Both the psychological literature and conventional wisdom hold that white women are unhappier with their bodies than nonwhite women, but that may be an oversimplification, according to a new meta-analysis in the July Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 132, No. 4).
University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologists Shelly Grabe, PhD, and Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, compiled nearly 100 studies that examined body dissatisfaction among women of different ethnicities. They calculated effect sizes that compared the levels of dissatisfaction among each of the ethnicities.
"It's very commonly accepted that white women have higher levels of body dissatisfaction than black women, in the literature and in pop culture," Grabe says. "But there's been a relative neglect of Asian-American and Latina women."
Overall, the researchers found that white women were slightly less happy with their bodies than black women, but the effect size was only .29; an effect size of .2 is considered small, while .5 is considered medium. There were no other significant differences. White women on the whole were no less happy with their bodies than Asian-American or Hispanic women, and none of the ethnic-minority groups differed from each other.
The researchers also found some moderating variables. For example, some types of body-image satisfaction tests were more sensitive to ethnic differences than others. One test that asked people pick out pictures that represented their current body shape and their ideal body shape generally found fewer differences between black and white women than a body-dissatisfaction questionnaire.
And the greatest differences between white and black women showed up in adolescence and early adulthood: Young girls and older women were more similar across ethnicities than teens and twenty-somethings.
Overall, Grabe says, the study suggests researchers avoid lumping all ethnic-minority women into one category when studying body image. And, she says, psychologists need to be aware that all women, not just white women, can suffer from body dissatisfaction.
"Body dissatisfaction is a strong predictor of depression and eating disorders," she says. "This reallyhighlights that women of color are not exempt from those concerns."
For her next study, Grabe plans to examine how the types of media and popular culture that women consume influence their body image.
"There are a number of different ways that the 'thin ideal' is propagated," she says.