Minority Women Deal With Body Stereotype

Pilar Wiley/Staff Artist

By Celeste Tarricone


For many Brown women, the word "beauty" often translates into tall, thin and white. The pressure to be slender affects many female students on campus, but many minority women say this pressure is even greater for them because they grapple with issues of skin color as well as body type.

College-age women receive a lot of exposure to the media, where images of thin white women, such as Kate Moss or Heidi Mattson '92, are commonly touted as ideal images of beauty. Minority women, in particular, must reconcile images of beauty promoted in their specific ethnicities with the ideals promoted in the mainstream media, according to various students. The tension between the two can lead them to question their perceptions of their bodies and alter their eating habits.

"One stereotype of Latina women is that they are well-built and generous with big breasts and shapely bodies," said Liza Goldman '97.5. "Then you have the media images which show very thin bodies. There's a problem fitting Latina bodies to mainstream ideals."

Similar situations exist in other ethnic communities, as well.

"I know that over here, I don't feel thin enough, but when I go back to India, they tell me I'm too skinny," said a South Asian student who wished to remain anonymous. "I definitely feel more pressure from white media and white culture to be thin."

Andrea Anderson '96 has designed a senior thesis project to study physical fitness and perceptions of body image in black women and white women, and her pool of subjects consists entirely of Brown students. Although Anderson has not finished her study, she said she has already observed differences in the way white women and black women perceive their bodies.

"It's less of an anomaly to be overweight in the black community than in the white community," she said. " I also think there's an ideal to have small hips, a small behind and a small chest. More black women have rounder hips, a larger behind and they're not white, so there are more barriers to the ideal. There's also the issue of being pulled in two directions. There's a black community ideal that it's okay to be a little bigger and that it's sexy."

Brown offers a broad range of athletic opportunities, from aerobics classes to intramural sports teams to exercise equipment at the Athletic Center, the Bear's Lair and Andrews Hall. Many women said they felt pressure to exercise since coming to Brown. Yet some students are from cultures that do not place as much emphasis on the need to work out in order to look attractive, causing them to feel torn between the values of the University community and those of their families.

"I think because a lot of Asian-American women are first-generation, their parents' views on eating and being healthy are different from what they hear and see all around them," said Wei Fang '98. "For Asian-Americans, a lot of being healthy doesn't necessitate exercising all the time or being athletic, whereas it seems that that's how a lot of Americans view it. It's hard to reconcile the two."

Brown's meal plan system promotes its own culture of food consumption. But this culture may be vastly different from the eating habits minority students adhere to at home, according to several students.

"In the community I come from at home, eating concerns are not magnified to the point they are here, especially when it comes to eating habits," said an anonymous Filipina student. "Here, I'm more conscious of what I eat and how many grams of fat I take in. At home, food is something to be thankful for. It definitely was not until I came to Brown that I became so aware of body image and eating. In the Filipino community, it's definitely an issue. It's talked about with friends, but not in terms of a community forum. "

Fang said she notices a clash between students' native cultures and the eating environment at Brown.

"In a way, it was nice not to have body image talked about at home, and here you're surrounded by it," she said. "Brown is known as this beautiful campus, and there's not a huge range of body types. It feels like there's a lot more pressure here. At home, and in a lot of Asian-American communities, everything is home-cooked, and you're always encouraged to eat. Then you come here, and you go to the Ratty, and no one is encouraging you to eat more."

Eating disorders are often considered to be an issue that predominantly affects white women, but minority women are just as susceptible to anorexia, bulimia or compulsive overeating, according to Leslie Yaylen '98, who is part of a Group Independent Study Project focusing on women and their relationships with food.

"Eating disorders are considered to be a white upper middle-class phenomenon," she said.

A Muslim woman who requested anonymity said she battled anorexia during her early teenage years.

"I know as a woman of color, a lot of women in the Middle East are very full with ample thighs and soft stomachs," she said. "That's considered beautiful. Coming here, it's completely different. You have to be thin, blond, and tall. I got sucked into this Barbie culture. I idolized white beauty. There was that pull between different cultural standards of beauty. I learned to love myself, to accept my body and face as they are. It's a very gradual process. At times, I have self-doubt. It's hard to look around the campus and see faces considered to be beautiful, knowing my own doesn't match that."

Other minority women said they and their friends have experienced doubts about their body images, even if those concerns do not develop into a full-fledged eating disorder.

"I was just having a conversation yesterday with my friends, and we were looking at bathing suits," said Emily Lam '99, a biracial student. "All my friends were picking out bikinis, and I was thinking that I can't wear one. My friends are all skinny, and I feel really bad. At Brown, we discuss racism and sexism all the time, but I can't even remember my body image outreach. I know among my friends, and among people of color, people think, for example, that they can't eat pizza because it's too fattening. Whether that doubly manifests itself because of race, I'm not sure, but I would believe it."

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This story appeared in The Herald: Thursday, March 14, 1996