Hispanic Teenagers Who Identify With Their Heritage Have a Better Body Image

Date: 12/17/2013    Written by: Beth Levine

Ethnic Pride Enhances Latina Body Image

Hispanic Teenagers Who Identify With Their Heritage Have a Better Body Image

There is no denying that we receive a constant barrage of images from the media suggesting that to be attractive, we must look young and be super skinny.  And, although advertisements have become much more inclusive over the last number of years of people of color and various ethnicities, they still predominantly show Caucasian models.  All of which negatively affects the self-esteem of the rest of us who do not match those "ideals."  The population which most often compares itself to the ideal and finds itself lacking is that of teenage girls, which is already going through the turbulent physical and emotional changes that come with adolescence.  But now, a new study has found that among Latina teens, at least, those who break from the marketing "ideal" and identify strongly with their heritage tend to have a better body image.

The research, which was a joint endeavor between scientists at Oregon State University-Cascades and Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, discovered a much more positive attitude about their appearance among Hispanic girls who expressed pride in their ethnicity compared to their peers who are not as strongly connected to their background.1 
The subjects were 118 Latina females between the ages of 13 and 18.  Each participant viewed advertisements containing images of female Caucasian models.  Some of the ads were more body-focused, with the models wearing lingerie or bikinis, while others had them clothed more conservatively.

After looking over the pictures, the volunteers were all asked to write a personal statement that reflected the way they perceived themselves.  The girls who included a description of themselves identifying their ethnicity, such as "I am Latina" or "I am Hispanic," were more likely to have a better self-image than were their counterparts who failed to mention their ethnic background.  In general, the Hispanic culture does not place nearly the emphasis on being ultra-skinny that typical white, American culture does.  Instead, their traditional ideal is more in line with a natural woman's body, with lots of curves and more of an hourglass figure.

The images adolescents see--not only in advertising but on television, in movies, on magazine covers, and practically everywhere they look--can affect girls profoundly and chip away at their confidence if they don't look the same as the standard ideals of beauty they are bombarded with daily.  This can lead to serious self-esteem issues and eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, making girls shy away from eating a balanced diet.  And while the Hispanic community was once believed to be at very low risk for developing an eating disorder, all of that has changed in recent years.  A 2012 study at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, discovered that young Latinas are every bit as likely as Caucasian girls to battle with major body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.2

While the current research was based on a small population sample and does not take into consideration what happens when a Latina adolescent sees images of a waif thin model of Hispanic heritage, it does remind us that it is not just the media that can influence our children's beliefs about themselves.  We can help them look beyond outward appearance and focus on the importance of heritage and culture and inner qualities like intelligence, compassion, kindness, and generosity to boost their self-image.

We can also remind them that it's a balanced diet and healthy body that is worth striving for, rather than a stick skinny one.  Girls can achieve a fit body with any type of physique, one that is strong and athletic without a lot of fat.  We can educate them to select nutritious foods to improve their eating habits and help them find the right type of fitness and exercise activities that they will enjoy enough to do on a regular basis.  During the crucial teenage years, all of us should be doing what we can to provide our daughters with a positive attitude toward their bodies and the tools for a lifetime of healthy living.

  • 1. "Ethnic Identification Helps Latina Adolescents Resist Media Barrage of Body Images." Science Daily. 2 December 2013. Accessed 9 December 2013. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131202162202.htm
  • 2. Franko, DL; et al. "Considering J. Lo and Ugly Betty: a qualitative examination of risk factors and prevention targets for body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and obesity in young Latina women." Body Image. June 2012. Accessed 10 December 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22609033

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