Written by Giuseppe Alamia. Posted in 1(2)

Franco Viviani1,2, Erika Dionisio2, Fernando Biague3, Brigitte Bagnol4, Camilla Zecchinato2,  Fabio Scarcella2

doi: 10.12863/ejssbx1x2-2013x4

1Human Movement Sciences section of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Padua, Italy
2Applied Psychology section of the FISPPA Department, University of Padua, Italy
3Free University of Bozen, Italy
4University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa



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Body image (BI) is a multidimensional construct rising from a number of physiological and psychological components. BI has been studied mostly in well-developed countries, but recently concerns about size, shape and form of the body have grown both in rapidly developing and in low-income countries. To reach insights on BI in South Africa, to 68 students (33 males and 35 females), a modified versions of the Fallon & Rozin’s Test (1988) and the Body Part Satisfaction Scale were administered. The height, weight and triceps skinfold (TRC) of each subject were taken. Data were then compared with those of a similar survey carried out in Guinea-Bissau a decade before on 51 males and 47 females students. The main results show that Guinea-Bissau youngsters were on average satisfied about their physique. Girls had a more “realistic” portrait of themselves than males. They showed a slightly distorted perception on what the other gender liked. In general, stout physiques were preferred. Results from South Africa show in general that boys have a more “realistic” portrait of themselves than girls. Discrepancies emerged on the desires of the other gender only in girls. Regarding dissatisfaction significant gender differences regard buttocks and hips only. For BI, boys in Johannesburg showed, in general, to be more “realistic” than girls, and vice versa in Bissau. The different exposure to mass media and the fact that the latter were more anchored to traditional values can explain the results. The tendencies found in high income countries are lesser marked in both surveys.

Keywords: body image, South Africa, youngsters




Body Image (BI) is a multidimensional construct rising from several physiological and psychological components that each individual assimilates during life, permitting the building of a picture of him/herself that is constantly verified in his/her relationships with others (Viviani 2001). BI contains three important aspects of the Self (Fox 1997): Perceptual (in relation to visual-spatial and sensorial judgements), cognitive (pertaining to the culturally-mediated empirical factual knowledge of an individual’s own body), and affective (an aspect more connected to emotions and personal predispositions). Therefore BI is essential for survival, especially for humans, that are living in a complex social environment. BI is one of the most intriguing aspects of the so called “self-referent thought”, because it involves the physical body (Snodgrass & Thompson 1997; Viviani 2010). Every individual integrated into a society expresses sensitivity towards his/her body, and the image of a body can represent the beauty inside a cultural context. However, the stability of primordial canons for beauty and aesthetics in a culture changes because of its dynamics, and even if new additions do not eliminates the traditional features, it incorporates past and present, creating new and emerging forms of beauty. At present, most of them are diffused globally by media showing westernised aesthetical canons. This is why, in many quickly developing countries, and even in low-income countries of our planet, symptomatic behaviours typical of high-income countries, such as life-threatening eating disorders, are growing, primarily in women. This happens even in African groups previously thought to be somehow “protected” from these kinds of syndromes, suggesting that traditional aesthetic canons for BI (requiring a larger BI for women) are changing (Hennessy 2008). A role for media exposure in attitudes is claimed even for males, as found in traditional Ariaal men from Northern Kenya (Campbell, Pope & Filiault 2005). The first generation studies on BI highlighted that problems in young males are quite common, as boys’ focus is on muscularity and bigness and self-perception are often associated with impaired self-concept and self-esteem (Cohane & Pope 2001). Studies carried out in Western countries revealed a preference for larger images in black boys not only during adolescence (Thompson, Sargent & Kemper 1996), but even during childhood: in the Thompson, Corwin & Sargent’s study, (1997) black boys selected larger images in figurine tests representing the same body in different sizes than white boys. The few studies examining the pursuit of muscularity among non-Western groups have found that strength and robustness are highly valued in many Asian and African countries (for a review: Grey & Ginsberg 2007; Ricciardelli et al 2007a). They are probably associated not only to functional reasons associated with masculine ideals, but also to physical work (Ricciardelli et al 2007b). Although no prevalence estimates of clinically significant levels of body dissatisfaction are available for men, the trend is evident in different world sites; Africa included (Chen, Gao & Jackson 2007; Frederick et al 2007; Karazsia & Crowter 2009). Contrasting results, however, exist and they are due to the fact that studies failed to separate indices of muscle and fat for body dissatisfaction in males (Cohane & Pope 2001; van der Berg et al 2007).
Major transformations of feminine body image have been recently reported in Mauritania (Tauzin & Gonzales Diez 2008), even if the “traditional build” (magnifying roundness and fatness) for women body shape persists, as found in Moroccan Sahroui women (Rguibi & Belahsen 2006), in Ghana (Duda et al 2007), but not in Moroccan migrants (Nicolaou et al 2008). A transition of attitudes is suspected for north and Sub-Saharan countries (Holdsworth 2009). However, a protective role of age and religion is claimed for unhealthy drive for thinness in women, as both middle aged and zealously religious women are lesser prone to the slenderness diktats  (Dunkel, Davidson & Kurashi 2010).  The fact is that many religions have guidelines about behaviour and dress, and this could influence followers’ view of their body, both in a positive or in a negative sense. The role of religion was found to be important in Ghana by Bennett et al (2004), as 1.5% of the female students checked had a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 15.5%, where “self-starvation” was likely the cause: food restriction was viewed positively and in religious terms. In South Africa, one or two decades ago, a number of researchers reported that non-Westernised and even college-age black women adopted larger ideal body size, but the acculturation process was claimed to induce BI dissatisfaction and eating disturbances (for references see: Senekal et al 2001). Wassenaar et al (2000) observed significant eating disorder pathology in South African women across ethnic diversity. Recent studies carried out in Austral Africa, with different purposes and using different procedures, have shown that asymmetries between the traditional cultural expectations and the images required by modern society for women exist (Bohlmann,Van Heerden & Olivier 2001; Szabo & Allwood 2006). In 2001, the ideal body size desired by white girls was smaller than that of the mixed race or black girls, so was their dissatisfaction with the body (Caradas, Lambert & Charlton 2001). Differences between black girls of urban and rural origins were found in 2001 by Senekal et al. In 2003 Edwards et al. did not find differences between black and white female students for behaviours associated to eating disorders, while for Carney & Louw (2006), media-driven messages are simply co-factors inducing eating disorders. According to the Mwaba & Roman’s study (2009), the majority of black university students were satisfied with their BI, even if a minority of girls were showing behaviours possibly leading to eating disorders. According to the study of Puoane, Tsolekile & Stein (2010), opinions and beliefs about BI start in adolescence: in black girls thinness was associated to HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, while its possible advantage was the possibility to a lower proneness to chronic diseases due to lifestyle factors, such as diabetes and hypertension. Fatness, for 75% of the girls, was considered as being a sign of wealth and happiness. A study on BMI and ethnicity among black and white professional women carried out by Hewat & Arndt (2009), indicated that BMI and ethnicity were significantly and independently related to the body shape image, and that women with higher BMI scores tend to be more concerned about their bodies. In a recent study (Swami et al 2010), rural males and females selected significantly different figurines as most physically attractive compared to urban participants, when administered to the figurine test (a set of figures showing women’s bodies from very slender to very heavy): the heavier figurines were preferred by rural participants. Lower body dissatisfaction was found in low socio-economic status (SES) subjects, with respect to those living in high-SES contexts. Almost all these studies on the possible transitions occurring in the whole African continent conveyed media attention and debates that could be useful for future programming (Szabo, 2002). Socio-economic and political changes are shifting the BI ideals probably in the whole continent, as gender roles, those of women in society, and the ideals for success and attractiveness are contemporaneously changing. Worldwide, the “thin ideal” for women and the “muscular ideal” for men are increasing, and this happens for body dissatisfaction as well (Becker et al 2002; Becker 2004; Frederick, Peplan & Lever 2006; Frederick et al 2007; Swami 2008). The aim of present descriptive study was to collect raw data in young South Africans, in order to add information on BI and body satisfaction/dissatisfaction in that country. We also report some data collected ten years before in Guinea-Bissau, using an analogous procedure. The latter data can be considered as being “historical”, and cannot be used for comparisons, as the inhabitants of the capital city of one of the poorest African countries cannot be compared with Johannesburg, one of the most important African hubs, even diachronically. By way of example, we report the fact that in Bissau adolescents had the possibility to watch television not long before the survey was carried out; while those from Johannesburg had a good selection of television programmes since their childhood. Therefore our focus is mainly on these data.

Materials and methods
Subsequent to ethical approval, a first survey was carried out in Bissau on a sample of on 51 males and 47 females, all of them black, aged respectively 17.7±1.4 and 17.7±1.3 years old in a high school of Bissau (Guinea-Bissau). In the year 2009 it was repeated on 68 black university students in Johannesburg (33 males and 35 females), aged respectively 20.7±3.0 and 19.0±1.9 years old. For BI subjects were administered a modified version of the Fallon & Rozin’s Test (Fallon & Rozin 1985; Rozin & Fallon 1988), using a version modified by Casagrande, Viviani & Grassivaro Gallo (1997) on the basis of the suggestions furnished by Stunkart, Sørensen & Schlusinger (1980). As the original drawings portrayed young white subjects, they were modified changing facial traits and hair styles to hidden ethnicity. The figurine test consisted of 7 line-drawings of men and women’s bodies, arranged from very slender to very heavy, each of them accompanied by numerical values (10=very thin; 90=very heavy). Subjects were asked to select the number below the figure which best illustrated their response to the following questions: 1) How do you currently look (CUR)? 2) Which figure represents how you feel most of the time (FEEL)? 3) How would you like to look (LIKE)? 4) How do others see your figure (OTH)? 5) Which figure is the most attractive to the other sex (ATT)? 6) Which figure of the other sex is more attractive for you (AT-OT)? Subjects were encouraged to use intermediate numbers. In Bissau the items requested were the number 1, 3, 5, and 6. Even if line-drawings test-retest provided a satisfactory construct and reliability (Wertheim, Paxton & Tilgner 2004), and revealed to be age-appropriate and culturally sensitive in South Africa (Bohlmann, Van Heerden & Olivier 2001; Mciza et al 2005), during time the figurine tests have been criticised because of their poor ecological validity  (see for a synthesis: Swami & Tovée, 2007). To reach a more satisfactory picture, the Body Part Satisfaction Scale (BPSS – Berscheid, Walster & Bohrnstedt 1973) was added. It is a 22-item questionnaire asking to evaluate in a 6-levels Likert-type scale (from very satisfied to very unsatisfied) judgements regarding the single parts of the subject’s body. It was also asked the importance attributed by the interviewed to each body part in a dichotomised way (yes/no). This test revealed to be useful to investigate gender similarities and differences for specific body parts in an ideal mate (Montoya 2007; Petrie, Tripp & Harvey 2002). In Bissau, questionnaires in Italian were translated first into Portuguese and then, when needed, into the appropriate local languages using the back translation technique (Breslin, 1970): research collaborators translated the questionnaires into the appropriate local language before an independent translator converted the measure back into Italian. In Johannesburg all tests were administered in English. Once the questionnaires had been completed, anthropometric features were measured. Measures included height (cm), weight (Kg) and triceps skinfold (TRC, mm) according to standardized techniques described by Heyward (1991). Body Mass Index (BMI, as Kg/m2) was then calculated. After this session, participants were debriefed about the nature of the study. All subjects took part voluntarily and anonymously in the survey, and were recruited in two classes in Bissau or belonged to the same study course in South Africa. All of them were asked to report their ethnic group whenever possible, in order to verify whether the ethnic groups distribution in the samples was representative of the average composition of the ethnic groups living in the area or not. In both samples the proportion of the different ethnic groups reflected the average composition of the ethnic groups living in the two towns.


Bissau.In the sample the differences between CUR and LIKE were higher in males (32.5 vs. 41.2) than in females (33.9 vs. 32.9) as the former desired to be stouter than they were. The mean ratings for the figurine test are shown in Table 1

Table 1: Mean ratings for the various items of the Figurine Test
Table 1

ANOVA 2 (CUR-LIKE) x 2 (gender) with repeated measures was applied. Significant differences were found on the main effect (F1,96=6.45, p<.05), on the gender effect (F1,96=5.08, p<.05), with interaction (F1,96=16.32, p<.05), with females having closer expectations than males, who showed a more marked difference. When AT-OT and ATT results were crossed, both genders showed a distorted vision of the expectancies of the other sex: females think that males prefer a thinner figure (31.4), while males preferred more curvaceous woman (35.1). Males believed that the physical structure preferred by woman was close to the score 39.6, while their female counterpart liked more “puny” bodies (31.7), a value that was close to the CUR declared by the boys. For BPSS it appears that the subjects were, on the whole, satisfied with their body aspect, both in the general and the specific body parts, as the average rating is around 5.0 for both genders (slightly higher in girls), a value suggesting a general good satisfaction towards the various body portions. Only three body parts were significantly different between boys and girls: chest [t (95)=3.17, p<.05], ankles [t (95)=2.93, p<.05], and buttocks [t (94)=2.03, p<.05], with average higher values in females. A t-test carried out on all grouped items to evaluate gender discrepancies for body satisfaction/dissatisfaction showed no difference (p>.05).      
Regarding the importance attributed to the various body portions, both genders presented a similar percentage for every body aspect considered. Significant differences were found for chest [χ2

=7.24, df=1, p<.05], abdomen [χ2 =5.09, df=1, p<.05], and ankles [χ2=11.11, df=1, p<.05], with higher values in girls. Table 2 depicts the results. The t-test carried out on the grouped data in order to evaluate in general terms how important was the physical aspect between the two genders, resulted as being significant (t=2.39, p<.05). Girls attributed more importance to their physical aspect than males.

Table 2: Importance attributed to the various body parts
Table 2

The main anthropometric characteristics of the sample are shown in Table 3. The sample contained subjects belonging to 10 different ethnic and mixed groups. The most represented were the Balanta (n=17), Papel (n=16), Fula (n=16), Manjaco (n=16) and Mandingo (n=10) groups. Clearly, physical differences exist among groups: the sample simply depicts a situation occurred in a high school. Interesting were the correlations found between BMI and CUR in girls (r=0.36, p<.05). This suggests that the latter had a quite realistic portrait of their body. Regarding BMI and BPSS, the only significant negative correlation (r=-.32, p<.05) was found in boys for the item face.

Table 3: Main anthropometric characteristics of the sample
Table 3

Johannesburg.  In the sample the differences between CUR and LIKE were higher in females (37.3 vs. 33.0) than in males (35.2 vs. 37.9), with girls desiring a slimmer body figure and boys slightly stouter. However, males resulted as being stable over time (FEEL= 36.6) and aware of the desires of the other sex (ATT= 38.0 vs. AT-OUT of the females = 37.4). Females showed greater discrepancies than males for CUR, FEEL, LIKE and OTH and, not differently from other samples found in literature (Casagrande, Viviani & Grassivaro Gallo 1997; Viviani 2001), they perceived incorrectly the desires of the male counterpart (ATT= 31.4 vs. AT-OUT of the males = 35.8). For the figurine test the average ratings are shown in Table 4.

Table 4: Mean ratings for the various items of the figurine test
Table 4

From results two main constructs were identified: “actual” labelled as ACT (which included CUR-FEEL-OTH) and “expectations” (EXP), which included LIKE and ATT.  ANOVA 2 (ACT-EXP) x 2 (gender) with repeated measures was applied. Here the interaction only resulted as being significant (F1,66=10.70, p<.05), as for girls the difference was more marked.

For BPSS in boys, the highest degree of satisfaction was found for the following body parts: face, hands, skin complexion, and chin; while for girls: mouth, eyes, face and skin complexion. The highest degrees of dissatisfaction were found in males for: thorax, muscular tone, buttocks and arms; while their gender counterpart was mostly dissatisfied for weight, muscular tone, ankles and buttocks. Regarding the importance attributed to the body parts (table 5), no particular differences emerged between genders, apart “buttocks” (χ2=6.7, df=1, p<.05) and ”hips” (χ2=20.3, df=1, p<.001), considered as being much more important in girls. Girls attributed lesser importance to ears (χ2=3.3, df=1, p=.06).

Table 5: Importance attributed to the various body parts.
Table 5

The main anthropometric characteristics are shown in Table 6. Because of their young age, the average BMI values are lower than those of the 1998 Demographic and Health Survey (Puoane et al 2002); than those reported for South Africa and Lesotho by Prentice (2005) and others recently found in two adult Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal samples (Swami et al 2010). The correlations found with BMI resulted as being high and positive for CUR both for males (r=.68, p<.05) and females (r=.75, p<.05). For  FEEL they were, respectively: r=.58, p<.05 and r=.55, p<.05, and for OTH (r=.67, p<.05 and r=.77, p<.05). This symmetry between morphology and BI indicates that subjects have a good and realistic portrait of themselves. Regarding the body parts, significant positive correlations (p<.05) emerged for: weight (r=.40), arms (r=.34), abdomen (r=.40), legs (.37) and the overall aspect (r=.37) in girls.

Table 6: Main anthropometric characteristics of the sample.
Table 6

Discussion and conclusion
Research in low income and quickly developing countries has reliably documented that attitudes towards BI are due to temporal, cross-cultural and individual changes. SES status appears to be influent, as the higher the SES, the slimmer is the body ideal for women (Swami et al 2010). For South Africa, as a result for the socio-economic, cultural and political changes that occurred over recent decades, reports indicate that young black women are becoming dissatisfied with their BI, even in rural areas (Seed et al 2004). Not many data are available for young men. For women, this attitude is attributed to: a) media-driven messages supporting the idea that “thinness equal beauty”; b) the need of girls to be different from their mothers and grand-mothers: as traditional clothing is designed “to fit all”, they want to demarcate themselves using modern clothing that is manufactured only in small sizes; c) due to the empowerment of South African women, for the first time girls have the possibility to choose their own size, escaping from male dictates. Urbanisation and increasing role choice are supposed to be the main factors involved (Szabo 2002; Szabo & Allwood 2006). This transition of attitudes, however, is supposed to be at work in many North and Sub-Saharan African countries (Holdsworth 2009). The role of socio-cultural factors (SCF) is essential for the development of BI concerns for both sexes and the shifting of attitudes. SCF affect internalisation, or the extent to which individuals endorse societal standards of attractiveness as personal relevant beliefs. The individuals vulnerable to develop a negative BI are those who have internalised societal standards (Thompson & Stice 2001). They usually show a low self-esteem (Clay, Vignoles & Dittmar 2005), while low scores of measure of internalisation were found in individuals having self-concept clarity, that are non-conformist and have a good acceptance of themselves (Vartanian 2009). SCF are therefore very important. In Africa there are countries that are quickly changing, so the transitions that an individual must face are probably higher. The traditional beliefs about the body are compared to the pervasiveness of the unrealistic idealized bodies presented in the media, and this could be very conflicting. However, the subjects of our samples appear to have an overall “realistic” image of themselves and therefore they appear to be somehow protected with regard to the detrimental effects of a negative BI (mainly low self-esteem and eating disorders). The body parts they considered important and showing differences were those connected to sex-linked physical appearance.
Bissau results (figurine test) show that boys would like to be stouter and, on the average, they imagine that girls prefer “stouter” physique, even if the average value they choose as CUR is very close to that preferred by girls. This could be due to the fact that they are still adolescents or post-adolescents and therefore with a tendency towards ectomorphism that is usually not well accepted by these youngsters (Viviani, Bortoli & Robazza 1995). Of course, adolescents are also more prone to masculine diktats. Girls show to be more realistic. In fact their average scores are very close in all the categories investigated. The only discrepancy regards the fact that they imagine that boys desire “thinner” girls, while their gender counterpart choose a figurine that is bigger than the one they imagined. These results, however, are ten years old, therefore a new survey in Bissau will reasonably furnish different results.
Male students from Johannesburg do not show great discrepancies on the average scores of the figurine test, and they offer a correct interpretation of the desires of their female counterpart - that is also “in line” with their expectations. Girls feel themselves bigger than they are and would like to be slimmer. This has been found in many studies worldwide (Petrie, Tripp & Harvey 2002; Viviani 2001).  Contrarily to boys, they imagine that the same age boys prefer a girl that is slimmer than they would like to be. In this way they  misunderstand their male coetaneous expectations, as the most attractive figurine for boys was, on average, very close to the one chosen by the girls to describe themselves. This is a results frequently found in Italy (for a summary, see: Viviani 2001), and have been recently highlighted in South Africa by Maimon (2008). The fact that boys are more realistic than girls in Johannesburg, and vice versa in Bissau, can be ascribed to the different SES (and temporal) conditions, giving different opportunities to the genders and therefore changing not only the traditional gender- and role-based expectations, but also the way in which standards of attractiveness are introjected. These are also connected to the perceived empowerment of women (Seed et al 2004). Probably some of the girls from Johannesburg are more vulnerable to developing a negative body image, even if the good correlations found with BMI and the figurine test results, are a circumstantial evidence that their “realism” might serve as a protective factor with respect to the effects of negative body image. In effect, there is considerable evidence that body dissatisfaction predicts dietary restraint in girls that is related to bulimic symptoms (Shroff & Thompson 2006). The average results of the BPSS test however, are interesting. Usually both sexes express preferences for health-predicting body parts: ordinarily waist, and chest/breast in an ideal mate. Males are expected to emphasize in females body parts associated to fertility and youth, while females those associated with dominance and strength for men (Buss 2004). Between males and females variations exist regarding the different physical attributes considered sexually appealing. Males, for example, are first sexually attracted to female bodies according to the image they have in mind, and certain parts of the female body have special sexual significance for most males, especially at the beginning of relationships. In Bissau more girls than boys were in general satisfied with their bodies and the differences found regarded body parts that could be ascribed on the emphasis that culture place on waist, hips and chest, because specific body parts are predictive of reproductive potential (Montoya 2007). In Johannesburg the most worrying parts were those believed to be important for the other sex: ankles, buttocks, muscular tone for both sexes, and thorax for males and weight for girls. These concerns are perhaps connected to attractiveness judgements. If facial attractiveness is a general desideratum for beauty, what is changing in many African cultures is the image of the body parts that are traditionally building the female beauty: plumpness or roundness as well as a jutting backside. In the Johannesburg female sample the highest scores of satisfaction regarded the facial parts, while those of dissatisfaction were the body parts that are at present under the pressure of the media, that are gradually changing expectations. A comparison between the two samples is not possible, but permits some considerations. The gender differences found (males that are in general more “realistic” in Johannesburg than girls and vice versa in Bissau), could be ascribed to the fact that the Western Africa sample was more anchored to its traditional beliefs, while its austral counterpart is more “globalized”. In a recent online survey carried out on about a thousand of black and white economically active  South Africans (Todd, Hooper & Lowe 2013), only 22% of the interviewed were happy with the way they looked, with 31% of the black males more likely to feel happy with their looks (versus 21% of the white males). Black females, at 28%, resulted to be far more likely than white females (10%) satisfied with their general aspect. Clearly, differences in stereotypes exist between black and whites, with dissimilarities in considering attractiveness: an Euro-centric good look (often portrayed by media) does not completely fit from an Afro-centric good look. Of course, different degrees of media exposure could play an important role (Luff & Gray 2009; Wasylkiw et al 2009), an aspect that has not been investigated here.

Practical implications
In conclusion, there are limits in this study, mainly due to the paucity of the samples and the non ”transferability” of the findings (or the impracticability to generalise its findings to other populations). However, they could be useful as, according to Maimon (2008) there is need of explorative studies in African different countries (having all their unique history and cultures), because, despite the lot of literature on BI, the tendency is to privilege altered BI, eating disorders and the media. The few studies carried out in Africa privilege racial differences and/or they are focused on black women’s BI. Therefore the present survey is dedicated to furthering the cause of data collection, that could be useful for future investigations and comparisons in a continent facing rapid transitions, due to changes in lifestyle (for a good and deep analysis of these transitions, inclusive of the physical activity aspects, see: Katzmarzyk & Mason 2009).


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