Talking About Weight With Aboriginal Women

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Gail Marchessault

It is a commonly held belief among health professionals that weight preoccupation is not prevalent in Aboriginal communities. Yet my research shows that it may be more of a problem than most people suspect. In 1996- 1997 I did a study with 80 Grade 8 girls and their mothers from Winnipeg and southern Manitoba. Half of the families were Aboriginal with half of those living in a First Nations community. More Aboriginal than non-Aboriginal girls and mothers reported dissatisfaction with their bodies. Using a scale showing pictures of body shapes, 83% of Aboriginal women indicated they would like to be smaller than their current shape, compared to 62% of non-Aboriginal women. Almost twice as many Aboriginal girls (66%) as non-Aboriginal girls (36%) indicated unhappiness with their size.

About one quarter of the girls and a third of the women reported they were currently dieting. Rates of dieting were highest for the families living in the First Nations community. Using the Eating Attitudes Test-26, 17.5% of Aboriginal girls (and 2.5% of non- Aboriginal girls) had scores suggestive of risk for an eating disorder. One in four of the girls from the First Nations community reported having vomited for weight loss. In addition, some Aboriginal women recalled a history of risky eating behaviours, indicating these concerns have existed for at least a generation.

There is growing attention to the high incidence of diabetes in Aboriginal communities and maintenance of a healthy weight is often a focus of health promotion activities. However, those doing this health education work need to consider that some Aboriginal girls and women living in or close to an urban centre may be preoccupied with their weight and may already be using risky methods to control their weight.

Gail Marchessault, R.D., PHEc, Ph.D is Assistant Professor in the Department of Foods and Nutrition at the University of Manitoba. This research was done for her Ph.D. thesis for the University of Manitoba.