Skin color dissatisfaction among Black adolescent girls predicts longitudinal risk for meeting binge eating disorder criteria as well as binge eating disorder symptoms, according to new research published in the journal Body Image. The findings suggest that Black girls are psychologically impacted by the cultural belief that having lighter skin is better.
Binge eating disorder is a serious mental health condition characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food in a short period of time and feeling a loss of control during these episodes. People with binge eating disorder often feel guilty, embarrassed, or disgusted by their eating behavior.
Body dissatisfaction, or feeling unhappy or negative about one’s body, has been found to be strongly related to binge eating disorder. Individuals who are dissatisfied with their body may turn to food as a way to cope with negative emotions or to try to achieve a certain body size or shape. This can lead to binge eating as a way to soothe these negative feelings or to try to gain control over their body.
“I was interested in this topic for two main reasons and in response to two main problems, both of which center on inclusion and representation,” said study author Jordan E. Parker, a doctoral student in Health Psychology at UCLA.
“The first problem is that the eating disorders literature has been incredibly homogenous, with Black participants representing less than 5% of research samples. This lack of representation is likely due to the pervasive myth that eating disorders predominantly affect thin, affluent, white women–a myth we now know to be very untrue. As these findings affirm, eating disorders don’t discriminate. Black women and girls are susceptible as well, with unique patterns and predictors of disordered eating, yet not many studies have sought to examine this further.”
“The second problem lies in the measurement of these constructs,” Parker told PsyPost. “Although it’s well established that body dissatisfaction is a robust predictor of disordered eating, both of these constructs have been normed on and validated in white populations, meaning that they may not fully capture the cognitions and behaviors that are unique among Black women.
“For example, literature suggests that Black women may have unique body image concerns like their hair, lips, or skin color. It hasn’t been established how these facets of their body image relate to their body satisfaction or their disordered eating behaviors.”
“All of this is to say that I took interest in this topic in an effort to diversify this body of research, to investigate Black women’s unique embodied experiences, and to quantify their association with body satisfaction and disordered eating,” Parker said. “I wanted to see a study center on Black women’s experiences, instead of always comparing or measuring them against those of white women.”
“I know from my own experiences and from those of my friends and family, that these behaviors are more prevalent among Black women than we think. I wanted our experiences to be part of the empirical literature as well. I can only hope that it will eventually lead to more inclusive research and treatment paradigms.”
For their study, the researchers analyzed data from 1,213 Black girls that was collected as part of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s Growth and Health Study (NGHS), a longitudinal cohort study designed to examine trends relating to eating behaviors in adolescent girls. The girls were between 9 and 10 years old when they were enrolled, and data was collected from them and their parents or guardians at ten different times over the course of the study.
The study collected data regarding body mass index, socioeconomic status, skin color satisfaction, body satisfaction, and binge eating disorder risk/symptoms.
Those who were dissatisfied with their skin color at ages 13 and 14 were more likely to met the criteria for binge eating disorder at age 18. But skin color satisfaction was not a significant predictor of binge eating disorder risk at ages 10, 11, 12, and 15.
However, lower skin color satisfaction predicted greater binge eating disorder symptoms at all ages. The researchers also found that being unhappy with one’s body acted as a mediator between being unhappy with one’s skin color and symptoms of binge eating disorder.
Parker said she hopes the findings contribute “to a broader conceptualization of who is at risk for developing an eating disorder–that we begin to accept that women of all body shapes, body sizes, and of all skin colors, are susceptible to these behaviors.”
“In addition, I hope that we begin to recognize how the pervasive white-centric beauty norms that we are subjected to–like idealizing thinness, light skin, smooth and straight hair–have measurable consequences for Black women and girls,” she said.
The researchers controlled for the effects of body mass index and socioeconomic status. But the study, like all research, include some limitations. The study uses novel predictors and outcomes, including a skin color satisfaction scale and a custom questionnaire to measure binge eating disorder symptoms and risk. The skin color satisfaction scale used in this study is based on a previously validated scale for Black college women and measures satisfaction with one’s skin color. However, the single-item scale used in this study has limitations and does not measure actual or perceived skin tone.
“In the future, I’d like to see a re-conceptualization of body image and disordered eating measures, in favor of those that are more inclusive,” Parker said. “Personally, I would love to work towards developing new measures specific to Black women, that accurately measure and represent their body satisfaction and eating behaviors.”
The study, “Prospective relationships between skin color satisfaction, body satisfaction, and binge eating in Black girls“, was authored by Jordan E. Parker, Craig K. Enders, Mahasin S. Mujahid, Barbara A. Laraia, Elissa S. Epel, and A. Janet Tomiyam.