The role of body mass index, gender, and sociocultural factors in weight concerns among Black youth: An interview with Anna K. Hochgraf

Concerns about body image are prevalent among Black youth and are associated with a number of detrimental outcomes on mental health, including onset of depressive symptoms and decreased self-esteem. In their recent article on weight concerns among Black adolescents, Anna K. Hochgraf and her co-authors examined how sociocultural factors—such as racial identity and racial socialization—might help buffer the impact of weight concerns among Black adolescents. Anna kindly took the time to answer some of our questions on this article.

 1. What is the main takeaway of your article?

Our findings suggest that adolescents’ racial identity, or, sense of belonging to a racial group, and parents’ racial socialization (that is, the extent to which parents teach their children about cultural customs and practices and instill a sense of pride regarding their heritage and culture) are protective against the development of body image concerns for Black adolescents who have overweight. We found that racial identity was protective against developing body image concerns for adolescents with high body mass indices (BMI), and fathers’ racial socialization was protective for girls with high BMIs.

 2. What questions does this paper address? Why were these questions important?

The purpose of this study was to better understand the development of body image concerns among Black adolescents, a group that has been overlooked in prior research on this topic. Weight concerns, which refer to a person’s perception that she or he has overweight, overvaluation of body weight and shape, worry about body weight and shape, and dieting behavior (Killen et al., 1996), predict a range of adverse psychological and physical health outcomes. In order to inform theory and prevention efforts, we examined whether adolescents’ BMIs predicted changes in weight concerns across one year, with the expectation that adolescents with higher BMIs would report more weight concerns the following year. We also evaluated youth racial identity and parents’ racial socialization as potential protective factors in the link between BMI and weight concerns, and gender differences in these links. This is important because the strengths and competencies of youth and families of color are often disregarded in developmental research, and sociocultural factors such as racial socialization and racial identity may help explain individual differences in the development of weight concerns among Black adolescents.

 3.     What do you wish more people knew about this topic?

One common misperception is that weight concerns can be adaptive because they may lead youth who have overweight or obesity to engage in weight loss behaviors. Weight concerns are not adaptive; they are a form of body image and eating pathology and are a precursor to eating disorders as well as depressive symptoms and low self-esteem during adolescence. Dieting to lose or control weight has actually been found to predict weight gain over time (Field et al., 2003; Goldschmidt et al., 2017). This misconception is also problematic because it perpetuates weight stigma.

 4.     Are there any papers, videos, blog posts, etc. that you would recommend to readers who are interested in this topic?

Here is a qualitative study on body image among Black women that I think is informative and thought-provoking:

Capodilupo, C. M., & Kim, S. (2014). Gender and race matter: The importance of considering intersections in black women’s body image. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 61, 37-49.

I also really like the following book on body image. The content covers a range of topics pertaining to body image (for example, body image development, individual and cultural differences), and chapters are written by leading researchers in the field:

Cash, T. F. & Smolak, L. (Eds.). (2011). Body image: A handbook of science, practice, and prevention (2nd ed). Guilford.

5. What are you most excited to see in this field in the future? What questions are you particularly excited to get answers to?

I would love to see more research on body image ideals and development among racially and ethnically diverse adolescents and families. I am interested in the roles of contextual factors and sociocultural processes in the development of body image concerns, including how youth of color (particularly girls) navigate potentially conflicting ideals and messages about their weight and appearance. I am also interested in elucidating the intersection of experiences of racism, weight stigma, and gender in youth body image development, and identifying opportunities to intervene in culturally appropriate ways to prevent body image concerns and co-occurring psychological and physical health problems.

In terms of prevention efforts, I see potential to develop family-centered prevention programs for youth body image concerns as well as opportunities to utilize mobile health technologies to intervene in real time.


Author bio:

Anna Hochgraf is a doctoral candidate and Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Predoctoral Fellow in Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research centers on the development and prevention of body image concerns and closely related health concerns among youth and their implications for individual and family wellbeing. She is particularly interested in elucidating how individual characteristics, family processes, and sociocultural contexts intersect to shape development of youth body image concerns and co-occurring health problems. The overarching goal of her research is to inform prevention efforts.

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