Latina Youth Resist Body Image Issues, Study Shows

“The media creates a lot of body dissatisfaction, specifically in teen girls,” says Elizabeth Daniels, co-author of a new study, which finds that ethnic identification may help Latina adolescents find better satisfaction in their bodies.

Psychologists at Oregon State University-Cascades and Gallaudet University evaluated more than 100 Latinas, ages 13-18, having them react to images found in advertisements, magazines, television shows and movies. The subject matter consisted of unrealistic images of white women in sexualized roles, according to Daniels.

In the study, called “‘I am not a skinny toothpick and proud of it’: Latina adolescents’ ethnic identity and responses to mainstream media images,” researchers confronted a myth that women of color are somehow immune to “white” fantasies about skinniness. The study revealed that on some level, resistance skills to ethnic assimilation translate into general wellness. Subjects who responded to the sentence stem “I am …” by saying things like “I am Latina” or “I am Hispanic” tended to view themselves overall more positively, and less in terms of a media-imposed ideal.

According to Daniels, the results are “not a panacea,” but, “For the girls who do connect with their Latina heritage — that tends to buffer the negative effects of media on how they feel about their bodies.”

Teens, on average, consume media for about 7.5 hours per day according to a 2010 study of 8- to 18-year-olds conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Accounting for multitasking, it’s more like 10.75 hours.

It’s no secret that the advertising industry is dominated by unrealistic images of thin white women (see Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly series). According to Daniels, some 40 years of research in the field of developmental psychology has shown the destructive potential of this on young women of all ethnicities.

Daniels believes that increased media literacy will help prevent second-order effects of body image manipulation, such as depression and eating disorders. “We looked at ethnic identity and whether that could be productive, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle,” she says. “In general, we’re trying to help teens deconstruct media.”

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