If I asked you to name five Black supermodels in 30 seconds or less, could you do it? Five Latina/Hispanic supermodels? Asian supermodels? Native American/American Indian supermodels? Unfortunately, the strong likelihood is that most of us can't name five supermodels from any ethnic or racial minority background because the ideal presented in mainstream American culture is almost always White.

Cultural ideals and values of beauty dramatically influence the way we feel and think about our physical appearance. In the United States, the ideal woman in presented in mainstream media as eternally young with a very thin body, long legs, light skin, light eyes,and blonde hair (Davalos, Davalos, & Layton, 2007). In fact, visible racial and ethnic minorities are rarely displayed in mainstream beauty-oriented media (Spitzer, Henderson, & Zivian, 1999). When they do appear, the models selected generally conform to White, European American appearance ideals: They have thin, tall bodies, long straight hair, and small facial features (Banks, 2000).

Given this reality, it is critical to examine whether and how ethnic minority women living in the United States are affected by exposure to White beauty ideals. Although this is a highly complicated issue, one emerging research finding is that ethnic identity can be protective against body dissatisfaction, particularly in ethnic minority women.

Ethnic identity is defined as the degree to which one feels a subjective sense of belonging to and identification with an ethnic group (Phinney 1996). In addition to promoting social connectedness, ethnic identity is theorized to be an important protective factor against body dissatisfaction because ethnic groups hold different values and ideals of appearance. For example, traditional Hispanic/Latino cultures can be described as idealizing a more curvy body and valuing close, interdependent family relationships (familismo);  deterministic thinking (fatalismo); collectivism; and friendliness (personalismo) (Santiago-Rivera, Arredondo, & Gallardo-Cooper, 2002). Similarly, African American culture traditionally idealizes a larger figure (e.g., heavier body weight, larger butt) and bases a woman’s overall attractiveness more on having the right style and attitude than on meeting a given physical standard (Banks, 2000; Poran, 2006).

In support of this theory, a study recently published in Body Image examined ethnic identity, body image, and eating concerns in a sample of 816 European American, African American, Latina, and Asian American female college students. Results indicated that having a stronger ethnic identity was associated with having fewer eating and weight concerns for women of all ethnic groups. In addition, the relationship between thin-ideal internalization and eating concerns was weaker for women with higher ethnic identity (Rakhkovskaya & Warren, 2014).

The protective nature of ethnic identity also appears to be true for racially-salient appearance features, such as skin color, eye color, hair texture and length, flatness of face, nose shape, and eye depth. In a study of Black (n = 76), White (n = 104), and Latina (n = 106) female college students, stronger ethnic identity predicted lower levels of body dissatisfaction around most racially salient appearance features for women of all ethnic groups (Warren, 2012).

The Naked Truth is this: Tremendous value is placed on physical appearance as a determinant of social value for women in the United States. Ample research suggests that exposure to and personal acceptance of mainstream White American appearance ideals predicts body dissatisfaction in women. As such, it is critical for all of us to foster a positive connection with our physical appearance by fighting against mainstream beauty ideals. Feeling connected to the norms, customs, and traditions of ones ethnic group can be helpful in this process, particularly for ethnic minority women. 

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.

Works Cited:

Banks, I. (2000). Hair matters: Beauty, power, and Black women’s consciousness. New York, NY: New York University Press.           

Davalos, D. B., Davalos, R. A., & Layton, H. S. (2007). Content analysis of magazine headlines: Changes over three decades?’ Feminism & Psychology, 17, 250-258.

Phinney, J. S. (1996). When we talk about American ethnic groups, what do we mean?, American Psychologist, 51, 918-927.

Poran, M. A. (2006). The politics of protection: Body image, social pressures, and the misrepresentation of young Black women, Sex Roles, 55, 739-755.

Rakhkovskaya, L.M., & Warren C.S. (2014). Ethnic identity and endorsement of thin-ideal media in female undergraduates. Body Image, 11, 438-445. 

Santiago-Rivera, A. L., Arredondo, P., & Gallardo-Cooper, M. (2002). Counseling Latinos and la familia: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Spitzer, B. A., Henderson, K. A., & Zivian, M. T. (1999). Gender differences in population versus media body sizes: A comparison over four decades, Sex Roles, 40, 545-565. 

Warren, C. S. (2012). Body area dissatisfaction in White, Black, and Latina female college students in the United States: An examination of racially-salient appearance areas and ethnic identity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37, 537-556. 

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