A University study suggests that white women who base their self-worth on body weight experience a significant drive toward thinness, despite having healthy body mass indices. Women of other races share a similar, though less significant, connection between self-worth and body weight, according to the study.

Led by Natalie Cole, a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies and psychology, the study, published in June, consisted of two surveys in which college-aged women were asked to declare their ethnic identity and answer questions regarding the connection between their self-worth and body weight.

Cole said the goal of the surveys, which were conducted in the early years of the past decade, was to note any differences in body satisfaction between different ethnic groups. The study also examined what factors, if any, led women to engage in dieting behaviors.

Though Cole said she expected white women to have the highest drive for thinness, she was surprised to find that white women had that drive even as they claimed they had overall healthy body weight and satisfaction with their appearance.

Cole added it was clear that after answering whether or not their body satisfaction would go up or down if they lost 10 pounds, participants showed that their self-worth was linked to being thin.

This finding was significant, Cole said, to her and the co-authors of the study — Elizabeth Cole, an associate professor in women’s studies, and Monique Ward, an associate professor of psychology — because it conflicts with previous notions about women who choose to engage in dieting behaviors.

“We thought that was particularly important because it really speaks to this idea that how much you weigh is related to how you feel about yourself overall and that’s happening for white women regardless of (whether) they’re satisfied with their appearance or if they’re of normal weight,” Cole said.

Though the study did not examine why white women placed a high importance on weight, Cole said she believes it is due to the images of thin women that are perpetuated in the media.

“I think that women see those objectified images and really identify with that and think that in order to have value, in order to be seen as sexy, you need to look a certain ways,” she said.

Because many of the images are white women, Cole said some people do not think that other ethnic groups experience the same drive for thinness.

Though African American women ranked the lowest for the drive for thinness and basing self-worth to their weight, Cole said they also found that some of the African American participants did base their self-worth on weight and were susceptible to dieting behaviors.

Findings in the study also indicated that though Asian American women had the lowest BMI average, they also had low satisfaction with their body appearance.

Cole said she hopes these findings can aid educators and counselors who are working with women on body and self-esteem.

“One of our hopes for what will happen with this research is that it will help inform people who are working with African American women and Asian American women to really educate them more about what’s going on with their body image and eating habits, so that they can really be in tune with that group,” she said.

Though Cole said she is now focused on the interaction between older women and body image, she said she and her colleagues are still particularly interested in under-represented groups.

“We’re really interested in people whose experiences haven’t been explored as much in the literature,” she said.

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