing the things I love to do.”

“I now stand tall, feel perfectly fine, and even laugh about referring to myself as an ‘Amazon Asian.’”

It’s a message of self-acceptance she hopes to pass forward to her daughters – one of whom is already taller than Victoria herself. “I support and encourage them to do their best academically, but believe that a woman’s self-worth and fulfillment of life should not be determined alone by her body image, or achievement, or any other particular imposed criteria, but by being who she is as a whole person, including her personality, experiences and interests, various creative gifts and talents that she offers to the world, and loving, meaningful relationships with others.

“Life will always present ongoing challenges with new goals to strive toward, but I am so glad to feel free at this point in my life from the past chains that bound me.”


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