Various contributing factors can be identified with regard to how African American middle-aged women perceive their body. Prior research has indicated that the average woman – controlling for race – is least satisfied with her body at 54 years of age. 71% of women over the age of 50 are reportedly trying to lose weight. Physical changes associated with menopause (gaining 5 to 10 pounds from a change in fat distribution) and changes in skin composition (i.e. sagging and wrinkling) are largely responsible for these phenomena. The available literature indicates that appearance plays as important a role in self-concept during ages 35 to 65 compared to years prior with 79% of women above the age of 50 expressing this view. Furthermore, 70% of women over the age of 50 are dissatisfied with their weight and shape compared to when they were younger – which leads to the rational conclusion that nostalgia plays an important role in body image discrepancy among older women. Additionally, many studies have shown that African American women are more satisfied with their bodies and have a lower incidence of eating disorders than their white counterparts. However, it is also the case that African American women are a demographic that is disproportionately affected by obesity. According to a recent study conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 56.7% of African American women over the age of 20 were classified as obese. Researchers have explained these circumstances by suggesting that African American women typically assess their physical appearance and weight in comparison with other African American women. While many experts associate this trend with the cultural differences that exist between the two races as to the societal meaning of being overweight or obese, others bring up the socioeconomic hardships faced by the African American community and hence, the lack of access to affordable and healthy food and safe places to exercise. However, it is important to consider the impact of additional variables on body image discrepancy besides race and age, especially those that individuals can control. Emerging research also suggests that exercise is associated with physical and mental health benefits across several diseases and circumstances. As an example, in a study of 936 women undergoing coronary angiography (a procedure to detect blockages in the coronary artery as a result of plaque buildup), higher fitness scores were associated with a lowered risk for adverse cardiovascular events (i.e. heart attack). Additionally, many research endeavors have shown that physical activity improves one’s mood profile and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. Psychology experts at the University of Florida have indicated that participation in enjoyable exercise can put people in touch with their physical strength and abilities and thereby, bring awareness to one’s physique in a positive way. The role of a healthy diet has also been examined using a trial of 439 overweight and obese postmenopausal women, controlling for race. The intervention group that they participated in focused on a low-calorie diet (an average caloric deficit of 500-1000 calories), which often results in a 5 to 10 percent weight loss and, hence, health benefits relating to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer risk. Some goals of the intervention program were a 30 percent and 10 percent reduction in energy intake and body weight, respectively and a caloric intake of between 1200 and 2000 kilocalories a day. The positive relationship that exists between a proper diet and weight loss can be attributed to greater cognitive abilities and decision-making processes. As a result, individuals who have a diet consisting of high sources of protein and low fats without excessive focus on calorie-cutting at the expense of essential nutrients are more likely to have greater self-esteem and confidence. As a result, individuals are able to have a more appreciative and positive attitude about their body. Such a perspective allows for more reasonable goals to be set and achieved as well as a reduction in the gap that exists between what is actual and ideal. While participants in the diet intervention group experienced some success with 42% reaching the above goal, it was participants who completed both the diet intervention program and moderate exercise that were more successful with 60% reaching the above goal. Such a finding suggests that while a healthy diet plays an important role in weight reduction, it cannot have meaningful success without physical activity.
The data that was used in this study originates from the Obesity Reduction Black Intervention Trial (ORBIT) study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was designed to determine what kind of weight loss initiative, whether it be receiving newsletters or participating in an intervention program, is most effective among African American women between the ages of 30 and 65. Data was collected by administrators interviewing participants based on a standard and universal questionnaire. In this study, the body discrepancy index was measured as a dependent variable. The body discrepancy index uses a scale of women’s silhouettes on a scale of 1 (underweight) and 9 (overweight). It is measured by taking the difference between the silhouette that the woman most identifies with and views as the ideal. Potential contributing factors – namely diet quality and amount of physical activity – were considered independent variables and were analyzed to determine which factors were significant to the topic of body image discrepancy. My hypothesis, which was based on the available literature and ordinary experiences, was that if participants exercise more and eat healthier, they will have a more positive perception of their bodies. Furthermore, their income and educational level in addition to the number of dependent children that they have will negatively correspond with body image discrepancy.