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White Weight

Offers conclusions of two studies on 'ideal' body images conjured up by black and by white female teens. Researchers Mimi Nichter and Sheila Parker; The differences in images; Why both sets of responses raised concerns among the researchers.

Body Image

The answer, says a team of researchers at the University of Arizona, lurks within cultural standards of beauty. When they asked adolescents to describe their version of the "ideal" girl, black and white teens conjured up vastly different images.

The white girls painted a pert portrait of Barbie, 5'7", between 100 and 110 pounds, with blue eyes and long flowing hair. "The white girls had a very fixed image of what beauty is. And because the girls didn't match up--as few of us do---they felt very dissatisfied and frustrated with themselves:' reports anthropologist Mimi Nitcher, Ph.D., who led the three-year study of the white girls.

The black girl's description of the ideal American girl had nothing to do with physical characteristics. "They told us that she is a girl who has a personal sense of style, who 'knows where she's going,' has a nice personality, gets along well with other people, and has a good head on her shoulders," says Sheila Parker, Ph.D., a nutritionist who directed the African-American part of the survey. Only if pushed did they name physical characteristics: fuller hips, large thighs, and a small waist. Those are the things black men value, says Parker.

Almost 90 percent of the white teens told the researchers they were dissatisfied with their weight, whereas 70 percent of the African-American women were satisfied.

Both sets of responses raised concerns among the researchers. Parker worries that black girls, who are more likely to have hypertension as adults, are not concerned enough about their weight. For white girls, however, weight was all-too critical to their self-concept. "As they see it, if you have the perfect body, you get the perfect boy and then you'll have the life they see in the magazines," relays Nichter.

Although Barbie is worshiped as an ideal, white girls who look the part in reality are actually resented and envied. African Americans, on the other hand, respect and congratulate those who match their version of the ideal. "How you look is a reflection of your family and community, so if you're looking good, people will tell you," says Parker. Then again, they tell you if you're not.

Yet, as black women climb the whitewashed corporate ladder where emphasis is on a smaller body shape, concerns for size start to surface, reports Parker. Clearly a healthy American ideal lies somewhere between black and white.

PHOTO: Queen Latifah is a woman who has a personal sense of style and knows where she's going.