A new survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that black women are both heavier and have higher self-esteem than white women in the United States. This isn’t the first time researchers have explored body type and body image differences between different races, ethnicities or cultures in America. But the degree of difference in the WaPo/Kaiser study is still startling:
Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.
Either white women’s self esteem is more tied to body size than that of their black counterparts, or bigger body types are accepted and idealized in black communities. Or both. Washington Post writer Lonnae O’Neal Parker says black women reject “the notion that all women must be culled into a single little-bitty aesthetic,” have been crafting their own definitions of beauty for generations and are “happier with their bodies than white women in many ways.”
This is good and bad. Good, because obviously we want all women to feel better about their bodies and not let body size define their self esteem. We want women to feel awesome and fit and sexy at a size two or a size 12. We want all of American culture to stop considering a woman’s size or shape or appearance such a strong indicator of her competence or worth. And black women’s body positivity is inspiring. Historically, self-esteem research on black girls and women has been the highest among all age groups.
Black women in this recent survey actually rated physical attractiveness more important than white women did (28% of black women said being physically attractive is “very important,” compared with 11% of white women). But physical attractiveness isn’t necessarily equated with being as thin as possible.
Princeton professor Imani Perry teaches interdisciplinary classes in African American studies and notes black women have conceptions of beauty that are “not just tied to the accident of how you look as a consequence of your genes.” They include style, grooming, how you present and carry yourself, and “how you put yourself together, which I think generally speaks to the fact that we have a much broader and deeper conception of beauty.”
Attractiveness based on style and grace instead of weight sounds awesome to me (though less focus on appearance in general would also be awesome). And a greater recognition that weight isn’t a proxy for health and fitness is also a good thing. In the Post-Kaiser survey, 90% of black women said living a healthful lifestyle is very important—outranking religion, career, marriage and other priorities. It’s important to remind ourselves as we discuss eating disorders this week that being skinny doesn’t necessarily mean in-shape or sick, and that being bigger doesn’t necessarily mean unfit or unhealthy.