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Strong cultural identity increases resilience to ward off risks of disordered eating in Asian-American women

Asian-American women and other minorities often internalize Western media beauty ideals, which can make them susceptible to developing disordered eating symptoms, says Hsiu-Lan Cheng, an assistant professor of counseling and educational psychology in New Mexico State University?s College of Education.


Head and shoulders photo of a woman.
Hsiu-Lan Cheng, an assistant professor of counseling and educational psychology in New Mexico State University?s College of Education, says strong cultural identity increases resilience to ward off risks of disordered eating in Asian-American women. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips)

Cheng said therapists and teachers can play a big role in preventing this possibility by working with clients and students to encourage ethnic pride.

Cheng?s findings are based on a study of more than 500 Asian and Asian-American college women. An article based on her study will be published in the July issue of The Counseling Psychologist, which is published eight times a year by the American Psychological Association?s Division of Counseling Psychology.

?We need to understand that disordered eating problems go beyond the typical social factors,? Cheng said. ?Ethnic minority stresses, such as ethnic teasing and redicule, send the messages that one?s racial/ethnic features are not welcomed. Such stresses can increase pressure in young women to adopt Western beauty norms, making them susceptible to developing negative eating behaviors.?

Cheng said therapists should ask minority clients who have symptoms of an eating disorder about their past experiences with ethnic teasing and other self-esteem issues.

?People tend to internalize Western ideals of beauty when they are feeling teased because of their ethnicity,? she said. ?Therapists can help clients reflect and become aware of how ethnic discrimination and teasing has made them self-conscious about their appearance.?

Therapists might be able to reduce disordered eating directly by helping Asian-American women confront racial discrimination and how it impacts their self-appraisal, as well as exploring their level of ethnic identity and how it impacts their resilience to internalizing Western media beauty norms.

She said society needs to work toward changing how the media portrays beauty and work toward preventing racial/ethnic teasing and discrimination. Cheng said it is important to start in schools by educating youth of all groups to appreciate racial and ethnic diversity and for minority students to appreciate their racial physical distinctiveness.

Although internalizing Western media beauty ideals has long been associated with disordered eating symptoms in research, Cheng?s study is an incremental step in understanding how racial and cultural factors impact that internalization by minorities.

Before joining the NMSU faculty in 2011, Cheng worked as a counseling psychologist at the University of Michigan for five years. Her goal and identity as a scientist-practitioner is to better bridge scientific research and clinical practice. Earlier this year, she was named to the 99 Top Professors in Counseling, Psychology and Therapy in the Masters in Counseling Information Guide. She has a doctorate from the University of Missouri-Columbia.