COLUMBIA — Rashanta Bledman grew up in South Central Los Angeles, a mostly black and Latino neighborhood, where curves were prized.
When she moved to a largely white college in Orange County, she noticed she didn’t look like everyone else. Thinness was considered more important than shape, she discovered.
Bledman had conversations about this with her friends, particularly her black, female friends.
“We didn’t want to be really thin, but we didn’t want to be heavy,” she said. “We wanted to have a small waist, but at the same time have curves.”
Despite this, Bledman said she believed that the topic was not something that was discussed in the open — instead limited to small circles of friends.
Today, talking about body image is part of Bledman’s academic work.
She is a doctoral student in MU’s department of educational, school and counseling psychology. Her studies have explored how black women feel about their bodies, because existing research had indicated a mixture of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the way they look.
Earlier this summer, her research won a graduate student award from the American Psychological Association's graduate student award.
Bledman surveyed 79 black women, mostly MU students to find out how satisfied they were with their bodies. Using a set of images, she asked them to select their actual body shape and their ideal.
Most participants said generally, they were satisfied with their bodies, but given the chance to change something, they would.
“Many of the women said that they would have a smaller waist, a flatter stomach and a bigger butt,” Bledman said. “That’s a hard shape to really maintain, unless you’re, like, Kim Kardashian.”
Although she said her research cannot be generalized to the entire African-American population, she said she hopes her research will validate women’s experiences and let them know other women feel the same way.
“There’s a societal idea that you should be thin, or you should look a certain way, and sometimes you can’t look that way,” she said. “It’s really hard for an African-American woman to look like a thin white woman.”
Columbia native Renella Ballinger, 45, identifies with Bledman’s findings. She said she is pretty satisfied with her figure but sometimes struggles to keep weight off.
“I’ve always been naturally thinner,” Ballinger said. “The weight that I’ve gained has mainly come with age. I’m not really dissatisfied; it’s just hard to maintain without being active.”
Most of her dissatisfaction centers upon her lower torso, she said.
“They call us thick,” she said. “We’re built that way.”
Ballinger’s sister, Twanda Thomas, 41, agreed with the findings.
She said her concerns about weight have less to do with body image and more to do with health.
“I think we get more worried about (weight) because of diabetes and hypertension,” Thomas said.