Women Prefer to Think 'Thin'

UA News Services
Aug. 16, 2004

Not every woman wants to be blonde, but given a choice, most would at least prefer to be thin.

A new study by University of Arizona sociologists suggests that many women strive for a thin body type, although they may not otherwise subscribe to the avalanche of media messages about other notions of what they ideally ought to look like.

Louise M. Roth, an assistant professor of sociology at UA, and Rachael Neal, a UA graduate student, interviewed 85 women, ages 22 to 35, across racial and ethnic lines about their appearance. For women in this age group, appearance often is a resource when competing in the workplace and for life partners.

"We were interested in comparing two different lines of thought of race and beauty," said Roth.

"One is that all women are affected by beauty ideals in much the same way. That has racial implications because the ideal is very 'white.'

"The other train of thought is that women (of color) really don't feel like that ideal represents them. They have beauty ideals that are based on their own community," Roth said.

Roth and Neal found that the "body ideal is largely democratized," that is women, regardless of their racial or ethnic heritage, seem to emphasize a thin appearance. Those who were dissatisfied with their appearance often said it was because of their weight. That runs counter to a common notion that many Latina and African-American women value a more voluptuous body type.

Roth said that might be true for the very few women who are insulated within their own ethnic communities, with very little exposure to the larger Anglo-American culture. Most women of color, though, are surrounded by Whites and by White-dominated media images.

Instead, Roth and Neal say that once non-Anglo women became adults, they often tended to embrace bits and pieces of their appearance that reflected their racial identities and made for their own unique appearances. Neal said women incorporate their own notions of beauty much the way developing nations adopt capitalism, not wholesale but by embracing parts of it to mix with what already is there.

A woman of Indian heritage in the study sample, for example, went to India to have her nose pierced as a way to express her "Indian-ness." An African-American woman said she loved the natural curl of her hair.

"Not everyone necessarily chose the same elements, but at some level - even though they had the same body ideal - there was a way in which women embraced their racial and ethnic identity, and through certain aspects of their racial and ethnic appearance," Roth said.

Roth and Neal also looked carefully not only at race and ethnicity, but also sexual orientation and politicization.

"I was interested in how women use appearance, and engage in beauty labor (the work expended to create an appearance) to create a performance of gender and sexuality as a resource for heterosexual or lesbian mating markets, and how that affects the type and amount of beauty labor," Roth said.

The lesbian and bisexual women who were interviewed were highly politicized in terms of feminist ideology and opposition to patriarchal culture, and more critical of certain aspects of beauty ideals, Roth said.

Other women in the study who weren't as politicized still were critical of certain aspects of society's notions of beauty, although to a lesser extent. Roth said there was a sense of wanting to express the notion that "I'm proud of who I am and don't want to buy into the male-dominated cultural mainstream. I want to express myself as a beautiful person without necessarily having to buy into that ideal that I could never fit into anyway."

Roth and Neal will discuss their work at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, on Tuesday, Aug. 17, at 2:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel. Roth is most easily reached by e-mail at lroth@u.arizona.edu


Resources for the media

Louise M. Roth
UA sociology dept.