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For all cultures, thin isn't necessarily in

Sunday, July 5, 1998

Special from The Providence Journal-Bulletin

Shanette Harris grew up skinny in rural North Carolina, like her mother and her grandmother. In the blunt language of her small southern town, Shanette was "a bone."

Hearing this, a lot of women -- men, too -- might rejoice. They might conclude that this little Southern girl was off to a wonderful start in the body-image department. Blessedly thin.

That's a decidedly white view, Harris says.

Among some blacks, a little heft on a woman -- even more than a little -- is considered a good thing, Harris says.

Weight can be seen as attractive -- especially well-distributed weight, showing up in most of the right places.

Thin, on the other hand, is a worry.

Maybe a woman is just plain unlucky. Perhaps she just was born thin and can't do too much about it. Poor thing. Worse, maybe a woman is thin because she's sick. In any case, it's not good.

One of the results of that viewpoint, Harris says, is a more relaxed attitude by black women about their bodies.

"Regardless of age, black women will rate themselves more favorably in the area of body attitudes," Harris says. "They will tend to say that weight is just less important, more so than white women."

Harris is an associate psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island, and for the past decade, she has been studying attitudes about women's bodies and how they shape the opinions girls and women have of themselves.

What is considered ideal within one racial or ethnic group can be quite different from the ideal of another group, Harris says. But the point is often ignored in an America where the values of whites are presumed the only values.

The issue is important, Harris says, because cultural forces exert a powerful influence on girls' and women's lives.

Sometimes these attitudes are beneficial. It may be good that black women are less obsessive about weight than white women, maybe less likely to dabble in dangerous diets. But if it goes to the extreme of obesity, well, too much weight is a health risk for anyone.

It's crucial, Harris says, that the pressures that shape the health and self-esteem of African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American girls and women be investigated, appreciated, and understood.

A funny, often provocative conversationalist, Harris makes a sometimes angry, sometimes plaintive demand that social scientists like herself, and all of society for that matter, consider this proposition: Race matters.

Harris was an intern at Duke University in 1988 when she started her first research probing cultural differences in body image.

She and a colleague were studying groups of college women, and the students weren't telling the researchers the same thing:

"Black females were wanting to gain weight, to gain pounds, to look different. They didn't want to look thin. They thought it was ugly.

"But Euro-American women were wanting to look thin. They thought it was attractive."

There was a third viewpoint, too. Students from India said that, in a culture where marriages are arranged by families, body image didn't loom as large in terms of finding a partner.

"The women from India would snicker or laugh shyly," Harris says. "It was basically: 'We are going to get these [college] degrees and go back home. And we don't need to worry about this as much.'"

What was apparent to Harris was that there were powerful forces exerted by cultural backgrounds. One size didn't fit all.

The real problem, she decided, was that there wasn't enough research into cultures other than thin-obsessed white America.

Physicians and psychotherapists might be more familiar with the differing attitudes, but still, the thinking might not go deep enough, and some questions might not be asked.

"For example, a black woman goes in, is maybe 180 pounds, 5 feet 4 inches. No one asks if she has an eating disorder," Harris says. "If a white woman went in, though, that might be thought about, simply because of the racial stimulus: 'She's white; white women have eating problems.'"

But Harris says that black women often worry about hair style and skin tone. Unless you are familiar with that culture to begin with, you might not know that these issues demand study and understanding.

Harris gets the feeling, when she attends professional conferences with other psychologists, that the wrong people have the big research grants, and that often it is the people with the least understanding who perform the studies.

"When a white woman leads a focus group for black women, she is going to get some lies," Harris says. "There's no other way. She is going to get some lies because, partly, she's not going to know, sometimes, what to ask."

How many people would think to ask what many black women have gone through, and maybe still do, because of hair?

If you grew up black in the South, you'd know what at least one skinny little girl did on hair-straightening day. She hid from her mother.

"As far as I was concerned, it meant torture," Harris says. "The torture was that something was being altered."

The tug of war that pulls a woman's body towards a supposedly desired shape is even more wrenching when there are two ideals nourished by differing cultures.

Harris, one of her own best test subjects, describes the countervailing forces at work on women like herself who move within two cultures.

When Harris is losing weight, compliments pour in from her white friends, she says.

Likewise, when she's putting on weight, praise comes from blacks.

Which happened this year. She was attending a conference in Alabama, similar to one she had attended four years earlier, when she weighed 119 pounds. But this time, she showed up at 138.

"Girl, you look so good. You put some weight on," exclaimed a friend, a black sociologist. "The last time I saw you, you looked sick."

Harris felt whip-sawed. All her academic degrees, all her research, all the teaching, papers, her notes to her journal, debates with her mother, couldn't insulate her from feeling strained by praise from two camps.

"In one environment, being thin is good, and I was self-conscious that I had gained the 19 pounds. And here is this lady saying: 'You look so at peace. You look so womanly.'"

If there is one theme to Harris's views on race, research, and relationships, it is that there are few easy answers or easy assumptions.

Psychologists and others shouldn't automatically assume that black women, because they are less distressed about weight, are free of concerns about eating or other body-image issues, Harris said.

"I'm not comfortable with the notion that there are no eating disturbances among black women and that black women are somehow protected from eating disorders," she said. "What is the protection?"

Some black women suffer from bulimia and from binge-eating, especially late at night, to deal with stress and depression, Harris said. But the problem has gone largely unexplored.

"How many studies have been done on this, epidemiological studies? I can't find any," Harris said.

Among the many issues, Harris said, is whether men are driving the agenda of how women view their own bodies. Or is it women?

"It's both of them," Harris said. "Women are driving it, because of what they think men want, and men are driving it." But the male influence is different, she said, "because, I think, originally, that men controlled things financially, like what's going to come on the TV, and what woman is pretty."

From interviews with black men, Harris concludes they "are more likely" to date women who are overweight. But white men seem enamored of bodies that include long legs and large breasts -- a combination that sometimes requires the wizardry of breast reconstruction.

What's lacking is sufficient research into all of these issues, especially by minority persons, Harris contends.

"This money needs to go to some people of color," Harris said. "They need to be there doing research on their own. Then you might get some truth."

Harris hopes to point her own investigations less toward the proposition that different groups are influenced by different values -- she said that's pretty well-established -- than to the underlying origins of those standards.

"That's the type of research I'm moving toward now," Harris said. "I'm interested in deep cultural values, those values that we see behaviorally, but we really don't know what they are."

What will Harris's work accomplish?

The answer seems to come from two people. One, an accomplished academic with a thick resume and bookshelves of reports and articles and textbooks with her name on them. The other, a country girl who grew up skinny in the South.

But the two share the same vision: That women, black women, should "love themselves with whatever God gave them," and in Harris's words, should "feel freedom."

And women should be free to do so on their own terms, Harris said.

"I want black women to be able to say: I'm beautiful."