Black and White Females' Perceptions of Ideal Body Size and Social Norms


Department of Health Promotion and Education, School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208.


Different cultural norms and standards for appropriate female body size might contribute to the disparity in obesity rates between black and white adult females (46.0% and 24.6% respectively). The purpose of this study was to measure adolescents' perceptions of ideal size and social norms regarding female body size as well as adolescents' perceptions of significant others' evaluation and expectations of the adolescents' body size.

Subjects included 437 adolescent girls (247 white and 190 black) aged 13 to 19 (x=44.9, SD=.979) from six randomly selected public schools. The subjects, heights and weights were measured. Responses to a body image questionnaire and a series of nine female body drawings (arranged ordinally, 1 to 9, from thinnest to heaviest) were analyzed using the General Linear Model and Logistic Regression.

The female body size considered ideal by black females was significantly larger than the size selected as ideal by white females (x= 3.47 and x= 3.13 respectively, p< 0.001). Black females were two times more likely than white females to describe themselves as thinner than other girls their age (O.R. = 2.01, 95% C.I.1.34, 3.01) and seven times as likely to say that they were not overweight (O.R. = 7.08, 95% C.I. 3.72, 13.45). White females wanted to be a smaller size than they currently were and felt encouraged by significant others to lose weight or reduce their size. Black females did not indicate as great a desire as whites to be smaller and they tended to feel that their size was considered satisfactory by significant others. Only subjects from the low SES group perceived that significant others wanted them to gain weight.

The differences between black and white subjects' beliefs and perceptions about body size norms may explain, in part, why heavier body weights persist in some cultural groups.