Assignment: Qualitative Health Research

Assignment: Qualitative Health Research

Assignment: Qualitative Health Research


Since the early 1970s, psychoanalysts, social scientists, and feminists have argued that women’s desires for slen- der bodies were the cause of their eating disorders (Bruch, 1973; Chernin, 1981; Garner & Garfinkel, 1982; Orbach, 1986). Throughout the 1990s, feminists argued for a broader sociocultural analysis of eating disorders, recog- nizing that women’s role in society, contradictory female expectations, and female oppression were essential forces contributing to women’s food and body pathologies (Bordo, 1993; Fallon, Katzman, & Wooley, 1994; Nasser, 1997). Recently, there has been a movement toward understanding how sociocultural factors that evoke pow- erlessness such as poverty, immigration, heterosexism, and rapid sociocultural change affect women’s risk for eating disorders (Katzman & Lee, 1997; Nasser, Katzman, & Gordon, 2001; Ruggiero, 2003). The evolution of these arguments reflects the growing awareness that eating disorders are spreading across ethnic, cultural, socioeco- nomic, and geographical boundaries, raising questions about the sociocultural risk factors of eating disorders (Le Grange, Louw, Breen, & Katzman, 2004; Lee & Lee, 2000; Pike & Borovoy, 2004).

Anorexia nervosa, the most salient eating disorder, has long been considered a culture-bound syndrome “rooted in Western cultural values and conflicts” (Prince, 1985, p. 300) predominantly affecting White, well-educated women of middle- to upper-class backgrounds living in Western societies (Bruch, 1973). It is well established that eating disorders now afflict women living in Western and non-Western societies, and new research findings suggest that the global rise of eating disorders coincides with economic and social changes associated with accul- turation to Western values, which are believed to heighten women’s vulnerability to eating disturbances. As women around the world retool their identities in the face of glo- balization, eating disorders now affect women from dif- ferent ethnic backgrounds and sociocultural milieus (Becker, Fay, Gilman, & Striegel-Moore, 2007; Lake, Staiger, & Glowinski, 2000; Miller & Pumariega, 2001; Soh, Touyz, & Surgenor, 2006; Tsai, Curbow, & Heinberg, 2003; Wildes, Emery, & Simons, 2001). Clearly, as eating disorders are diagnosed in places once thought “immune” to these illnesses, their cultural boundedness, salient illness expressions (i.e., fat phobia), and prevalence have been questioned, raising concern over the sociocultural

392592QHR211010.1177/10497323103 92592CheneyQualitative Health Research

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1University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA

Corresponding Author: Ann M. Cheney, University of Connecticut, Department of Anthropology, Beach Hall, Unit 2176, 354 Mansfield Dr., Storrs, CT 06269, USA Email:

“Most Girls Want to be Skinny”: Body (Dis)Satisfaction Among Ethnically Diverse Women

Ann M. Cheney1


In this article, I present the findings from an ethnographic study of 18 women college students living in the northeastern United States. I examine how ethnically diverse women dealt with the messages of the dominant White society’s obsession with thinness, and whether it affected their perceptions of an ideal body image. From the analysis of the interviews, I identified and extracted several themes related to ethnicity, aesthetic body ideals, body dissatisfaction, and disturbed eating. Grounded in the women’s narratives, I found that ethnically diverse women coming of age in American society experience anxieties and emotional stress as they related to others in their daily lives. Their stories shed light on how the body is a vehicle for social mobility and is used by women from marginalized identities to strategically negotiate social inequalities embedded in daily social relationships and interactions that more privileged women do not encounter. Assignment: Qualitative Health Research

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