Role Models

Ndidi Moses touches the cover of Cosmopolitan. The woman under the title is thin and white, with strawberry-blonde hair and azure eyes. She wears a come-hither look and a white lace dress that leaves her torso almost bare. "That dress is beautiful," Moses says, running her fingers across the page. "You couldn't wear it out, but for a fashion show . . . I wonder if that's her real body."

woman poses in front of clothing store window

Moses, a media studies major at Penn State, is a slight woman with mahogany skin and short, dark hair, who smiles a broad, friendly smile that crinkles her eyes. She dresses smartly in fitted jeans, colorful sweaters, and high-soled shoes. But Moses' interest in self-image goes deeper than simply following fashion. Last summer, she conducted an experiment to determine if the race and weight of models in magazines like Cosmo affected African American women's self-esteem and desire to be thin. "In the past," Moses says, "people assumed that African American women had a strong sense of self not influenced by the media. But there haven't been many studies done on them specifically."

Moses herself exemplifies the self-confident African American woman. She, like both her parents, was born in Guyana, South America, a culturally diverse country with six main populations: Indian, Chinese, Indigenous, Black, Portuguese, and White. When her family moved to Brooklyn, shortly after her birth, her parents strove to teach their children self-respect and ethnic pride. "We grew up knowing our West Indian heritage, knowing African American heritage, loving and understanding it all. My parents were very into making us understand that we were individuals; we did not have to be like everyone else. We grew up in that mindset, kind of like in a bubble," Moses says, cupping air in her hands as if holding her bubble childhood between them.

But Moses admits that media images have influenced her. "I was always pretty thin in high school. I used to design clothes, and I always wanted to be a model. But I never really thought about my weight until I gained 20 pounds my first year in college. Then I went to Disney World on my advertising co-op and I lost 25. Quickly. I thought I looked great. But now, I look at pictures of myself and I realize I looked like I was starving. Because I was involved in fashion, I think I was seeing that ideal model figure in the back of my head."

Moses' project grew out of this experience. After she returned from Florida, she began noticing contradictions in her friends' reactions to images of thin women. She wondered if African American women who viewed images of thin models experienced a drop in self-esteem and a desire to be thin. She also wondered if the race of the model mattered.

Moses compiled four booklets of ads. Each contained images of certain types of women: thin white, thin black, overweight white, or overweight black. She showed one booklet to each of 48 randomly chosen African American women on campus. She then gave each woman a questionnaire, which measured drive for thinness and immediate changes in self-esteem —not necessarily long-term effects.

The results were not what she expected. The women's desire to be thin did intensify when their self-esteem dropped. But the only women whose self-esteem fell were those who viewed the booklets of thin black women. Even then, their self-esteem as a whole didn't change much. Only one aspect of it noticeably dropped: intellectual confidence. The questionnaire measured this factor with prompts like, "I feel as smart as others," on a scale of one to five. "It took me a while to figure out exactly what was causing it," Moses says. "I decided that it probably had to do with conflicting images, because they also rated the overweight black models as the most realistic. I think because they saw the overweight images as realistic, seeing the images of thin black women made them question themselves." She stops to think for a moment, shifting in her chair. "It's like if your mother raised you to wear a scarf, and everybody in your town always wore scarves, but then you went to college and no one was wearing them. You wonder, 'Why am I wearing a scarf?' You start to question yourself."

She opens the issue of Cosmo and finds the first ad portraying a black woman—almost 20 pages in. The woman is modeling flowery underwear; her hip bones jut out above the waistband. Moses points at the picture. "African American women looking at these images might say, out loud, 'She's too skinny. She shouldn't be this thin.' And they really think she's too thin. They know that most black women don't look like that, but in my study they were looking at a booklet full of thin black women, so they began to question their knowledge base. Maybe deep down they started wondering, 'Should I look like that?'"

The women who viewed images of white models weren't affected at all. "White women—total dissociation," she says, shaking her head. "It could be that because they're not used to seeing thin black women, psychologically they associate thinness with white women because that's what appears in the media. And black women don't appear in abundance in magazines as being thin. Even on TV a lot of black women appear pretty voluptuous."

The women Moses tested also rated overweight black models as attractive as thin black models. As Moses points out, "Different cultures have different ideas of beauty," Moses says. "In Guyana, my sister went to a fashion show where three of the models were what you would call 'universal models'—very thin and tall. And the audience booed them.They were calling them maga, which means thin or starved. And to me that was interesting. They were saying, 'Oh my God, get off the stage! What is she wearing? I can't look.'" She covers her face and averts her eyes. Looking up again, she continues, "I mean, comments you would usually associate with fat women in the U.S., like 'Oh my God, I don't want to see the cellulite.'" According to Moses, cultural differences like these also occur among Americans of different backgrounds.

Moses believes the self-esteem test she used contributed to her experiment's unusual results. The test, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, did not originally work. Its authors had separated the questions into three categories: performance self-esteem, appearance self-esteem, and social self-esteem. But the women in Moses' experiment did not differentiate between the categories. Moses explains, "If I created a test to distinguish apples from oranges, I might say: If it is an orange it is round, orange colored, has seeds, and if it is an apple it is round, red or green colored, and has seeds. This might help determine the differences for some people, but say there is a place in the world where oranges are greenish as well as orange. In this case the two categories no longer effectively determine one fruit from another. The same is true for the self-esteem test." To increase the test's accuracy, Moses and her adviser, Shyam Sethuraman, separated the same questions into 11 more specific categories, such as intellectual confidence, weight apprehension, and self satisfaction.

"The effect that I found—the drop in intellectual confidence—it's not a big effect, but it shows that African American women are affected by the media," Moses says, "and I think they should be aware of that." Moses believes that teaching children about the media is the best way to promote such awareness. After graduate school she hopes to create an institute to improve the relationship between children and the media. She has dreamed of founding the institute since she began working with the Children's Defense Fund in high school. Talking about her years as a counselor in their summer LEAP program in inner city New Haven, Connecticut, Moses' voice quiets and intensifies. "To work there, you have to have the mindset that you are in a movement; you have to be a person who wants to change the world. If you come in saying, 'I want to make a difference,' then everything is worth it."

One of her goals is to create a media literacy curriculum for public schools. She hopes to teach children what the media does and how it might affect them. "Television is their teacher. Children don't understand how to decipher the messages it sends—political, social. They need to learn how to grow from it instead of being grown by it. So when children are five years old and they watch Disney's Snow White, they understand not just that Snow White is a perfect little princess who has pale skin and black hair, but that you don't have to be like Snow White to be good, and you don't have to be fair to be pretty."

Ndidi Moses, a McNair Scholar, graduated in May 2000 with a B.A. in media studies from the College of Communications. She was the overall winner of this year's Undergraduate Research Fair. Her research paper was published in the 1999 McNair Scholars Journal. Her adviser is Shyam Sundar Sethuraman, Ph.D., assistant professor of media studies and director of the Media Effects Research Lab in the College of Communications, 212 Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2173; Writer Marleah Peabody graduated in May 2000 with a B.A. and honors in English. Photographer Rob Gonzalez is an undergraduate majoring in journalism.

Last Updated June 14, 2021