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"Thick": Effects of Perceived Body Image on the Physical Health of Middle Class African-American Girls

Rashawn Ray works to establish a better understanding of obesity and body image among Black adolescent girls

Obesity is especially problematic for Black women as over 50% are considered clinically obese. Among Whites, higher socioeconomic status (SES) leads to less obesity and more physical activity. Among Blacks, however, SES does not explain the low prevalence of physical activity or the high rate of obesity. A key explanation centers on the effect of perceived body image on perceptions of obesity and physical activity, particularly for Black women. Using a sample of college-educated Blacks and Whites (482), I found that a smaller perceived body image is positively related to physical activity for White women, Black men, and White men, but does not have a significant effect on the physical activity of Black women. I argue that the messages and images that Black women receive from the Black community and mainstream media lead to a sociocultural reinterpretation of body image where they are more likely to underestimate their own body image and embrace genetic determinism. Interestingly, however, I found that Black women report higher self-esteem and less body dissatisfaction than White women.

Using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), this study proposes to develop a new perceived body image measure--called "Thick"--that might be more theoretically, substantively, and methodologically useful among adolescents and adults alike. I aim to determine when the relationship between perceived body image and physical health changes for Black female adolescents compared to their White female peers. My findings will speak to health in social context and the role of place in regards to the built environment and the racial composition of neighborhoods that structure racial differences in physical health between Blacks and Whites.