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Abstract

In this article, I present the findings from an ethnographic study of 18 women college students living in the northeastern United States. I examine how ethnically diverse women dealt with the messages of the dominant White society's obsession with thinness, and whether it affected their perceptions of an ideal body image. From the analysis of the interviews, I identified and extracted several themes related to ethnicity, aesthetic body ideals, body dissatisfaction, and disturbed eating. Grounded in the women's narratives, I found that ethnically diverse women coming of age in American society experience anxieties and emotional stress as they related to others in their daily lives. Their stories shed light on how the body is a vehicle for social mobility and is used by women from marginalized identities to strategically negotiate social inequalities embedded in daily social relationships and interactions that more privileged women do not encounter.
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Qualitative Health Research
http://qhr.sagepub.com/content/21/10/1347
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/1049732310392592
2011 21: 1347 originally published online 9 December 2010Qual Health Res Ann M. Cheney
''Most Girls Want to be Skinny'' : Body (Dis)Satisfaction Among Ethnically Diverse Women
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DOI: 10.1177/1049732310392592
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Since the early 1970s, psychoanalysts, social scientists,
and feminists have argued that women’s desires for slen-
der bodies were the cause of their eating disorders (Bruch,
1973; Chernin, 1981; Garner & Garfinkel, 1982; Orbach,
1986). Throughout the 1990s, feminists argued for a
broader sociocultural analysis of eating disorders, recog-
nizing that women’s role in society, contradictory female
expectations, and female oppression were essential forces
contributing to women’s food and body pathologies
(Bordo, 1993; Fallon, Katzman, & Wooley, 1994; Nasser,
1997). Recently, there has been a movement toward
understanding how sociocultural factors that evoke pow-
erlessness such as poverty, immigration, heterosexism,
and rapid sociocultural change affect women’s risk for
eating disorders (Katzman & Lee, 1997; Nasser, Katzman,
& Gordon, 2001; Ruggiero, 2003). The evolution of these
arguments reflects the growing awareness that eating
disorders are spreading across ethnic, cultural, socioeco-
nomic, and geographical boundaries, raising questions
about the sociocultural risk factors of eating disorders (Le
Grange, Louw, Breen, & Katzman, 2004; Lee & Lee,
2000; Pike & Borovoy, 2004).
Anorexia nervosa, the most salient eating disorder, has
long been considered a culture-bound syndrome “rooted
in Western cultural values and conflicts” (Prince, 1985,
p. 300) predominantly affecting White, well-educated
women of middle- to upper-class backgrounds living in
Western societies (Bruch, 1973). It is well established
that eating disorders now afflict women living in Western
and non-Western societies, and new research findings
suggest that the global rise of eating disorders coincides
with economic and social changes associated with accul-
turation to Western values, which are believed to heighten
women’s vulnerability to eating disturbances. As women
around the world retool their identities in the face of glo-
balization, eating disorders now affect women from dif-
ferent ethnic backgrounds and sociocultural milieus
(Becker, Fay, Gilman, & Striegel-Moore, 2007; Lake,
Staiger, & Glowinski, 2000; Miller & Pumariega, 2001;
Soh, Touyz, & Surgenor, 2006; Tsai, Curbow, & Heinberg,
2003; Wildes, Emery, & Simons, 2001). Clearly, as eating
disorders are diagnosed in places once thought “immune”
to these illnesses, their cultural boundedness, salient
illness expressions (i.e., fat phobia), and prevalence have
been questioned, raising concern over the sociocultural
392592QHR211010.1177/10497323103
92592CheneyQualitative Health Research
1University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ann M. Cheney, University of Connecticut, Department of Anthropology,
Beach Hall, Unit 2176, 354 Mansfield Dr., Storrs, CT 06269, USA
Email: ann.cheney@uconn.edu
“Most Girls Want to be Skinny”:
Body (Dis)Satisfaction Among
Ethnically Diverse Women
Ann M. Cheney1
Abstract
In this article, I present the findings from an ethnographic study of 18 women college students living in the northeastern
United States. I examine how ethnically diverse women dealt with the messages of the dominant White society’s
obsession with thinness, and whether it affected their perceptions of an ideal body image. From the analysis of the
interviews, I identified and extracted several themes related to ethnicity, aesthetic body ideals, body dissatisfaction,
and disturbed eating. Grounded in the women’s narratives, I found that ethnically diverse women coming of age in
American society experience anxieties and emotional stress as they related to others in their daily lives. Their stories
shed light on how the body is a vehicle for social mobility and is used by women from marginalized identities to
strategically negotiate social inequalities embedded in daily social relationships and interactions that more privileged
women do not encounter.
Keywords
adolescents / youth; body image; eating disorders; ethnicity; gender
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1348 Qualitative Health Research 21(10)
determinants of eating disorders (see Lee, 1997; van’t
Hoft & Nicolson, 1996).
Until recently, it was believed that African American
women, Latinas, and minority women in general do not
commonly suffer from body dissatisfaction and eating
disorders, because their sociocultural statuses make them
less likely to develop an obsessive desire to be thin when
compared to White women (Silber, 1986). Despite strong
arguments against such naïve standpoints (see Thompson,
1992), eating disorders often continued to be conceptual-
ized as illnesses predominantly affecting White women
(Bruch, 1973; Dolan, 1991; Gordon, Perez, & Joiner,
2002). Since the 1990s, a flurry of clinical studies have
demonstrated that there is a relationship between height-
ened socioeconomic status and increased vulnerability to
eating disorder symptoms (Lee & Lee, 2000; Polivy &
Herman, 2002; Rogers, Resnick, Mitchell, & Blum, 1997).
However, the findings have been inconsistent, indicating
that more work should be done to tease out the complex
relationships among gender, eating disorders, and social
status.
This article adds to a growing body of literature show-
ing how and why educated young women from various
ethnicities suffer from body dissatisfaction and exhibit
eating disorder symptoms. By examining women’s narra-
tives about the social meanings of their body, the findings
from this study contribute to our understanding of how
ethnically diverse women conceptualize beauty and inter-
act with mainstream body ideals. Through a detailed anal-
ysis of ethnically, culturally, and socially diverse women’s
experiences with body image (dis)satisfaction and dietary
restraint, I elucidate how the body is used as a site to
enhance social mobility and contest certain ethnic valua-
tions of a gendered body.
The Symbolic Power
of the Slender Body
Recent cross-cultural research shows that “body image
and weight concerns as well as dietary patterns have
highly contextualized and locally variable meanings”
(Becker, 2004, p. 536). For instance, psychologist and
medical anthropologist Anne Becker’s work among
young women living in rural Fiji sheds light on the mean-
ing attached to the slender body. Becker, Burwell, Gilman,
Herzog, and Hamburg (2002) found that rapid social
change and exposure to Western television programs cor-
responded with the adoption of a slender body image
ideal and a significant increase in body dissatisfaction,
disordered eating patterns, and eating disorders among
young Fijian women. An in-depth analysis of 30 qualita-
tive interviews revealed that Fijian women with eating
disorders attempted to become socially and economically
successful like the women they watched on television
programs (Becker, 2004). Becker’s findings suggested
that the increase in disordered eating among Fijian
women should be understood as a strategy to acquire
power rather than an attempt to be thin. For Becker,
Fijian women afflicted with eating disorders reshaped
their self-image in the hopes of greater economic pros-
perity, gender equity, and independence. To a similar
degree, in Curaçao, a postcolonial island in the Caribbean,
Katzman, Hermans, van Hoeken, and Hoek (2004) illus-
trated how anorexia was common among mixed-ethnicity
women of high socioeconomic status who had lived
abroad. In their narratives, mixed-race, educated women
with experiences traveling and living abroad spoke of
their struggles to fit into a higher social class of pre-
dominantly White people. They perceived that being thin
was one of the ways by which they could gain accep-
tance. It is increasingly apparent that social, cultural, and
historical factors are likely to mediate women’s body
(dis)satisfaction and eating behaviors.
This point is well illustrated in research conducted
among ethnic minority women living in the United States.
Scholars have grappled over whether ethnic minority
women’s idealization of a larger body size is associated
with greater body satisfaction (see Miller & Pumariega,
2001). The debate might have much to do with differing
definitions of beauty ideals and concepts of self among
ethnically diverse populations. For instance, following
their study of body aesthetics among Black and Latina
women, Rubin, Fitts, and Becker (2003) suggested that
definitions of beauty move beyond the physical body
to encompass embodied ways of being and acting. An
in-depth analysis of a focus group with 18 college-
educated African American and Latina women indicated
that they defined beauty as body ethics, or “values and
beliefs regarding care and appreciation of diverse body
types” (p. 55). These women had an attitude of “self-
acceptance and body nurturance.” By rejecting main-
stream representations of beauty, one is able to stay “true
to oneself,” upholding individual cultural values and ide-
als, reinforcing positive attitudes toward good health and
well-being (p. 70). As these and other authors—including
Nichter (2000) and Parker et al. (1995)—have demon-
strated, Latina and African American women express and
embody beauty in ways that boldly challenge and move
beyond rigid physical descriptions of the aesthetically
appealing body to include attitude, style, and presentation
of self.
In this article I build on these earlier studies, and
explore the social meaning of the body and how it is used
as a vehicle for social mobility. The analysis is grounded
in the works of Pierre Bourdieu (1984), who eloquently
pointed out that the body is a symbolic marker of class,
and signifies social distinction. Bourdieu discussed the
social processes and everyday practices that define
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Cheney 1349
individual persons and social distinction, which is
accomplished through the accumulation of symbolic
capital (e.g., money, education, and social networks).
The body, in a Bourdieuian framework, thus acts as a
commodity or medium through which certain kinds of
capital are acquired. Bourdieu wrote:
The body is the most indisputable materialization
of class tastes, which it manifests in several ways.
It does this first in the seemingly most natural fea-
tures of the body, the dimensions (volume, height,
weight) and shapes (round or square, stiff or sup-
ple, straight or curved) of its visible forms, which
express in countless ways a whole relation to the
body, i.e., a way of treating it, caring for it, feeding
it, maintaining it, which reveals the deepest dispo-
sitions of the habitus. (1984, p. 190)
According to Bourdieu, the body acts as a commodity or
medium through which certain kinds of capital and power
are articulated, and where esteemed cultural values are
encoded. The women’s narratives presented in this article
illuminate how attaining a slender body—a form of
power—is a means by which women of diverse ethnici-
ties and social classes can overcome inequalities in every-
day social relationships and interactions. Focusing on the
mundane and ordinary—the social reality most taken for
granted—these women’s narratives offer rich insight into
the complexities of the ways that being thin is a mecha-
nism that women utilize to gain a sense of belonging and
acceptance in American society.
Methods
In this study, I employed a feminist methodological
framework and collected life histories from 18 college-
educated women. The interviews were guided by a semi-
structured interview protocol, with several questions
intended to bring out descriptions of the women’s life
experiences related to the social meaning of the body.
I asked the young women to talk about their family life;
the communities in which they grew up; their adoles-
cence, education, and social interactions; and involve-
ment with peers. In addition, I asked women who
immigrated to the United States and women who were
born into ethnically diverse families to further explain
their experiences of being exposed to more than one cul-
ture (i.e., their parents’ native cultures and American
culture, or their own native culture and American cul-
ture). I also gathered what I refer to as “body narratives,”
which encouraged women to talk about their relationship
to food and their bodies, and elicited information on
women’s perceived beauty ideals as well as dieting prac-
tices. This technique permitted an in-depth exploration of
how media imagery and mainstream ideas about beauty
influence women’s dietary choices and relationships to
their bodies. In the process of collecting body narratives,
several women recounted their history with food-related
troubles. These women’s narratives tell how they saw the
thin body as a way to gain social acceptance and eventu-
ally to improve their relations with others. During the
interviews I did not use a voice recorder, but maintained
the integrity of women’s narratives by transcribing the
field notes as soon as possible after the interview and
immediately expanding on the notes.1 As the women
spoke, I recorded as much detail as possible, including
descriptions of the women—facial expressions, tones,
unspoken communication, demeanor—and verbatim
quotes. Additionally, I recorded my impressions and
interpretation of the emotional condition of the young
women before, during, and after the interview (Dewalt &
Dewalt, 2002).
As a White, educated woman, I recognized that a criti-
cal and reflective approach to the research process was
crucial in the study of ethnic minority women. As
Adamson and Donovan (2002) stated, “The production of
reflexive accounts is essential in all qualitative research
projects but particularly in research involving ethnic
minorities or ‘other’ groups” (p. 823). Utilizing a femi-
nist framework allowed me to examine how my own sub-
jectivity influenced the interview process and later my
interpretation of the results. Feminist psychological
researchers Tolman and Szalacha (1999) addressed this
approach in their work: “This psychological approach to
data analysis is accomplished in part because this method
is explicitly relational, in that the researcher brings her
self-knowledge into the process of listening by using
clinical methods of empathy to contribute to her under-
standing of what a girl is saying” (p. 14). This approach
placed the young woman as the focus of the inquiries,
actively allowing her to construct her story. At the same
time, it made me critically aware of how my own life his-
tory and subjective biases influence the research process.
This methodological approach moved away from homog-
enizing women, and highlighted their lived experiences.
The young women in this study were chosen based on
their ethnicity and educational status. I used purposive
sampling (nonrandomized selection), as well as snowball
sampling, a technique that involves referrals by other par-
ticipants, to recruit ethnically diverse women (Bernard,
2002). All the young women in the study were under-
graduate university students between the ages of 18 and
24 attending the same public, 4-year institution located in
the northeastern United States. Three of the women in the
study were current students of mine. To overcome the
power differences embedded in the student–teacher rela-
tionship, which can influence the results by creating com-
munication barriers, I conducted interviews with these
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1350 Qualitative Health Research 21(10)
students near the end of the semester, or after the completion
of the term (see Geiger, 1990). Other young women were
recruited through a variety of student organizations
including, but not limited to, the Puerto Rican/Latin
American Cultural Center, Asian American Cultural
Center, Black Students Association, and West Indian
Student Awareness Organization. The research was not
limited to women who self-identified or who were clini-
cally diagnosed as having or having had an eating disor-
der. The study was reviewed and received full ethical
approval from the University of Connecticut Institutional
Review Board prior to the start of the research. At the
beginning of each interview, I informed each young woman
of my reasons for conducting the research. All women
were informed that the information they shared was
anonymous and confidential. Additionally, each woman
was aware that she could withdraw from the interview
process at any point without providing an explanation.
Consent was obtained prior to the start of the interview.
Pseudonyms are used throughout the article to protect
women’s identities and maintain confidentiality.
Throughout this article I use the term ethnically
diverse women to encompass the varied ways that these
women self-identified, which included White (7 parti-
cipants), Hispanic (3 participants), Persian, Filipino,
Jamaican, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Black Puerto Rican,
Indian Italian, and Asian Indian. The women from ethnic
minorities were either born into an immigrant family or
had immigrated to the United States during their child-
hood or adolescence with their families; in one case, a
young woman immigrated by herself. Six of the 11 ethnic
minority women were not born in the United States, and
an additional 5 indicated that their parents were foreign-
born and had immigrated to the United States prior to the
informant’s birth. Ethnic minority women who said that
they or their parents had lived in another country prior to
living in the United States discussed their affiliation with
their country of origin; they maintained varying degrees
of connection with the home country. One woman was
born in the United States to American-born parents (the
mother grew up in Brazil), yet immediately after her birth
moved to Costa Rica, where she lived until she was five.
This woman described herself as possessing a Latin
American rather than Euro-American heritage. The six
participants who had exposure to two different countries
indicated that they maintained connections to their coun-
try of origin through visits and interactions with family
members living there. It is important to indicate the length
of time these immigrant women had spent in American
society. I did this by differentiating between women who
were first-generation immigrants to the United States and
women who were second-generation immigrants born to
immigrant families in the United States. All seven of the
White women in the study were born and raised in the
United States. The women’s ages ranged from 18 to 23,
and the mean age was 20. Social class was self-assessed
and ranged from working class (1 participant) to upper-
middle class (2 participants), with the other 15 partici-
pants identifying as middle class. The heterogeneity of
the group allowed for a wide range of perspectives and
experiences.
The findings are structured using an analysis of the
contradictions, conflicts, and struggles that were present
in women’s lives, enabling underlying patterns and theo-
retical concepts to arise from women’s narratives (Strauss
& Corbin, 1990). I developed a codebook to highlight
patterns and ideas that emerged from the themes. In cod-
ing the interviews I sought theoretical saturation, which
means that neither new cultural data nor new relation-
ships between variables emerged from within the wom-
en’s narrations (Bernard, 2002, p. 471). In the case of
nonsaturation, I conducted subsequent interviews so that
theoretical saturation was reached and no new themes
were discovered.
Findings
Ethnically diverse women talked about the struggles, ten-
sions, and conflicting expectations they faced growing up
and entering American society. An in-depth exploration of
women’s lives indicated that body (dis)satisfaction was
intricately connected to feelings of belonging and accep-
tance. The thread linking many of the women’s narratives
was the symbolic power that the slender body engendered,
an image that women tended to either desire or reject.
Feminist scholar Susan Bordo (1993) wrote that in
contemporary consumer culture, cultural beauty ideals
perpetuate the image of the slender body as the epitome of
ideal femininity. The slender body is encoded with images
of control, achievement, and success—culturally esteemed
values specific to womanhood in consumer societies.
Bordo contended that the slender body is homogenized,
depicting a dominant gender, class, and ethnic type. In
line with Bordo’s work, the women in the present study
reproduced images that reinforced the notion that the het-
erosexual, middle- to upper-class White woman is the cul-
tural prototype of ideal feminine beauty in American
society. Regardless of their ethnic, socioeconomic, and
cultural backgrounds, women in the study expressed their
conflicts dealing with messages promulgated by the media
and endorsed by American society, in which thinness and
whiteness symbolize beauty and ideal femininity.
Accepting or Rejecting the
Slender “White” Body Ideal
Bordo’s (1993) depiction of femininity was echoed in
several women’s narratives, reinforcing that the slender
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Cheney 1351
White body was a pervasive image in these women’s
daily lives. Some women explicitly expressed their own
desires for this body image, using references to Hollywood
movie stars and other celebrities who possessed desirable
physical characteristics and who, by extension, embodied
power and prestige. For instance, ethnically diverse
women reproduced an anglicized image of beauty in
which the ideal woman possessed a light skin color
(white, tan, or “not too dark”), light eyes (blue, green, or
hazel), and light-colored (blonde or light brown) straight
hair. Consider the description of an ideal woman given
by Lisa, a young White woman of middle- to upper-class
background. She excitedly talked about Jessica Simpson2
as her ideal:
Her chest is medium sized, and her body in general
is really nice. . . . Her hair color [blonde] is really
great, but you know it’s impossible to get. Jessica’s
hair is actually darker, like dirty blonde, but she
treats it so often, and it’s really expensive. They
[a cable television station] said she takes extrava-
gant lengths to get her hair that color, and that it
really isn’t pure blonde.
Lisa was enthusiastic when she spoke of her idealized
image of beauty. She shared her knowledge of the prac-
tices Jessica Simpson engaged in to become beautiful.
Lisa also had blonde hair, which she frequently had
treated at a hair salon. Her subtle comparison of herself to
Jessica Simpson reinforced that the slender, anglicized
body was the ideal that she strove for; yet, Lisa was aware
that this body is nearly impossible to achieve, because it is
expensive and individuals must engage in “extravagant”
beauty practices to achieve the desired results. Despite
the impossibility of attaining this ideal, she dyed her hair,
strictly monitored her diet, and exercised. Lisa was able
to engage in these beauty regimes and self-disciplinary
practices because she had access to the resources neces-
sary to cultivate the highly desirable yet decidedly rare
body image. She had the financial resources, leisure time,
and knowledge of the practices that she must engage in to
achieve this ideal. By embodying the slender White body,
Lisa possessed social capital, which was visible in the
contours of her body as well as in the ways in which she
adorned her body. Near the end of our discussion, Lisa
stated with an air of confidence, “I buy designer clothes.
You get a better fit, and your clothes aren’t the same as
everyone else’s.” Through daily food, body, and con-
sumer practices, Lisa was able to elevate her social status
and prestige by molding her body into an image that
encodes dominant gender ideology and embodies social
distinction.
Abby, a Black Puerto Rican woman who grew up in
a “snobby,” upper-middle-class neighborhood, similarly
emphasized whiteness in descriptions of ideal feminine
beauty. Her narrative echoed Lisa’s, and adds to under-
standing of the complexity with which thinness and
whiteness are embedded in women’s definitions of beauty
and experiences of their bodies. When Abby was asked to
discuss her image of the ideal woman, she responded,
“She should have a natural tan, not too dark and not too
light; green or hazel eyes; and straight hair.” She contin-
ued to state, “I hate curly hair, because I have curly hair.”
Abby idealized lighter shades and hues of beauty. She
was not alone, as many women in the study talked about
lighter-skinned women who had long, straight, light-
colored hair, light eyes, and a glistening tan as the epit-
ome of beauty. Frizzy, kinky, or curly hair (nonstraight
hair) deviates from White standards of beauty, which can
become, for some women, a source of conflict and anxi-
ety (Patton, 2006). The desire for long, flowing, straight,
and preferably blonde (or lighter) hair—which, as Lisa
pointed out, requires time and money—pervades women’s
depictions of beauty in American society (see Nicther,
2000; Nichter & Vuckovic, 1994). Desiring beauty based
on the standards of the so-called ideal White woman was
a theme connecting many of the young women’s voices,
and was not specifically linked to ethnicity and/or social
class. This begs the question: What do lighter shades of
skin; soft, smooth, and sleek hair; and a svelte figure offer
ethnically diverse women? Does the slender body engen-
der social distinction, and by extension, wealth and
power?
Jessica, a White woman from a lower-middle-class
background, provided insight into the complexities of
desiring the White, slender body. As she explained, the
“skinny girl” possesses valued personality characteris-
tics: “Skinny girls . . . are always portrayed as the sexy,
intelligent, successful, and in-control women.” The oppo-
site of the skinny girl is the chubby or fat girl who, as
Jessica explained, is “fat, funny, and clumsy.” Most note-
worthy is that Jessica conflated slenderness with social,
sexual, intellectual, personal, and economic success, so
that being slender raised one’s social status. She was well
aware that the fat body does not offer the same level of
prestige. This point was clarified when Jessica stated, “If
someone calls me fat, I get upset.” In American society,
the fat body is seen as possessing an “incorrect attitude,”
symbolizes a body out of control, and is situated at the
bottom of the hierarchy of valued body ideals (Bordo,
1993, p. 203). Lisa’s comments align with Becker’s
(2004) findings that the slender female body embodies
positive attributes, and that cultivating a culturally valued
aesthetic body ideal is a method to experience social
rewards and improved social positioning. Desiring slen-
der bodies because of the esteem they embody is prob-
lematic, however. As Lisa articulated, a young woman’s
self-worth is inexorably linked to the size and shape of
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1352 Qualitative Health Research 21(10)
her body. In line with Jessica, many other women associ-
ated the “skinny girl” with positive characteristics,
expressing their desires to mold their bodies and selves
into the images that pervade their daily lives. As the
women discussed above illustrate, in American society,
“The current standard of beauty is a White, young, slim,
tall, and upper class woman” (Patton, 2006 p. 30), an
image that unfortunately marginalizes other forms of
femininity and female beauty.
Not all women idealize the White, slender body.
Several women contested the uncritical consumption of
media images that promote thinness as the feminine ideal.
Kantha, who is Jamaican, mocked the image of the slen-
der White girl. She said, “The skinny White girl has the
attitude of ‘I’m perfect.’” Kantha lived in Jamaica until
early adolescence, and then moved to a low-income
Puerto Rican community. As a first generation immigrant
woman, she rejected such oppressive images of the
“White girl,” and talked about how beauty is fluid and
encompasses both inner and outer beauty. Kantha out-
lined her culture’s notions of beauty, comparing Jamaican
women’s beauty ideals and American models of beauty:
in the United States, the emphasis is rigidly limited to
types of physical beauty, and there is little emphasis on
inner beauty. In America, Kantha explained, “[t]he White
girl is tall and skinny and blond”; she is also “perfect.” In
addition, Kantha elaborated that White girls “have a
firmer body, and a flat stomach.” Regarding Jamaican
culture, she said,
We are into appearance, but there are different
kinds of outer beauty. In the States it’s about being
skinny, and there is more of an emphasis on outer
physical beauty, and we don’t emphasize it as
much. It’s different—a more curvaceous body
type. Ideally, the female is curvy, has a big butt, big
boobs [breasts], everything is big. . . . Black girls
might want a flat stomach, but they don’t want to
be too skinny. . . . Just because you’re thinner
doesn’t mean you are good on the inside.
Similarly, Adriana, who was born in Peru and moved to
the United States at the age of 13, expressed a comparable
definition of beauty. For her, beauty extended beyond
the body: “Appearance is important, but it’s about style.”
She described that there are “Black” clothes, “like ghetto
style,” and “White” clothes.3 Adriana named the “high-
end” stores where “White” clothes could be bought. For
her and many other non-White women, beauty depended
on style and what they decide to put on their body—not
the size and shape of their body.
Adriana, a first-generation immigrant woman, rejected
outright the White beauty codes. She explained why:
When she entered American society as an adolescent she
immediately recognized her already devalued position as
an ethnic minority, and refused to be further denigrated.
She continued to idealize a voluptuous body image that
coincided with her notions of beauty, and contested hege-
monic Western beauty codes. The value Adriana placed
on her ethno-specific body ideal was revealed in the fol-
lowing comment: “Minorities are much more accepting of
bigger bodies. Blacks and Hispanics want big butts, hips,
a different body type altogether.” According to Andriana,
White girls “are like clones,” and they succumb to pres-
sures of the media. She indicated that the media cause
many White women to develop anorexia. As a woman of
minority status who had to overcome oppressive racial,
ethnic, and cultural barriers living in American society,
she asserted, “I have my own personality. I live up to my
own expectations. I don’t conform to society, because
we’ve done it for so long.” Adriana openly criticized
White women and their “weakness,” suggesting that they
do not have the strength of personality to reject dominant
and oppressive images of beauty. It is their weakness that
also contributes to their body dissatisfaction and eating
pathologies. Often, African American and ethnic minority
women are pitted against the dominant cultural standard
of beauty, contributing to oppression and marginalization
(Patton, 2006). Adriana’s words echoed other ethnic
minority women who asserted their agency by challenging
mainstream beauty norms. Several women rejected the
slender body and refused to comply with constraints
imposed by the dominant White culture, ultimately exhib-
iting their social power through their identification with
ethno-specific body images that embraced diverse notions
of beauty.
Women of African, Latina, and Philippino cultural
backgrounds not only talked about the curvaceous body as
beautiful, but also how a woman presents herself through
her hair style, attitude, and fashion to reveal her overall
beauty. This is consistent with Nichter’s (2000) and Rubin
et al.’s (2003) findings that body size is not the sole indi-
cator of beauty, but taking care of the body and presenting
themselves positively frames some women’s definitions
of beauty. Similar to body ethics, the term employed by
the women of color in the study by Rubin et al., these
women’s notion of beauty rejected “the dominant cultural
ethos that encourages women to reshape their bodies to
emulate the cultural ideal” (p. 70). Several women in my
study proudly identified with their minority status, assert-
ing that their ideas of beauty differ from mainstream rep-
resentations of the “White girl,” and promote a more
extensive and expressive notion of female beauty.
The Slender Body as Social Mobility
Not all ethnic minority women rejected or resisted the
slender body image. Some women desired the slender
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body ideal because they viewed it as a vehicle for
increased social acceptance and mobility. For many of
the women trying to “fit in” to American society, the
slender body had currency. Women who felt alienated
from their peer groups, communities, and American
society more generally talked about how being skinny
offered them an improved sense of belonging. For
instance, Gabriella said, “You need to be skinny to get
the guys. Where I’m from, guys don’t like girls who are
too skinny. . . . The country is poor and people don’t
worry about their weight and eating healthy.” Gabriella
was born in Ecuador, where she lived until she was 16 years
old. Her parents wanted her to attend a university in the
United States because they believed that she would have
better opportunities after her schooling. She described
the transition to the United States as difficult, particu-
larly because all of her friends were in Ecuador and it
was not easy to make new friends. Her family moved to
a very rich area in the northeastern United States that is
predominantly White. Although she had a few White
friends, she often felt uncomfortable and out of place.
Additionally, Gabriella felt alienated from her peer
group because of her larger body size:
In high school everyone is skinny, and being my
size, which is bigger, made me feel abnormal.
I worry about weight now, about being skinny. The
first time I worried about my weight was when
I was eighteen. I went shopping and I tried to fit
into some clothes. I guess I was a little bit bigger
than what is normal here. I thought that if I lost
weight then I would look good, and well, also
I liked a guy, and I wanted to look good so he
would like me.
Gabriella entered American society during late adoles-
cence, and was increasingly concerned with acceptance
from her peer group. Already feeling isolated and dis-
connected from her home country, she recognized that
having a slender body permitted her increased social
acceptance from her peers. Although she believed, ini-
tially, that the body was her avenue to social acceptance
among her social group—particularly male peers—she
realized that in the end, “it’s about personality,” not the
physical body that attracts others.
Obtaining a sense of belonging through the slender
body was also used by other women. Consider Sita’s nar-
rative. Sita was born in Oman and moved to southern India
(where her parents were from) at the age of about six; she
and lived there until she was 13. Her parents wanted greater
educational experiences for her and her siblings. Sita had a
rather difficult entry into American society. Her family
moved to a small town in the northeastern United States,
and she described this town and the high school she
attended as “horrible, small, and not diverse.” Sita faced
discrimination from her peers. She explained, “The stu-
dents didn’t know how to treat minorities. I was subjected
to stereotypes; they assumed that India is a poor country,
and that I was Hindu. But I’m Christian.” The following
academic year, her family moved to an urban area in the
same region that was much more ethnically diverse. There
she was able to “blend in” and feel “normal.”
Sita’s “body narrative” was the first to alert me to the
struggles that immigrant women can experience as they
try to fit in to adolescent peer groups in American society.
Sita and other women explained that recognizing the per-
vasiveness of the slender body and its importance creates
an immense inner conflict: “In America the images are of
skinny models; skinny is the idealized body type, and
most girls want to be skinny.” Sita described herself as
“chubby” back in India and, although her cousins often
picked on her, she was not bothered by their taunts.
Shortly after she moved to America, however, her weight
decreased from 140 to 122 pounds. Listening to her story,
I asked her to explain her rapid weight loss. Sita quickly
explained that she was not trying to lose weight; rather,
she attributed her weight loss to growing up and “growing
into” her body. Yet, as Sita explained, “being chubby isn’t
good.” Rather, she recognized that the media promotes
slenderness and “being skinny” as the image of ideal femi-
ninity and perfection. At the time of interview Sita was
attempting to “eat healthy.” She was much more consci-
entious about her weight and body size. On a daily basis
she was reminded of the importance of being thin. “In the
United States, girls make a big deal about being skinny.
This is because every day you see a trend to be skinny.”
As Sita narrated her ideal image of beauty—gracefully
tall, slim, with feminine curves and size-5 pants—it was
evident that the description of her own body closely reso-
nated with her ideal.
Laleh’s narrative provided a more explicit illustration
of how obtaining the thin body afforded her increased
social acceptance. Laleh was born in Iran and lived there
until the age of 5. She had visited in the United States for
extended periods on several occasions with her family
before moving alone to the United States when she was
17, to live with relatives. Growing up in Iran, Laleh had
felt restricted by the influence that Islam holds in her
country. She explained, “I felt that there were better edu-
cational opportunities here [in the United States]. There is
more freedom.” With her parent’s support, Laleh decided
to move to the United States to obtain a better education
to broaden her future possibilities. When Laleh was in
America on family visits during her adolescence, she had
often noticed the differences in clothing and was aware
that she did not need to cover herself: “It was natural after
a while, and I accepted it.” However, when she moved to
the United States she experienced “culture shock.”
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In Iran, Laleh had attended a private school for girls,
but after moving to the United States she entered a public
school that was coeducational. In the period immediately
after her entry into American society, Laleh experienced
several abrupt changes that led her to reconceptualize her
gendered interactions, reconstruct her friend group, and
learn how to speak English fluently. Amidst all of this
change, for the first time she also realized the importance
of the thin body in American society. Laleh clarified,
“I realized that the thinner you are, the more accepted you
are. In Iran, everyone is covered so it [being thin] isn’t
important.” When Laleh arrived in the United States she
was thin, but she quickly began to gain weight from eat-
ing junk food: “It was my comfort food.” Realizing that
body image was important, she became increasingly
aware of her growing size and decided to lose weight. At
first Laleh restricted the foods in her diet, gradually
reducing her food intake to once a day, eating dinner with
her relatives. With time, however, her behaviors became
less healthy:
I knew I had a problem, I guess I had an eating
disorder. Well yes, I had anorexia. . . . Body
image was so important to me at that time, and
I didn’t worry about what anorexia could do to
me. I saw magazines and models and saw the
perfect body. I also watched TV every day. I’d
watch E [entertainment] TV. They’d talk about
celebrities. That’s where I got a lot of my ideas
about not eating. In America fashion and body
image are intertwined. . . . American standards are
perfection. I went from a size 6 to easily fitting
into a size 2, and before I went home for the sum-
mer, I was buying a size 0.
Daily, Laleh’s peers gave her positive encouragement:
“You look good,” or “You’re so thin.” When she shopped,
she was excited about buying smaller clothing sizes.
Laleh hid her behaviors from her relatives, yet secretly
acknowledged to herself that she had an eating disorder.
“I knew that I had an eating disorder. I did a lot of research
on the Internet and I knew what it was.” Within less than
a year Laleh dropped nearly six pant sizes and more than
20 pounds. When she returned home that summer, her
family immediately noticed her extreme weight loss.
“My father knew. He knew about things like this, and he
made me speak with a psychologist. But I denied that
I had a problem. I didn’t want to admit to others that
something was wrong with me.” Laleh was afraid of what
her family and friends might think of her if they knew. In
Iran, Laleh explained, anorexia “doesn’t exist, there isn’t
even a word for it. If someone became thinner you would
say, ‘She lost weight,’ but you would not associate it with
body-image problems.”
Each of the three women discussed above, Gabriella,
Sita, and Laleh, were first-generation immigrant women
who entered American society during adolescence. Their
families’ decision to move to the United States (or in the
case of Laleh, her parents’ encouragement that she move
to the United States) were motivated by desires of greater
educational opportunities for their children. A common
theme that connected these young women was their feel-
ings of alienation and social seclusion as they transitioned
to their new life in American society. Aware that the thin
body was highly desirable, they expressed their preoccu-
pation with being thin. Faced with other forms of exclu-
sion such as discrimination, the acquisition of the slender
body gave these women a sense of power and increased
agency as they interacted with their peers. Through the
body, they were able to distance themselves from their
marginalized ethnic, class, religious, and social identities,
creating spaces of recognition and social acceptance.
An in-depth analysis of the narratives of Vanessa, a
second-generation immigrant, reveals another scenario of
how the thin body permitted her to negotiate feelings of
alienation. Vanessa was born into an immigrant family
from Latin America, where beauty and femininity are
embodied by the full-figured woman. With sadness in her
voice, she explained, “If I lived in South America then
I would be perfect. They like full-figured women.”
Vanessa self-identified as Hispanic. She was born in the
United States but her mother was from Bolivia and her
father was from Honduras. Vanessa knew very little
about Latin America and her parent’s cultural heritage;
she had never traveled to Latin America and her parents
rarely talked about their home countries. However, she
did know that in Latin America a full-figured woman rep-
resents beauty and ideal femininity. As the interview con-
tinued, Vanessa went into more detail about how, in
American society, there is a rigid definition of beauty.
She confirmed that “[o]ther cultures allow for more than
one form of beauty; many forms of beauty are present.”
To illustrate her point, she talked about her trip to Puerto
Rico: “The people I was with were talking about pretty
women. I saw the women they were talking about, they
were chubby in the stomach, but the guys said that was
fine.” She is certain that “Hispanic girls who aren’t stick
thin, they’re happy.” These women were like her mother:
“They can eat and to them it is not being stick-thin but a
healthy glow and feeling good that is their idea of beauty.”
At the beginning of the interview, Vanessa identified
herself as Hispanic; yet, as the interview progressed it
became clear that she was conflicted about her ethnic
identity. “We were never Spanish. In order to be American
we felt we had to give up our Spanish heritage, so we
never learned it. . . . We had a very American childhood.”
Growing up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, she
described herself as being more American than Spanish.
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“The only Spanish we had was the cooking, which is
Hispanic.” Food was Vanessa’s only identification with
her Spanish heritage. As I listened to Vanessa, I began to
realize that she struggled and expressed conflict about her
sense of self and identity. For example, she said,
I wish that I was raised with more of my cultural
background, because maybe I would be more care-
free about my weight . . . but because I grew up
in America, and because it’s [the perfect body]
everywhere—the porn [pornography] industry,
Hollywood, magazines—it’s everywhere, so I have
to care.
Vanessa implied that because she grew up in American
society and was exposed to the “perfect body,” which she
described as model-like and thin, she, too, valued a slen-
der body. She recognized (and wished) that if she had
been raised with her traditional culture’s ideas about
beauty, then she would have worried less about her physi-
cal appearance. But, as Vanessa said, “There is so much
propaganda for the perfect body. I read about the ideal
female body everywhere. . . . It makes you run in circles
to get there, and it makes you miserable.” Since an early
age, Vanessa had been overly conscious about her weight
and body size, so much so that she had used diet pills and
illegal drugs to suppress her appetite. She explained that
while she was “crazy” on diet pills, and was using cocaine
to suppress her appetite, nothing compared to the phase in
which she suffered from anorexia.
Vanessa described herself as suffering from anorexia
during late middle school and high school, a phase that
lasted for nearly 2 years. Although she was never clini-
cally diagnosed by a doctor, she believed that she was
anorexic. Her anorexic behaviors began by skipping
breakfast, then lunch, and eventually she ate only one
meal a day. As she lost weight, she noticed the increased
attention she gained from her peer group. “Girls would
say to me, ‘Wow, you’re so thin, you look great.’ . . .
Guys started to ask me out on dates.” Noticing that being
thin made her feel more accepted by others, she contin-
ued to omit foods and calories from her diet. Within a
short time she went from 115 to 98 pounds, which she
maintained for nearly a year and a half. For Vanessa,
“There was always something that compelled me toward
being thin. Either it was you had to fit into the dress for
the Christmas ball, or the prom, or some other function;
there was always something.”
If we consider Laleh’s and Vanessa’s body narratives,
we see how control over food and their body was a way
for these women to obtain a sense of belonging. In her
ethnographic study of anorexic patients living in various
inpatient treatment centers in Australia, Canada, and
Scotland, Megan Warin (2010) argued that testimonies of
individuals with anorexia share a “common thread of
relatedness” in which self-starvation is used by anorexics
to change, transform, and at times reject relationships
with others (p. 41). Situating the two cases in this frame-
work, we can see how Warin’s concept of relatedness is
useful to understand how these women used anorexia to
transform their relationships with others and self, specifi-
cally their peer group. For instance, Vanessa felt con-
flicted about her ethnicity and social identity, wavering
between identifying with her parent’s Hispanic ethnicity
and her American identity. Her feelings of conflict were
apparent in her body narrative, in which she desired a
full-bodied figure and the thin ideal. Laleh, however,
suffered from isolation and feelings of disconnection.
After learning of the importance of the thin body, she
used her knowledge to create a sense of belonging. Even
though they talked about increased social recognition
from their peers, which momentarily bolstered their self-
esteem, these women continued to suffer emotionally
and psychologically.
Discussion
In this study there was a pattern among the first-generation
women in which they experienced exclusion and social
isolation as they transitioned to their new homes, life-
styles, and peer groups. Attending high school in pre-
dominantly White, affluent neighborhoods with limited
ethnic diversity, they experienced several forms of dis-
crimination that were intricately connected to their eth-
nic, cultural, religious, and ethno-linguistic backgrounds,
making them feel excluded. Experiencing other forms of
exclusion, they quickly learned that the slender body was
a vehicle through which they could obtain more social
power.
Recent contributions of qualitative health researchers
touch on how the body acts as a site where anxieties and
emotional distresses arising from uncertain social situa-
tions can be negotiated. For instance, Kwan (2009) found
that overweight and obese women were motivated to lose
weight because of what the aesthetically appealing slen-
der body represented: improved status and social power.
The women in Kwan’s study recognized that “thinness is
a culturally valued trait that carries social status and elic-
its social rewards,” ultimately influencing their desires to
obtain the slender body (p. 1227). Embodying the thin
body permitted women to more easily obtain dates, but
also to overcome social stigma and increase self-worth
and an overall healthier feeling of well-being. Furthermore,
Ferrari, Tweed, Rummens, Skinner, and McVey (2009)
suggested that body dissatisfaction might be heightened
for immigrant women because of the stress of transition-
ing to a new society and learning new social and cul-
tural norms. For instance, recognizing the increased
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1356 Qualitative Health Research 21(10)
importance of physical appearance, Chinese and Tamil
mothers who had recently moved to Canada experienced
feelings of loss of their parental role and family status.
With time, they also began to feel dissatisfied with their
appearance, resulting in dieting and restrictive eating.
Similar to the first-generation immigrant women in this
study, we see parallels between uncertainties related
to social status and identity and heightened levels of emo-
tional distress, which is negotiated through the body.
As the studies discussed above indicate and my find-
ings suggest, ethnic minority women who are socially and
economically marginalized and disconnected from their
home culture (or in the case of a second-generation immi-
grant woman, who did not fit in to American society) suf-
fer from feelings of alienation. As already noted, there are
reports on several other studies suggesting that “altering
one’s body may be a powerful way of accelerating a sense
of belonging for women navigating several cultural sub-
systems” (Katzman et al., 2004, p. 465). The findings of
the present study make a crucial point: immigrant women
who feel marginalized from the dominant White culture
and are distanced from their native culture (or parents’
native culture) use their bodies—which can be cultivated
to embody core dominant values and thus heighten one’s
social status and increasing power—to gain social accep-
tance and obtain a sense of belonging. Molding their bod-
ies into a slender ideal that symbolizes prestige and status
permits women to retool their identities and bolster their
self-worth. It is important to note that the desire for a slen-
der body is not necessarily linked to ethnicity and social
class. Rather, as the women in this study illustrate, the
thin body is highly desirable because it heightens social
status and allows them to negotiate issues of control,
autonomy, and power. A fundamental difference among
ethnically diverse women is that women from marginal-
ized ethnic and social identities strategically use their
bodies to negotiate a series of inequalities and disadvan-
tages that more affluent women do not have to manage.
A young woman’s sensitivity to feelings of exclusion
is mediated by her sense of self and the strength of her
social identity. Ethnically diverse women who convey a
positive self-image and embrace their social identity are
less apt to feel disconnected from others and their social
worlds, whereas ethnically diverse immigrant women who
suffer from feelings of disconnection spurred by social
change, exclusion, and/or oppression, who contest their
marginalized social identities, can use food refusal to
negotiate social relationships in a way that can improve
their status. Conceptualizing practices of food refusal
within a framework of relatedness helps us to understand
the social importance of slender bodies as well as how
and why women use their bodies to literally “embody”
esteemed cultural values.
Bodies have meaning, and women actively construct
their bodies to say something about their identity. By
framing this research in a way that expresses how the
body is a vehicle for women to gain a sense of belonging,
we can see how food refusal is propelled by profound
anxieties intricately related to processes of relating to oth-
ers. As Katzman and Lee (1997) advocated, understand-
ing eating disorders needs to be conceptualized in a
framework of “disconnection, transition, and oppression,
rather than dieting, weight, and fat phobia” (p. 392). My
research findings support such claims and argue for
understanding eating disturbances in frameworks that
focus on an individual’s social position and relatedness to
others. A focus on class and “processes of social referenc-
ing” is useful to examine how and why the thin body is so
highly desired by ethnic minority women who experience
alienation or disconnectedness (Lester, 2004, p. 608).
Furthermore, unlike researchers in previous studies
who suggest that differences in body ideals mediate
greater body satisfaction, I found that women of ethnic
minorities endorse a beauty that extends beyond the
physical body. This definition of beauty is fluid, expres-
sive, and representative of one’s inner beauty, attitude,
and personality. Ethnically diverse women’s narratives
suggest that they embody an ethos of self-acceptance and
resist aesthetic body ideals “that oppress virtually all
women but which can be particularly oppressive to women
of color” (Rubin et al., 2003, p. 71). The findings advo-
cate for a reconceptualization of the body in which beauty
goes beyond a rigidly defined notion of physical beauty,
toward a more embodied understanding of beauty. Such
an approach might clarify why ethnic minority women
tend to experience more body satisfaction.
An essential finding is that women of diverse ethnici-
ties utilize the body to negotiate power imbalances that
are embedded in everyday social relationships shaped by
their ethnic and socioeconomic status. In this study I did
not concentrate, however, on the kinds of disadvantages
that women of diverse ethnicities and social classes faced.
Future work that compares women’s perceived inequali-
ties would bolster the current argument that the strategies
for contesting power relations are similar among ethni-
cally diverse women, yet the social disparities are different.
Even though the findings provide important information
about the underlying sociocultural determinants that moti-
vate women to engage in practices of controlling their
food intake and strictly monitoring their bodies, the small
sample size is a limiting factor. Additionally, the integrity
of the work could have been improved if a tape recorder
was used during interviews. To that end, including
women from a wide range of ethnicities and socioeco-
nomic statuses, along with a larger sample size of women
who express body (dis)satisfaction and exhibit eating
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disorder symptoms, would strengthen the conclusions
derived from this work.
Conclusion
The findings have important implications for health care
specialists trained to detect and treat eating disorders. As
recent studies have uncovered, ethnic minority women suf-
fering from eating disorders are less likely to seek treat-
ment. Furthermore, clinical biases influence the diagnoses
and treatment of non-White women (Becker, Franko,
Specks, & Herzog, 2003; Cachelin & Striegel-Moore,
2006). Becker et al. (2003) found that clinician bias was
present in their assessment of health care for eating disor-
ders among an ethnically diverse population of women. In
their study, White women were more likely to be recom-
mended for treatment than Native American and Hispanic
women. Also, ethnic minority women’s expressions of
psychological suffering might not resonate with standard
eating disorder criteria (Alegria et al., 2007). It is impera-
tive that eating disorder specialists become aware of how
cultural beliefs about the self, food, the body, and illness
impact an individual’s illness experience. Furthermore,
specialists must consider how social disparities experienced
by minority groups and the power relations that develop
from political, economic, and cultural factors over time
intersect to condition an individual’s health, well-being,
and illness experience (Baer, Singer, & Susser, 1997).
As Susan Bordo (1993) eloquently pointed out, the
docile female body has been commoditized, and women
can engage in a variety of cultural beauty practices (e.g.,
diet, exercise, makeup, and dress) to normalize their bod-
ies, molding them into highly desired yet nearly unattain-
able forms. It is naïve to assume that slender, fair-skinned
women benefit from the improved status afforded by the
slender body, and that women of non-White ethnicities
are in some way “protected” from body dissatisfaction
and eating disturbances because of idealization of ethno-
specific body ideals. As the ethnically diverse women’s
voices in this study revealed, any young woman, irrespec-
tive of ethnicity and social class, might use the body to
overcome perceived inequalities present in her everyday
social relationships, ultimately increasing her social
capital and power in the larger social world. Thus it is
essential to understand that women can strategically use
slender body norms to transform social relationships,
exert agency, and enact social change.
Acknowledgments
I thank the many women who shared their stories with me for
their invaluable contributions to the study. I also thank Francoise
Dussart and Dunja Pelto for their comments, suggestions, and
edits on earlier drafts of this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no conflicts of interest with respect to the
authorship and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author received no financial support for the research and/or
authorship of this article.
Notes
1. A voice recorder was not used because it was not available
to me. I used quotation marks to designate nonparaphrased
language.
2. Jessica Simpson is a Hollywood actress and singer. Through-
out her career, the media has focused on her body weight:
When she is thin, she is the perfection of American beauty;
when she becomes more voluptuous, she is criticized as
being fat.
3. Several women used the term ghetto to describe individuals
from a minority status who participate in hip–hop culture.
Participation in hip–hop culture is expressed by one’s lan-
guage, one’s style of clothing, and one’s attitude in general.
Although participation is predominantly by youths from
minority groups (Black and Hispanic), White people can also
be a part of hip–hop culture. “It depends on if you’re thuggin’
it,” as one young women told me. As some minority women
explained, “thuggin’” refers to a person who challenges—
through dress, language, and presentation of self—the values
and norms of the dominant, White establishment.
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Bio
Ann M. Cheney, PhD, is an adjunct professor at the University
of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut, USA.
at UAMS Library on October 14, 2011qhr.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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