Black Undergraduate And White Undergraduate Eating Disorders And Related Attitudes

Racial Differences in Eating Disorders and Body Attitudes

The author reviews the most recent literature on the differences between white and black females in regard to eating disorders, dieting, and physical self-confidence. The racial differences and similarities from a questionnaire given to almost 400 female undergraduates are then discussed in terms of: their eating disorders, satisfaction with weight, dieting, pressure to lose weight, and receiving therapy treatment for anorexia. The connections between these women's behaviors, their parents, marital status, and the quality of their relationships with parents, roommates and boyfriends are also discussed.

When it comes to eating disorders and attitudes about their weight, black females in the United States are in many ways more fortunate than white females. In part this is because black males and females have less restrictive, less narrow definitions of what makes a woman beautiful - especially when it comes to how much a woman weighs. That is, black Americans are more likely than white Americans to appreciate the beauty of a woman's naturally full body. Unlike most whites, most blacks do not consider extremely skinny, underweight women to be more beautiful and more desirable than women who are of average or slightly above average weight. Consequently, most black females are less obsessed than most white females are about how much they weigh and about dieting. Knowing that most black males do not find excessively thin or anorexic looking women attractive, black women are usually more satisfied and more self-confident than white women when it comes to their weight. This isn't to say that black women and girls do not care how they look or that they do not judge and get judged on the basis of appearance. Regardless of race, people who are considered attractive generally have more self-confidence, are more popular socially, and receive better treatment at school and at work in terms of such things as being given a teacher's or supervisor's help, being promoted faster, or being given the benefit of the doubt in grading or evaluations (Bordo. 1993; Friday. 1996; Halprin. 1995; Wolf. 1992). Still, black females are judged less often than whites on the basis of how much they weigh and more often on the basis of factors such as skin shade, the "right" kind of nose or lips, and "good" hair (Abrams, Allen, & Gray. 1993; Akan & Greilo. 1995; Allan, Mayo, & Michel. 1993; Boyd. 1995; Dacosta & Wilson. 1999; Erdman. 1995; Greenberg & Laporte. 1996; Grogan. 1999; Halprin. 1995; Harris. 1994; Heywood. 1996; Kumanyika, Wilson, & Guilford. 1993; LeGrange, Telch, & Agras. 1997; Maine. 1993; Molloy & Herzberger. 1998; Parker & and others. 1995; Powell & Kahn. 1995; Randolph. 1996; Root. 1990; Rosen & others. 1991; Rucker & Cash. 1992; Silverstein & Perlick. 1995; Thone. 1998; Villarosa. 1995; Wade. 1991; Walsh & Devlin. 1998; Wilfley & others. 1996; Wolf. 1992).

When it comes to eating disorders and attitudes about their weight, black females in the United States are in many ways more fortunate than white females. Read why.Sadly though, a growing number of black females seem to be adopting many whites' unhealthy attitudes about being too thin, are becoming more dissatisfied with their bodies, and are developing more eating disorders. What seems to be happening is that the more a black female identifies with or interacts with white upper class culture, the more likely she is to adopt whites' attitudes about being extremely thin and dieting excessively. As a result, these black females may end up as dissatisfied with their weight and as obsessed with dieting and being thin as their white counterparts. Worse yet, more black females may be becoming anorexic. For example, among many upwardly mobile black Americans, a woman with a heavy body and large hips is considered more "lower class" looking than a skinny woman (Edut & Walker. 1998). And lower income black women may also becoming more concerned with losing weight and looking thinner (Moore & others. 1995; Wilfley & others. 1996) But as one black college graduate pointed out, she only began dieting and obsessing about thinness after she transferred from a predominantly black, urban high school to a private school in a rich, white suburb (Mahmoodzedegan. 1996). It's worth noting too that white standards of beauty increasingly became focused on a woman's thinness only after white women were granted the right to vote, started working outside the home in large numbers, and became equal to white men in terms of college graduation rates - a fact which might indicate that when a woman becomes well educated and enters male dominated professions, she is encouraged to look wafer thin, child-like, and as non-sexual as possible (Silverstein & Perlick. 1995; Wolf. 1992). In any event, the point is that college educated black females might be more likely than less educated black women to develop eating disorders, to diet excessively, and to feel bad about their weight partly because they have more exposure to upper middle class white attitudes and judgments (Abrams, Allen, & Gray. 1993; Akan & Greilo. 1995; Bowen, Tomoyasu, & Cauce. 1991; Cunningham & Roberts. 1995; Dacosta & Wilson. 1999; Edut & Walker. 1998; Grogan. 1999; Harris. 1994; Iancu & others. 1990; LeGrange, Telch, & Agras. 1997; Mahmoodzedegan. 1996; Rosen & others. 1991; Moore & others. 1995; Wilfley & others. 1996).

Still, most of the females who diet excessively and who become anorexic are white. Although anorexia only affects 1%-3% of all women in the United States, as many as 20% of college women might have eating disorders. Moreover, nearly 150,000 women in the U.S. die from anorexia every year (Lask & Waugh. 1999; MacSween. 1996). Although both black and white females usually do the most damage to themselves physically by gaining too much weight which causes such problems as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes, white women are more likely than black women to damage their bones, muscles, teeth, kidneys, heart, mental functions, and reproductive systems by eating far too little. Unlike most black females, most white females have been or still are on a diet. And those well-educated white women from upper middle and wealthy families tend to diet and to become anorexic far more often than less well educated, lower income white women (Bordo. 1993; Epling & Pierce. 1996; Grogan. 1999; Heilbrun. 1997; Hesse-Biber. 1996; Heywood. 1996; Iancu & others. 1990; Lask & Waugh. 1999; MacSween. 1996; Malson. 1998; Orenstein. 1994; Ryan. 1995; Walsh & Devlin. 1998).

Ironically, while more white and more black women than ever are damaging themselves by excessive dieting, being too thin, or becoming anorexic, in many ways our society seems to be becoming more hostile and more prejudiced against overweight people. First we often assume that overweight people are undisciplined, lazy, and unmotivated in all aspects of their lives (Hirschmann & Munter. 1995; Kano. 1995; Thone. 1998). Second, obese people are less likely to be hired, promoted, and given other advantages at work and at school than those who are thin (Bordo. 1993; Friday. 1996; Halprin. 1995; Poulton. 1997; Silverstein & Perlick. 1995; Thone. 1998). Third, no matter what their race, women are socialized to continually try to make themselves look better and to be dissatisfied with some aspect of their appearance. Indeed, industries make billions of dollars by selling services and products to women to improve their appearance - often focusing on weight loss and abnormal thinness. Likewise, most advertisers hire wafer thin female models to promote their products, thus encouraging the belief that: "if you are as skinny as I am, you too can eventually get the good things in life like this beautiful car I'm advertising and this handsome, rich man I'm with in this ad". No matter how thin or how beautiful a woman is, and no matter what her skin color, the advertising industry still continuously bombards her with the message that she must continue spending money in her never ending quest to improve her appearance - above all, the quest to be thin (Bordo. 1993; Cooke. 1996; Davis. 1998; Davis. 1994; Erdman. 1995; Foster. 1994; Friday. 1996; Freedman. 1995; Grogan. 1999; Halprin. 1995; Hirschmann & Munter. 1995; Lambert. 1995; Poulton. 1997; Steams. 1997; Thone. 1998; Wolf. 1992).

Reasons for Racial Differences

But why is it that compared to black females, white females are generally so much more obsessed and dissatisfied with their weight, less self confident about their appearance, and more prone to become anorexic? While the reasons still aren't altogether clear, factors other than the different ways in which blacks and whites define female beauty are certainly involved.

Mother's Attitudes About Weight, Sexuality and Intimacy

To begin with, regardless of her race, a daughter's behavior is influenced by her mother's attitudes about weight, sex, and emotional intimacy with a man. The girl whose mother is comfortable with her own sexuality and with her own weight is less likely to develop unhealthy attitudes about her own sexuality and appearance. Likewise, when a daughter grows up seeing that her own mother is enjoying an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship with a man, she is more apt to be comfortable with her own sexuality, body and emotional intimacy with males. In contrast, as one anorexic daughter put it: "I didn't want a life like my mom's, so I didn't want a body like hers either" (Maine, 1993, p. 118) In other words, seeing that her own mother is uncomfortable With sexuality and is not emotionally intimate with a man, the daughter is more likely to develop negative attitudes about her own body, sexuality, and emotional intimacy - attitudes which can contribute to eating disorders (Bassoff. 1994; Bingham. 1995; Brown & Gilligan. 1992; Caplan. 1990; Caron. 1995a; Debold, Wilson, & Malave. 1992; Flaake. 1993; Gilligan, Rogers, & Tolman. 1991; Glickman. 1993; Hesse-Biber. 1996; Hirschmann & Munter. 1995; Marone. 1998a; Mens-Verhulst, Schreurs, & Woertman. 1993; Moskowitz. 1995; Ms. Foundation. 1998; Phillips. 1996; Pipher. 1994; Ganong, Coleman, & Grant. 1990; Tolman. 1994).

Interestingly, the mother's race and economic background may influence the kinds of messages she sends her daughter about sexuality and about growing up. As one white, young adult daughter put it:" I wish my mom would get the feeling that sexuality is a big part of life. It's not just sex; it's how we feel and relate to other people on levels of physical and emotional intimacy" (Gottlieb, 1995, p. 156). It may be that one of the reasons why black daughters might feel more comfortable with their own sexuality and with the natural weight of a womanly body is that their mothers and other black women are comfortable with their own sexuality and body size. Compared to black daughters or to white daughters from blue collar families, more well to do white daughters may be the least likely to see sexual desire and passion as vital parts of their own mothers' lives. Likewise, a higher income white mother often seems to have the hardest time letting go of her daughter emotionally so that she can become comfortable with her own sexuality and develop emotional and sexual intimacy with a man (Bassoff. 1994; Bell-Scott. 1991; Bingham. 1995; Brown. 1998; Brown & Gilligan. 1992; Caron. 1995a; Debold, Wilson, & Malave. 1992; Flaake. 1993; Gilligan, Rogers, & Tolman. 1991; Glickman. 1993; Mens-Verhulst, Schreurs, & Woertman. 1993; Miller. 1994; Minuchin & Nichols. 1994; Pipher. 1994; Scarf. 1995; Tolman. 1994).

Daughter's Relationships With Other Women

Another reason why black daughters might have healthier attitudes about their sexuality and their weight is that they are more likely to have close relationships with women other than their mother. Among black families it is more acceptable for children to have close relationships with women other than their mother. In contrast white middle and upper class culture tends to encourage more possessive, jealous, restrictive attitudes about mothering rather than acting as if "it takes a whole village to raise one child." As a result, too many well-educated, white mothers tend to be overly possessive and extremely threatened when it comes to their child's having a close relationship with other women. Of course a woman's attitudes about motherhood are influenced by factors other than her race and income. And of course there are overly possessive mothers in every race and income group. But the fact remains that many white mothers from upper and middle class backgrounds - especially those who have not worked full time outside the home while their children were growing up and those who are single parents - are the most possessive and most unsupportive when it comes to allowing their children to have close relationships with other women. Given this, many experts advise well-educated, white mothers to behave more like black mothers in these respects (Ahrons. 1994; Bell-Scott. 1991; Brown & Gilligan. 1992; Crosbie-Burnett & Lewis. 1993; Debold, Wilson, & Malave. 1992; Glickman. 1993; Hays. 1996; Marone. 1998a; Ms. Foundation. 1998; Orenstein. 1994; Pipher. 1994; Reddy, Roth, & Sheldon. 1994).

This isn't to say that it's necessarily harmful for a daughter to grow up without a close relationship with any woman other than her own mother. But if the mother isn't able to help her daughter develop healthy attitudes about weight, sexuality, or emotional intimacy with men, then the daughter can certainly benefit from having a close relationship with another woman. For example, white stepmothers are sometimes the best models for their stepdaughters when it comes to being comfortable with sexuality and establishing emotionally intimacy with a man, especially if the biological mother has not remarried (Berman. 1992; Brown & Gilligan. 1992; Edelman. 1994; Maglin & Schneidewind. 1989; Nielsen. 1993; Nielsen. 1999a; Nielsen. 1999b; Norwood. 1999). But even when the mother is an excellent role model, her daughter generally still benefits from having close relationships with other adult women (Echevaria. 1998; Marone. 1998a; Rimm. 1999; Wolf. 1997).

Mother's Self-Reliance and Assertiveness

The ways in which a mother interacts with her children also influences certain aspects of her daughter's life that can be related to eating disorders. Here too it seems that the mother's race often comes into play. Compared to black mothers and to blue collar white mothers, upper middle class white mothers are more likely to interact with their children in ways that can lead to problems such as depression, social immaturity, and anxiety disorders - all of which are associated with eating disorders. This is especially true if the mother does not have a full time job outside the home while her children are growing up. Sadly, many of these white daughters see their mother as a downtrodden, weak, and fragile person - someone they must take care of. As a result, the daughter is more likely to become depressed, to feel uncomfortable with her own sexuality, and to have an especially hard time becoming self-reliant and leaving home - all of which have been linked to eating disorders (Debold, Wilson, & Malave. 1992; Harder. 1992; Lambert. 1995; Malson. 1998; MacSween. 1996; Karen. 1994; Main. 1993; Miller. 1994; Minuchin & Nichols. 1994; Pianta, Egeland, & Stroufe. 1990; Scarf. 1995; Silverstein & Rashbaum. 1994; Tolman. 1994).

Then too, white, middle and upper class mothers often seem to have the hardest time teaching their daughters to be assertive and outspoken, to express their anger, and to take charge of creating their own happiness. As one renown team of researchers puts it, too many well-educated, white mothers do not give their daughters "voice lessons" - to voice anger and disappointment in very direct ways to other people and to voice what they want and need for their own well-being, whether their need is for food, sexual pleasure, or other "selfish" pleasures (Brown. 1998; Brown & Gilligan. 1992; Gilligan, Rogers, & Tolman. 1991). Unfortunately daughters who acquire these passive, helpless, "voiceless" attitudes are the most likely to develop problems such as depression and eating disorders (Bassoff. 1994; Bell-Scott. 1991; Bingham. 1995; Bordo. 1993; Brown. 1998; Gilligan, Rogers, & Tolman. 1991; Glickman. 1993; Hesse-Biber. 1996; Hirschmann & Munter. 1995; Holland & Eisenhart. 1991; Marone. 1998a; Mens-Verhulst, Schreurs, & Woertman. 1993; Orenstein. 1994; Pipher. 1994; Reddy, Roth, & Sheldon. 1994; Tolman. 1994).

Mother's Mental Health and Marital Status

Regardless of her race, a mother's own happiness and mental health can also have an indirect impact on the chances of her daughter's developing an eating disorder. Researchers have known for some time that girls who are clinically depressed are the most likely to develop eating disorders (Fisher. 1991; Hesse-Biber. 1996; Gilligan, Rogers, & Tolman. 1991; Harrington. 1994; Lask & Waugh. 1999; Orenstein. 1994; Pipher. 1994; Walsh & Devlin. 1998). Unfortunately, most depressed daughters also have a mother who is depressed or chronically unhappy and profoundly dissatisfied with her own life (Bassoff. 1994; Blain & Crocker. 1993; Blechman. 1990; Buchanan & Seligman. 1994; Dadds. 1994; Downey & Coyne. 1990; Gottlieb. 1995; Harrington. 1994; Miller. 1994; Parke & Ladd. 1992; Radke-Yarrow. 1991; Scarf. 1995; Seligman. 1991; Tannenbaum & Forehand. 1994).

Along these lines, if the mother is a divorced, single parent, she is more likely to be depressed and to relate to her children in ways that interfere with their social, sexual, and psychological well-being. In contrast, when a divorced mother has happily re-married, her children are less likely to develop problems such as depression, an intense fear of growing up, extreme anxiety about sexuality, or an inability to be emotionally intimate with people their age - the kinds of problems that seem to increase a daughter's chance of developing an eating disorder (Ahrons. 1994; Ambert. 1996; Berman. 1992; Block. 1996; Brooks-Gunn. 1994; Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch. 1997; Caron. 1995b; Chapman, Price, & Serovich. 1995; Emery. 1994; Furstenberg & Cherlin. 1991; Garvin, Kalter, & Hansell. 1993; Gottlieb. 1995; Guttman. 1993; Handel & Whitchurch. 1994; Hetherington. 1991; Lansdale, Cherlin, & Kiernan. 1995; McLanahan & Sandefur. 1994; Mo-yee. 1995; Scarf. 1995; Nielsen. 1993; Nielsen. 1999a; Silverstein & Rashbaum. 1994; Wallerstein. 1991; Warshak. 1992; Weiss. 1994).

The Father-Daughter Relationship

The kind of relationship the daughter has with her father also seems to have an impact on her feelings about her own weight, her dieting, and her likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Among whites, the daughter who has a close relationship with her father is generally less likely to develop an eating disorder than the girl who has a very distant or no relationship at all with her father. Similarly, the daughter whose father lets her know that he disapproves of women being extremely thin and approves of her becoming a sexual person is also the least likely to develop an eating disorder or to diet excessively. In contrast, if the daughter gets the sense that her father wants her to act like a non-sexual, dependent, childish little girl, she may develop an eating disorder partly in an attempt to keep the body of a child and to postpone her sexual development. And if she feels her father only finds extremely thin women attractive, she herself may diet excessively or become anorexic as a way of winning his approval (Clothier. 1997; Goulter & Minninger. 1993; Maine. 1993; Marone. 1998b; Popenoe. 1996; Secunda. 1992).

Racial Attitudes Towards Therapy

Finally we should note that when black females have emotional or psychological problems, they may be less likely than white females to seek help from professional therapists or physicians. In part this might be because black females are more apt to be raised with the believe that women have to take care of everyone else rather than than seeking help for themselves. It might also be that black Americans are more likely to believe that everyone ought to handle their emotional or psychological problems within the family or through the church instead of seeking help from psychologists or psychiatrists - especially since most professional therapists are white. But for whatever reasons, if black girls and women are more reluctant to seek help, then they run a greater risk than whites do of getting professional help for serious disorders such as depression or anorexia. (Boyd. 1998; Danquah. 1999; Mitchell & Croom. 1998).

Rationale For The Present Study

Given the many variables that might influence a young woman's attitudes about her weight and the chances of her being anorexic, we gathered various kinds of information from black and from white college women. First, given the possibility that a daughter's relationship with her parents and family factors such as divorce might be influential, we asked each student whether her parents were still married to each other and how good a relationship she had with each parent. Second, to explore the impact of society's attitudes, we asked how much pressure each felt to be thin, how much her relatives had ever criticized their weight, and whether her parents had ever discussed anything about eating disorders. Third, in exploring the possible impact of self-esteem and the quality of their relationships with roommates and boyfriends, we asked how much self esteem these women felt they had and how good a relationship they had with their boyfriend and roommates. Fourth, we asked how satisfied they were with their present weight, how often they dieted, how afraid they were of gaining weight, and whether they or anyone they knew had ever had an eating disorder. We also asked how many people they knew with eating disorders and whether they had ever said anything to those people about their disorders. For those who themselves had eating disorders, we asked if they had ever been in therapy and at what ages they had their disorder. Finally, we examined how race and age were related to these young women's attitudes and behavior which was especially important on this particular campus because the school is predominantly white and upper middle class - a situation that is the most likely to promote excessive dieting and anorexic behavior and attitudes.

Sample and Methods

A sample of 56 black females and 353 white females was randomly selected from the undergraduate population in a small, southern, coeducational, predominantly white, private university. The sample represented almost one third of the university's 170 black female undergraduates and 21% of the 1680 white female undergraduates. The surveys were administered in the spring of 1999 to an equal number of first, second, third and fourth year students.


Prevalence of Eating disorders

As expected, far more white than black women had eating disorders, had been in therapy for their disorder, and knew other anorexic women.. Nearly 25% of the white women presently or formerly had an eating disorder, compared to only 9% of the black women. In other words, 88 white students but only 4 black students had ever had an eating disorder. Only one black woman and only 4 white women said they no longer had an eating disorder. The remaining 97% still described themselves as having the disorder and almost all had become anorexic as young teenagers. On average their eating disorders had started when they were 15 years old. There were no significant differences between the youngest or the oldest students in terms of the frequency of eating disorders. In short, these results reconfirm that eating disorders are far more common in college women than in the general population - and that white students fare far worse than black students.

Whether students had eating disorders or not, most white and black women knew someone who had an eating disorder. Nearly 92% of the white women and 77% of the black women without eating disorders had known someone who was anorexic. Among those who were themselves anorexic, only half of the black women but 98% of the white women knew another anorexic. But regardless of whether or not they themselves had an eating disorder, most white students knew five anorexics, while the black students knew only two.

Therapy and Parents' Comments

As earlier research suggested might be true, these young black women were far less like than the white women to get professional help for their disorder. Not one of the four black women with anorexia had received professional help, yet nearly half of the white anorexics had been or still were in therapy. Likewise, the black daughters were worse off when it came to how much their parents had ever discussed eating disorders with them. For daughters who have never had an eating disorder, 52% of the white parents but only 25% of the black parents had ever discussed anything with them about eating disorders. For daughters with eating disorders, 65% of the white parents but only 50% of the black parents had ever mentioned or discussed anorexia. This isn't to say that black parents are less concerned about their daughters' well-being. It's more likely that most black parents simply don't realize yet that anorexia and bulimia can affect their daughters - especially when their daughter is a college-bound teenager who is frequently surrounded by white attitudes about women and thinness. It may also be that black daughters are less likely than white daughters to seek professional help or to let their parents know about their problem because they feel they ought to be able to handle such problems on their own.

When it comes to saying something to other girls who have eating disorders, there were also racial differences. Of those who had eating disorders, only 50% of the black women but 75% of the white women had said something to another anorexic about the other person's disorder. In contrast, 95% of the black females but only 50% of the white females who had never had an eating disorder had ever said something about anorexia to someone who had an eating disorder. In other words, the black women were the most likely to say something about eating disorders to someone who was anorexic, but the least likely to say anything if they themselves were anorexic. Again, what might be happening is that black females are more hesitant than whites to discuss their own eating disorders, therefore they won't talk to another anorexic about her eating disorder.

Dieting and Self Satisfaction

Not surprisingly, white women who had never had eating disorders were still much more likely than the black women to have been on a diet and to be dissatisfied with their weight. More than 90% of the black women were "very satisfied" with their weight, compared to only 45% of the white women. Likewise, only 5% of the black women said they were "extremely unhappy" with their weight, compared to 27% of the white women. When asked if they would rather be a "little under weight" or a "little over weight", 60% of the black students but only 15% of the white students chose "a little over weight". Not surprisingly then, over 33% of the black but only 12% of the white women had never been on a diet. Another 25% of the black women but only 10% of the white women had only dieted "once for a brief period of time". At the other extreme, 12% of the white women but only .5% of the black women said that they were "always" on diet.

Of course, the black and the white women with eating disorders had dieted the most, were the unhappiest with their weight, and were the most afraid of gaining weight. Only 40% of these women were satisfied with their weight and nearly 45% were "extremely unhappy". More than 95% had been on diets and 86% said they were "extremely" afraid of gaining weight.

Social Pressure and Family Criticism

Fortunately, only 20% of the women without eating disorders said they had ever felt pressure to lose weight and only 8% said they had ever been criticized by anyone in their family for being too fat. On the other hand, since very few of these young women are over weight, it may be that the reason they didn't feel pressured or criticized is that they were already so thin. In contrast, more than 85% of the white and the black women with eating disorders said they felt a lot of pressure to be thin, even though only 15% said a family member had ever criticized them for being too fat.

Self Esteem and Relationships

Contrary to what we might assume, the students with eating disorders rated themselves only slightly lower on self esteem than students without disorders. When asked to rate their self-esteem on a 1 to 10 point scale, the students with eating disorders generally gave themselves a 7, while the other students generally gave themselves an 8. Likewise, having an eating disorder was not related to the quality of relationships that these students had with their roommates. More than 85% said they had a very good relationship with their roommate. On the other hand, when it comes to boyfriends, there were striking differences. Only 25% of the women with eating disorders had a boyfriend, compared to 75% of the other women.

The good news is that the anorexic daughters said they got along very well with both their mothers and their fathers. Indeed, the students who said their relationships with their parents were terrible were the daughters who had never had an eating disorder. Nearly 82% of the white daughters with eating disorders said their relationship with both parents was excellent. Only one of the daughters with an eating disorder said her relationship with her mother was terrible and only one said the same of her father. In contrast, 10% of the white daughters who had never had an eating disorder said their relationship with their father was either terrible or very poor, and 2% said the same about their mother.


In stark contrast to most people their age nationwide, only 15% of the white students and only 25% of the black students in this study had parents who were divorced. Not only was divorce not connected to the daughter having an eating disorder, just the opposite seemed to be the case. That is, only 3% of the white parents whose daughters had eating disorders were divorced compared to 14% whose daughters never had an eating disorder. Likewise, 85% of the black daughters whose parents were divorced had never had an eating disorder. If anything, these results suggest that her parent's divorce has almost nothing to do with whether or not a daughter develops an eating disorder. In fact, on the basis of these results we might actually wonder: Are some couples who stay married even though they aren't happy together creating situations in the family that increase the odds of their daughter developing an eating disorder? For example, even though the parents aren't divorced, one or both of them might be sending negative messages to the daughter about sexuality, about male-female relationships, or about growing up and leaving the "poor, unhappy" parent behind. Or even though they aren't divorced, either parent can be discouraging their daughter from developing an assertive "voice" of her own and from taking charge of creating a life separate from them - all of which have been linked to eating disorders. Given this, other researchers exploring eating disorders might gain much more useful information not by asking whether the parents are divorced, but by having them use a 1-10 rating scale for such questions as: How happy do you think each of your parent's is? How much have your parents encouraged you to express your anger openly and directly to them? How comfortable do you think each of your parents is about your growing up and leaving home?

Implications for College Personnel

So what are the practical implications of this study for people who teach or work with college students? First, a large percentage of both black and white college women need help combating eating disorders. Clearly the problem is prevalent enough and begins so early that high school teachers as well as parents need to be particularly vigilant of teenage girls' eating habits and attitudes about body weight. Second, we must stop acting as if eating disorders only affect white females. Although white females are still the most at risk, black teenage girls also need to be carefully attended to in terms of educating them about eating disorders and paying careful attention when they seem to be developing habits or attitudes that can lead to anorexia or bulimia. This may be especially true for college-bound black teenagers since they are the most likely to be exposed to unhealthy white attitudes about women's weight and dieting. Third, black females may be the most reluctant to seek professional help when they have eating disorders or other types of problems that might lead to anorexia or bulimia. Knowing this, teachers, counselors, and parents could make more effort to discuss the importance of getting professional help for any type of ongoing emotional or physical problem. Given the influence of the church in many black families' lives - especially black women's lives - campus and community ministers could also speak more about the wisdom of seeking professional help for personal problems. In so doing, women and their daughters might be less likely to feel that getting the help of a therapist is somehow a sign of weakness or a matter of "having too little faith". With such efforts, more black girls might grow into adulthood seeing that being "strong" or "religious" does not mean avoiding professional help for ongoing or life threatening problems such as anorexia and depression.

Fourth, since so few of these anorexic college women had boyfriends, perhaps working with them on issues related to sexuality and emotional intimacy with men might indirectly have a positive impact. That is, one of the reasons why so many of these young women don't have boyfriends may be that they feel too uncomfortable with their own sexuality. As mentioned earlier, young anorexic women may not have received enough positive messages or seen enough healthy examples of adults who are comfortable with sexuality and who have an emotionally intimate relationship with one another. These young women might also be so worried that a boyfriend would discover their eating disorder that they will not risk emotional or sexual intimacy. On the other hand, these girls may want a boyfriend but lack the skills and attitudes of other girls their age that would enable them to form a close relationship with a man. Unfortunately by not having a boyfriend, the young woman might be depriving herself of someone who can reassure her that her gaining weight is sexy and desirable - someone who actively encourages her to change her dangerous eating habits. In any event, college personnel could devote more time helping anorexic students develop more emotionally intimate relationships and become more comfortable with their own sexuality.

Finally, on college campuses we must continue to educate young men and woman about the dangers of eating disorders, intensive dieting, and our pervasive obsession with thinness. Our efforts must also be directed just as much at young men as at young women. For example, brochures about eating disorders should be disseminated to male students and should be designed in ways that help men understand the nature, extent and seriousness of the problem. Moreover, we should be giving all college men very specific advice about what to do if they suspect a female friend or a girlfriend of having an eating disorder. Without being critical or demeaning, we should also explain to college men the ways in which their comments or their behavior might inadvertently be contributing to eating disorders. For example, we might help them understand that their "jokes" or casual comments about "fat" girls or a woman's "big thighs" can contribute to the insecurity and self-loathing that their own sisters, girlfriends, and female friends feel about their weight. Materials or presentations should be shared especially with those groups of men who often have the most influence on campus - fraternity members and athletes - as well as with all first year students during orientation. University counseling and health centers should also see to it that all faculty members receive this information and specific advice so that they know what to do when they suspect that a student is suffering from or might be developing an eating disorder. Along the same lines, whenever possible, faculty should be encouraged to incorporate information about eating disorders, our society's obsession with thinness, and intensive dieting into their course materials, their tests, their class discussion and their assignments. Aside from the obvious courses in psychology, sociology, and biological sciences, the information could also be incorporated into education, history, mass communications, and art courses where topics such as female beauty, the impact of advertising, and cultural differences are all relevant. With more concerted efforts such as these in high schools and on college campuses, we will hopefully see a decrease in eating disorders, excessive dieting, and our widespread obsession with female thinness.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 7). Black Undergraduate And White Undergraduate Eating Disorders And Related Attitudes, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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