“Pretty Hurts”: Acceptance of Hegemonic Feminine Beauty Ideals and Reduced Sexual Well-Being Among Black Women

April 30, 2021

by Lanice R. Avery

Alexis G.StantonbL. MoniqueWardcElizabeth R.ColedSarah L.TrinhcMorgan C.Jeralde


1. Introduction

In the United States, girls are taught from an early age that attractive appearance is essential to the feminine gender role, that beautiful women are viewed more positively than less attractive women, and that women should prioritize their physical attractiveness as a means to attain social status (Arroyo & Andersen, 2016Ogle, Reddy-Best, & Park, 2017). To our knowledge, few studies have explored whether embracing restrictive beauty ideals influences women’s sexual attitudes and behaviors (see Curtin, Ward, Merriwether, & Caruthers, 2011Impett, Schooler, & Tolman, 2006), and even fewer have examined these associations among Black women, who are socialized to endorse both restrictive hegemonic beauty standards and more expansive, culturally-specific appearance ideals (Jerald, Cole, Ward, & Avery, 2017Jerald, Ward, Moss, Thomas, & Fletcher, 2017). The studies that focused on Black women’s perceptions of beauty and attractiveness (e.g., Cole & Zucker, 2007) shed no light on the ways that their negotiation of appearance expectations impacts their sexual functioning. Therefore, this study examined how Black women’s acceptance and investment in hegemonic, Eurocentric standards of beauty associate with their affective and physical sexual well-being.

1.1. Hegemonic beauty standards

Hegemonic beauty standards include features associated with the Eurocentric aesthetic, the thin ideal, and investment in appearance. A Eurocentric aesthetic is prized in popular culture in the United States; value is placed on fair skin, light colored eyes, hair that is long, straight, and light in color, and smaller facial features and thinner bodies (Awad et al., 2015). Conversely, features that are associated with an African-centered aesthetic (e.g., darker skin, larger/curvier bodies, short and kinky/curly hair, full lips, wider noses) are considered less attractive and less feminine (Awad et al., 2015Cunningham, Roberts, Barbee, Druen, & Wu, 1995Englis, Solomon, & Ashmore, 1994Solomon, Ashmore, & Longo, 1992). Within the U.S., these standards of beauty also include idealization and the achievement of the thin ideal (e.g., Harrison, 2003Hesse-Biber, Livingstone, Ramirez, Barko, & Johnson, 2010).

The achievement of beauty demands that women invest time and money in their appearance (e.g., dress, cosmetic use, hair styling; Cash, Melnyk, & Hrabosky, 2004). Women who internalize hegemonic notions of feminine appearance may judge themselves harshly against societal standards of beauty as a measure of their own self-worth, in which case, the degree to which they engage in behaviors to enhance their appearance may be linked to their body satisfaction and self-esteem (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997McKinley & Hyde, 1996Siegel & Calogero, 2019). Women with high appearance investment have reported poorer body image and quality of life, and increased use of avoidant body image coping strategies (Cash et al., 2004Cash, Santos, & Williams, 2005). In addition, internalizing the thin ideal is associated with poorer well-being, including greater self-objectification, body surveillance, body shame, appearance anxiety, disordered eating, and lower self-esteem (Dakanalis et al., 2014Schaefer, Burke, & Thompson, 2019Siegel & Calogero, 2019).

1.2. Black women and hegemonic beauty standards

Hegemonic beauty standards for Black women in the U.S. carry a degree of complexity, as Black women are socialized to endorse both restrictive hegemonic beauty standards and culturally-specific appearance ideals. On the one hand, the status advantages that White women receive for fulfilling hegemonic femininity ideals also apply to Black women in many ways. For example, it has been found that Black women are judged more favorably when their appearance closely approximates Whiteness (i.e., having lighter skin) and aligns with hegemonic beauty ideals, including being thin and more feminine in their gender expression (Awad et al., 2015Watson, Lewis, & Moody, 2019). At the same time, within the African-American community, beauty ideals appear to advantage a slightly larger body, but also place heavy emphasis on a feminine appearance. Therefore, although Black women are accepting of larger body sizes and report greater satisfaction with their body size despite generally higher average weights than White women (Cash et al., 2004Shoneye, Johnson, Croker, Steptoe, & Wardle, 2011), they also face pressure to fulfill hegemonic beauty standards. Indeed, Black women may evaluate themselves according to the curvaceous, or “thick” body ideal (Capodilupo, 2015Dawson-Andoh, Gray, Soto, & Parker, 2011Harrison, 2003), yet their desire for curves is limited to those that appear on slim bodies; thinness, as opposed to fatness, remains an important marker of physical attractiveness for Black women (Capodilupo, 2015Dawson-Andoh et al., 2011Overstreet, Quinn, & Agocha, 2010). And, compared to White women, Black women place greater importance on creating and maintaining feminine appearance, including clothing and makeup (Cole & Zucker, 2007).

Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2003) defined the Lily Complex as a process of altering and covering up one’s physical self in order to assimilate and be accepted as attractive according to Eurocentric standards. They argued that the pressure to meet a beauty standard that is inauthentic and often unattainable may lead Black women to loathe their natural appearance and believe they are undeserving of pleasure, safety, health, success, and esteem. Accordingly, we speculate that because Black women are expected to fulfill hegemonic beauty standards that are both culturally incongruent and inextricably connected to their subjective self-worth, they may be especially vulnerable to the adverse outcomes associated with the internalization of beauty standards.

1.3. Hegemonic beauty standards and sexual well-being: affect and experiential agency

For women, feeling comfortable with one’s body and appearance is linked in many ways to one’s sexual well-being (see Gillen & Markey, 2019, for review). For example, Dove and Wiederman (2000) found that women’s preoccupation with their physical appearance was associated with sexual dissatisfaction and dysfunction. Similarly, research has linked higher levels of body self-consciousness with lower subjective sexual well-being and agency (Curtin et al., 2011Sanchez & Kiefer, 2007Yamamiya, Cash, & Thompson., 2006). In contrast, women who express more positive feelings about their bodies demonstrate better sexual adjustment, including higher sexual desire in response to erotic stimuli, and lower levels of sexual anxiety, avoidance, and sexual dysfunction (Pujols, Meston, & Seal, 2010Wiederman, 2000). These findings reflect the fact that because women’s sexual desirability is often equated with their physical attractiveness (Gillen & Markey, 2019), sexual intimacy may pique women’s appearance-related concerns, which may negatively impact their experience of sex, including their sexual well-being (Laumann et al., 2006). Self-objectification and body surveillance concerns may heighten during partnered sexual activity due to the degree of body exposure, and thus women with physical characteristics that deviate from hegemonic beauty standards may be vulnerable to appearance-related deficits in sexual well-being (Dakanalis et al., 2014Schaefer et al., 2019).

Although little is known about the influence of Black women’s endorsement of hegemonic beauty standards on their sexual well-being, these findings lead us to speculate that their endorsement of hegemonic beauty standards is likely associated with reduced sexual well-being. The purpose of the present study is therefore twofold: One, we assess Black women’s acceptance of hegemonic standards of beauty. Two, we examine the sociocultural liabilities of restrictive beauty ideal acceptance for the sexual well-being of Black women. We move beyond notions of risk, which dominate previous research on Black women’s sexual health (Hargons et al., 2018Morgan, 2015), to conceptualize their sexual well-being in terms of their experience of sexual affect and sexual agency. Because these are both rich and multi-dimensional constructs, we have sought to tap and assess diverse components (Curtin et al., 2011Laumann et al., 2006Zimmer-Gembeck & French, 2016).

1.3.1. Sexual affect Sexual guilt, shame, and distancing

Among women, actual or perceived failure to adhere to traditional feminine prescriptions often evokes feelings of guilt, shame, irresponsibility, and low self-esteem (Zahn-Waxler, Cole, & Barrett, 1991). Women’s experiences of guilt, shame, and emotional distancing (i.e., limited intimacy or emotional involvement during sex) have been linked to restricted sexual behavior and interest, lower sexual satisfaction, refusal to seek out sexual information, feelings of sexual inadequacy, low sexual self-worth, and negative affective reactions following sex or exposure to explicitly sexual material (Birnbaum, 2007Higgins, Mullinax, Trussell, Davidson, & Moore, 2011). Much of this research was based on samples of predominantly White college students. Nevertheless, given the findings suggesting that Black women are highly invested in physical appearance and attractiveness and that they spend more money on beauty and grooming (Cole & Zucker, 2007Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2003), we expected similar trends among Black women. Sexual self-consciousness

Among predominately White samples, women often report feeling self-conscious about their appearance during intimacy, specifically expressing concerns about being perceived as fat by their partners (e.g., Harrison, 2003Weaver & Byers, 2006). Women’s heightened awareness and monitoring of their physical appearance during intimacy detract from their ability to focus on their own sexual desires and satisfaction (Dove & Wiederman, 2000Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997Newcombe & Weaver, 2016). For example, women’s self-evaluations that were based on a viewer’s perspective of their appearance and performance were related to lower sexual arousal and increased experiences of pain during sex (Meston, 2006). Although the extant literature does not address Black women’s specific experiences, based on Jones and Shorter-Gooden’s articulation of the Lily Complex, we speculated that their endorsement of hegemonic beauty ideals would be associated with increased body self-consciousness during sex.


Hegemonic feminine beauty ideal acceptance (European beauty ideal acceptance, thinness internalization, and appearance investment) will be associated with reduced sexual affect, including more experiences of sexual guilt and shame, emotional distancing during sex, and sexual self-consciousness during sexual interactions.

1.3.2. Sexual agency

Sexual agency refers to the ability to identify, communicate, and satisfy one’s sexual needs and comprises multiple dimensions, including sexual assertiveness, feelings of entitlement to pleasure, and sexual satisfaction (Chmielewski, Bowman, & Tolman, 2020Grower & Ward, 2018). Greater body appreciation among women is associated with an increased sense of entitlement to pleasure (Grower & Ward, 2018). However, when women feel insecure or self-conscious about their physical appearance during sex, they may feel less deserving of sexual pleasure, which may undermine their ability to engage in sexually assertive behaviors (Chmielewski et al., 2020Sanchez & Kiefer, 2007Wiederman, 2000). Furthermore, traditional gender ideology adherence is related to reduced sexual satisfaction in women (Sanchez & Kiefer, 2007Sanchez, Phelan, Moss-Racusin, & Good, 2012). As such, women who engage in submissive behavior may perceive themselves as lacking sexual autonomy, which in turn is associated with lower sexual satisfaction (Sanchez & Kiefer, 2007). However, few studies have investigated Black women’s sexual agency. Given that hegemonic body image concerns and distracting appearance-related thoughts during sex are negatively correlated with sexual efficacy, esteem, and satisfaction (Pujols et al., 2010), we proposed the following hypothesis:


Hegemonic feminine beauty ideal acceptance will be associated with lower levels of sexual assertiveness, entitlement to sexual pleasure, and sexual satisfaction.

2. Method

2.1. Participants and procedure

Participants (N = 640) were self-identified Black female undergraduate and graduate (M = 21.59 years; SD = 3.80) students recruited from two U.S. universities over a 2-year period from January 2013 through April 2015: (1) a large, predominately White, Midwestern public university (n = 382); (2) a small, historically Black Southeastern public university (n = 258). Data from this study are part of a larger survey and have been used in previous analyses (see erald, Cole et al., 2017Jerald, Ward et al., 2017Ward, Jerald, Avery, & Cole, 2019). Students were selected using demographic information provided by each university’s Registrar’s Office and were invited to participate in an hour-long, anonymous, online survey that examined the health and well-being of Black women. All participants were compensated with a $25 VISA gift card.

Most of the sample identified as Black/African American (81.1 %), whereas another 10.8 % identified as Bi/Multi-racial, 2.8 % as African, 2.0 % as West Indian/Caribbean, 1.5 % as Afro-Latina (e.g., South or Central American, Dominican, Puerto Rican), and 2.0 % as Other. Additionally, the sample came from relatively well-educated backgrounds. On average, 23.5 % of their mothers and 16.8 % of their fathers had completed bachelor’s degrees, and another 18.6 % of mothers and 14.9 % of fathers had earned a graduate or professional degree. Nearly 93.1 % of participants described their sexual experiences as exclusively or predominantly heterosexual; 72.7 % of the sample reported having engaged in vaginal intercourse; and of those with coital experience, 33.6 % reported having more than five lifetime sexual partners.

Participants completed a broad range of measures assessing feminine beauty ideal acceptance and affective and experiential sexual well-being.

2.2. Measures

2.2.1. Hegemonic feminine beauty ideal acceptance European beauty ideal acceptance

We used the 12-item Image Acceptance Measure (Plybon, Pegg, & Reed, 2003) to examine the degree to which Black women endorse traditional European standards of beauty, such as lighter skin tone, straight and long hair, and thin body. The scale also measures Black women’s acceptance of artificial enhancements to achieve a more European appearance (e.g., alterations of natural hair and desire to alter Afrocentric facial features). Sample items include “Straightened hair looks better than natural hair,” and “I think guys prefer girls who have lighter skin.” Participants rated twelve items on a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree), and a mean score was computed such that higher scores indicate greater preference for European beauty ideals and lower scores indicate greater preference of Afrocentric beauty ideals. The internal consistency of the scores for our sample were good (α = .88). This measure was validated and demonstrated good internal consistency in the original study (α = .78). Thin-ideal and appearance investment

We used two 5-item subscales from the Conformity to Femininity Norms Inventory-45 (Mahalik et al., 2005Parent & Moradi, 2010) to measure the extent to which participants internalized two appearance-related dimensions of traditional femininity: Idealization of Thinness (sample item is “I would be happier if I was thinner”) and Investment in Appearance (sample item is “I regularly wear makeup”). One item from the Investment subscale (“I never wear makeup”) was excluded for redundancy. Participants rated the items on a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Responses were averaged to create a mean score, with higher scores indicating greater acceptance of the appearance-related dimensions. Internal consistency for the Idealization of Thinness subscale was strong (α = .86), while the consistency for the Investment in Appearance subscale was not as strong (α = .57). In a sample of 197 diverse undergraduate women, the two subscales demonstrated good internal consistency (Idealization of Thinness: α = .87 ; Investment in Appearance: α = .82; Siegel & Calogero, 2019); the validity of the measure was supported by its positive correlations with other femininity measures and its negative correlations with the BSRI Masculine Identity Scale (Mahalik et al., 2005Parent & Moradi, 2010).

2.2.2. Sexual affect measures Sexual guilt, shame, and distancing

Subscales of the 10-item Women’s Sexual Working Models Scale (Birnbaum & Reis, 2006) were used to measure two dimensions of negative sexual affect: Sexual Guilt/Shame and Emotional Distancing. Participants rated the extent to which specific activities or attributes apply to them using a 9-point scale (1 = very uncharacteristic of me to 9 = very characteristic of me). Sample items include “Sexual activity makes me feel ashamed” (Sexual Guilt/Shame subscale, 6-items, α = .94) and “During sexual activity, intruding thoughts often distract me” (Emotional Distancing subscale, 4-items, α = .88). Means were calculated with higher scores indicating more shameful, guilty, and distancing feelings related to sexual activity. The Sexual Guilt/Shame and Emotional Distancing subscales displayed strong internal consistency in the original study (α = .72 to .90, respectively), and convergent validity was supported by positive correlations with measures of attachment anxiety and avoidance (Birnbaum & Reis, 2006). In a sample of 96 women, the subscales demonstrated good internal consistency (Sexual Guilt/Shame: α = .84; Emotional Distancing: α = .79; Birnbaum, 2007). Sexual self-consciousness

The Body Image Self-Consciousness during Intimacy Scale (Wiederman, 2000) examines women’s feelings about their bodies during intimacy with a partner. A sample item is “I could only feel comfortable enough to have sex if it were dark so that my partner could not clearly see my body.” Participants rated 15 items on a 7-point scale (0 = Never to 6 = Always). In this study the measure demonstrated strong internal consistency (α = .91). The scale was validated in an ethnically mixed sample of women (7.6 % Black), and in a sample of 199 women college students (5% Black), the measure demonstrated good reliability (α = .96) (Schooler, Ward, Merriwether, & Caruthers, 2005Wiederman, 2000).

2.2.3. Sexual agency measures Sexual assertiveness

Sexual assertiveness was assessed using the Hurlbert Index of Sexual Assertiveness (Hurlbert, 1991; α = .90). This 25-item instrument is designed to assess the frequency with which respondents engage in activities related to assertive behavior in sexual situations. Participants rated the 25 statements using a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = never to 5 = all of the time). A sample item is “I speak up for my sexual feelings.” Scores across statements were averaged to create a sexual assertiveness index with higher scores indicating higher levels of sexual assertiveness. The scale was validated in a non-clinical sample of women (Hurlbert, 1991). In samples of 214 heterosexual college women (α = .82; Weaver & Byers, 2006) and 631 Black undergraduate students (α = .91; Fletcher et al., 2015), the scale demonstrated good internal consistency. Entitlement to sexual pleasure

The 4-item Entitlement to Sexual Pleasure scale (Day, 2010) was used to measure the extent to which participants emphasize their own sexual pleasure during sexual encounters. Participants were asked to rate the four statements using a 5-point scale (1 = never to 5 = all of the time). A sample item is “I feel entitled to sexual pleasure.” A mean score was computed across the items with higher scores indicating greater feelings of entitlement to experience sexual pleasure during sex. The internal consistency of the scores for our sample was good (α = .86). Day (2010) validated this measure with a sample of Black adolescent and adult women, and in a sample of 555 women (12.4 % Black), the scale showed good reliability (α = .83; Grower & Ward, 2018). Sexual satisfaction

The New Sexual Satisfaction Scale-Short Form (Štulhofer, Buško, & Brouillard, 2011) was used to measure participants’ overall evaluation of their satisfaction with multiple domains of their sexual behavior including frequency of activity, experience of emotional closeness, and quality of sexual sensation and pleasure (α = .95). Participants used a 5-point scale (1 = not at all satisfied to 5 = extremely satisfied) to rate 12 items such as, “The balance between what I give and receive in sex,” and “The quality of my orgasms.” Mean scores were computed with higher scores indicating greater sexual satisfaction. Validity of the scale was supported by its positive correlations with measures of life satisfaction, relationship intimacy, and partner communication and its negative correlation with a measure of sexual boredom (Štulhofer, Buško, & Brouillard, 2010). In a sample of 555 women (12.4 % Black), the scale demonstrated good reliability (α = .95; Grower & Ward, 2018).

2.2.4. Control variables Religiosity

Organizational religious involvement is associated with lower levels of sexual activity and sexual risk-taking, fewer sexual partners, and greater sexual guilt and shame in young Black women (McCree, Wingood, DiClemente, Davies, & Harrington, 2003).To determine the role of religion and spirituality in women’s lives, participants were asked to indicate their organizational religious involvement using a 3-item measure. This measure has been used in prior studies with Black women (e.g., Fletcher et al., 2015) and includes items such as “How often do you attend religious services?” Responses were provided on a 5-point scale (0 = never or not at all to 4 = very or very regularly). Scores on the scale were averaged to create a religiosity index and the scale demonstrated good reliability (α = .78). On average, participants were somewhat religious (M = 3.05, SD = 1.06). Sexual experience

Sexual experience is associated with greater sexual assertiveness (McCree et al., 2003Morokoff et al., 1997) and improved sexual self-concept, such as greater sexual openness and sexual esteem, and less sexual anxiety (Hensel, Fortenberry, O’Sullivan, & Orr, 2011Zimmer-Gembeck & French, 2016). Participants’ level of sexual experience was assessed by asking participants to indicate “yes” or “no” to the following question: “Have you ever had vaginal intercourse?” (M = 0.73, SD = 0.45). Racial identity centrality

Positive and affirming racial identity is associated with less body dissatisfaction and maladaptive eating, and greater body appreciation and appearance evaluations among Black women (Cotter, Kelly, Mitchell, & Mazzeo, 2015Rakhkovskaya & Warren, 2016). We used the Racial Centrality subscale of the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity-Short (Martin, Wout, Nguyen, Sellers, & Gonzalez, 2010) to measure racial identity. Racial centrality is the extent to which respondents feel that being African American is central to their self-definition. A sample item is “Being Black is an important reflection of who I am.” Participants rated four items on a 7-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree), and responses were averaged to create a scale score such that higher scores indicate that the respondent’s racial identity is more integral to their self-concept (M = 5.57, SD = 1.46). The measure demonstrated high internal consistency (α = .92). Socioeconomic status (SES)

Lower SES has been linked with more frequent experiences of sexual victimization in Black women (Russo, Denious, Keita, & Koss, 1997) Similar to previous studies, mother’s level of education was used as a proxy for socioeconomic status (Jerald, Cole et al., 2017Jerald, Ward et al., 2017). Using a single-item, “What is the highest level of education reached by your mother,” responses were measured using a scale anchored by the following options: 1 (a few years of high school) to 10 (Ph.D.). Higher scores presumably reflected higher socioeconomic class status. The young women sampled came from relatively well-educated backgrounds (M = 4.33, SD = 2.02). Age

Age and sexual orientation are associated with sexual satisfaction and well-being (Carcedo, Fernández-Rouco, Fernández-Fuertes, & Martínez-Álvarez, 2020Smith et al., 2019). Participants responded to an open-ended question that asked them to provide their age (in years) (M = 21.59, SD = 3.80). Sexual orientation

Participants indicated their sexual orientation via a single item: “In terms of my sexual orientation, I identify myself as.” Responses were provided on a 6-point scale (1 = exclusively heterosexual/straight, 5 = exclusively homosexual (gay/lesbian), and 6 = other) (M = 1.34, SD = 0.88).

3. Results

3.1. Preliminary analyses

We examined descriptive statistics for the hegemonic feminine beauty ideal acceptance, sexual well-being, and demographic variables (Table 1). Participants reported low to moderate levels of European beauty ideal acceptance. Participants reported low levels of the sexual affect dimensions; however, they reported moderate to high levels of sexual agency.

Table 1. Descriptives of Feminine Beauty Ideal Acceptance, Sexual Well-Being, and Demographic Variables.

  Full Sample [M(SD)] PWI [M(SD)] HBCU [M(SD)] t d
Feminine Beauty Ideal Acceptance          
 Euro. Beauty Ideal 2.35(0.80) 2.38(0.74) 2.30(0.89) 1.30* 0.10
 Thin-Ideal Internalization 3.56(1.33) 3.60(1.37) 3.51(1.27) 0.81 0.07
 Appearance Investment 2.72(0.99) 2.81(1.04) 2.57(0.89) 3.12** 0.25
Sexual Affect          
 Sexual Guilt/Shame 3.11(2.33) 3.09(2.37) 3.13(2.26) −0.25 −0.02
 Sexual Distancing 2.47(1.93) 2.33(1.80) 2.68(2.09) −2.21** −0.18
 Sexual Self-Consciousness 2.36(1.21) 2.39(1.19) 2.33(1.23) 0.62 0.05
Sexual Agency          
 Sexual Assertiveness 3.62(0.74) 3.58(0.77) 3.69(0.68) −1.77 −0.15
 Entitlement to Sexual Pleasure 3.79(1.00) 3.77(0.98) 3.81(1.04) −0.45 −0.04
 Sexual Satisfaction 3.54(1.05) 3.48(1.01) 3.62(1.09) −1.47 −0.13
 Age 21.59(3.80) 21.16(3.41) 22.27(4.26) −3.53 −0.29
 Sexual Orientation 1.34(0.88) 1.32(0.86) 1.36(0.90) −0.47 −0.05
 Religiosity 3.05(1.06) 3.00(1.15) 3.14(0.90) −1.62*** −0.14
 Sexual Experience 0.73(.45) 0.65(0.48) 0.85(0.36) −5.46*** −0.47
 Racial Centrality 5.57(1.46) 5.41(1.61) 5.80(1.20) −3.79*** −0.27
 Mother’s Education 4.33(2.02) 4.69(2.06) 3.76(1.80) 5.70 0.48


Note. *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001. Sexual Orientation is coded 0/1; 0 = predominantly or exclusively straight and 1 = predominantly or exclusively gay. Sexual Experience is coded 0/1; 0 = no previous or current coital experience and 1 = yes, previous or current coital experience. Beauty Ideal = European Beauty Ideal.

To test whether the sub-samples differed on the hegemonic feminine beauty ideal acceptance, sexual well-being, and demographic variables, we conducted a series of independent samples t-tests comparing the scores of the PWI participants to those of the HBCU participants (Table 1). The PWI sample reported higher European beauty ideal acceptance and appearance investment. The HBCU sample reported higher engagement in emotional distancing during sex.

To examine contributions of potential control variables, we conducted a series of zero-order correlations among hegemonic feminine beauty ideal acceptance, sexual well-being, and the following set of demographic variables: age, sexual orientation (via a 0/1 dummy code whereby 1 = predominately or exclusivelyhomosexualHolland, 2020), religiosity, sexual experience, racial identity centrality, mother’s level of education, and school; results are provided in Table 2. To protect against Type I error and the inflation of the alpha level when performing our t-tests and correlation analyses, we used the Holm-Bonferroni Sequential Correction procedure, which retains the conservative nature of a Bonferroni correction but is more powerful in its ability to detect an effect when it exists (Abdi, 2010Gaetano, 2013). We controlled for age, sexual orientation, religiosity, sexual experience, racial centrality, mother’s level of education, and school in the subsequent regression analyses.

Table 2. Intercorrelations among Demographic Covariates, Feminine Beauty Ideal Acceptance, and Sexual Well-Being Dimensions.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
1. Age --                              
2. Sex. Orient. .01 --                            
3. Religiosity .04 −.20** --                          
4. Sex. Experience .21** .05 −.17** --                        
5. Racial Centrality 08* −.06 .17** .04 --                      
6. Mother’s Education −.06 −.10* .11** −.20** −.04 --                    
7. School .14** .02 .07 .22** .13** −.23** --                  
8. Euro. Beauty −.12** .05 −.06 −.08 −.19** .05 −.05 --                
9. Thin-Ideal .02 −.03 .02 −.04 −.08* .10* −.03 .30** --              
10. Appear. Invest. −.06 .02 −.08* .04 −.15** .06 −.12** .36** .22** --            
11. Sexual Guilt/Shame −.08 −.11** .38** −.26** .01 .07 .01 .17** .16** .07 --          
12. Sexual Distancing .02 −.02 .10* −.08 −.06 −.01 .09* .21** .19** .11** .62** --        
13. Self-Conscious. −.07 .03 .08 .39** −.07 .02 −.03 .31** .44** .22** .33** .39** --      
14. Assert. .10* .06 −.17** −.43** .04 −.07 .07 −.24** −.14** −.17** −.46** −.43** −.50** --    
15. Pleasure .06 −.09* −.09* −.18** .15** −.15** .02 −.14** −.01 −.09* −.31** −.18** −.22** .51** --  
16. Satisfaction .02 .06 .06 −.25** .11* −.06 .06 −.16** −.18** −.15** −.24** −.25** −.30** .49** .26** --


Note. *p ≤ .05. **p ≤ .01. ***p ≤ .001. Sex. Orient. = Sexual Orientation; Sex. Experience = Sexual Experience; Euro. Beauty = Eurocentric Beauty Acceptance; Thin-Ideal = Thin-Ideal Internalization; Appear. Invest. = Appearance Investment; Self-Conscious. = Sexual Self-Consciousness; Assert. = Sexual Assertiveness; Pleasure = Entitlement to Sexual Pleasure; Satisfaction = Sexual Satisfaction.

3.2. Associations between hegemonic feminine beauty ideals and sexual well-being variables

3.2.1. Hypothesis 1

Analyses tested a series of hierarchical multiple regressions. To test H1 and H2, that acceptance of hegemonic feminine beauty ideals would be associated with experiences of negative affective sexual cognitions, three negative sexual affect outcome variables (sexual guilt and shame, sexual distancing, and sexual self-consciousness) were regressed onto three predictors: European beauty ideal acceptance, thin-ideal internalization, and appearance investment. The demographic control variables of age, sexual orientation, organized religious involvement, sexual experience, racial centrality, mother’s education, and school were entered on the first step, and the beauty ideal acceptance variables were entered on the second step.

H1 was partially supported (Table 3). As indicated in Step 2 of the regressions, European beauty ideal acceptance (β = .15, F = 17.10, p < .001, ΔR2 = .03) and thin-ideal internalization (β = .08, F = 17.10, p < .05, ΔR2 = .03) were significantly related to more frequent experiences of sexual guilt and shame, whereas appearance investment was not significantly associated with sexual guilt and shame. European beauty ideal acceptance (β = .19, F = 5.24, p < .001, ΔR2 = .05) and thin-ideal internalization (β = .09, F = 5.24, p < .05, ΔR2 = .05) were significantly related to more emotional distancing during sex. However, appearance investment was not significantly associated with emotional distancing during sex. Finally, European beauty ideal acceptance (β = .17, F = 22.09, p < .001, ΔR2 = .22), thin-ideal internalization (β = .36, F = 22.09, p < .001, ΔR2 = .22), and appearance investment (β = .08, F = 22.09, p < .05, ΔR2 = .22) were significantly related to greater levels of sexual self-consciousness.

Table 3. Multiple Regression Analyses of Feminine Beauty Ideal Acceptance on Sexual Affect.

  Sexual Guilt/Shame
(N = 613)
Sexual Distancing
(N = 585)
Sexual Self-Consciousness
(N = 640)
  B SE B β sr2 B SE B β sr2 B SE B β sr2
Step 1: Demographics                        
 Age −.03 .03 −.04 .00 .02 .02 .03 .00 −.01 .01 −.02 .00
 Sexual Orientation −.08 .11 −.03 .00 .00 .10 .00 .00 .05 .06 .04 .00
 Religiosity .82*** .09 .36*** .12*** .22* .09 .12* .01* .09 .05 .08 .01
 Sexual Experience −1.22*** .23 −.22*** .04 *** −.51* .23 −.11* .01* −.68*** .12 −.24*** .05***
 Racial Centrality −.08 .07 −.05 .00 −.10 .06 −.07 .01 −.05 .04 −.06 .00
 Mother’s Education −.03 .05 −.02 .00 −.02 .05 −.02 .00 −.03 .03 −.04 .00
 School .14 .20 .03 .00 .42* .18 .11* .01* .05 .11 .02 .00
 Step 1 adjusted R2 .20       .03       .06      
Step 2: Fem. Beauty Ideal Accept.                        
 Euro. Beauty Accept. .45*** .13 .15*** .02*** .46*** .12 .19*** .03*** .26*** .06 .17*** .02***
 Thin-Ideal .15* .07 .08* .01* .14* .07 .09* .01* .33*** .04 .36*** .12***
 Appearance Invest. .10 .10 .04 .00 .04 .09 .02 .00 .10* .05 .08* .01*
 Step 2 adjusted R2 .23       .08       .28      
 Change in adjusted R2 +.03       +.05       +.22      
 Final Equation F 17.10***       5.24***       22.09***      


Note. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001. Fem. Beauty Ideal Accept. = Feminine Beauty Ideal Acceptance; Euro. Beauty Accept. = Eurocentric Beauty Acceptance; Thin-Ideal = Thin-Ideal Internalization; Appearance Invest. = Appearance Investment.

3.2.2. Hypothesis 2

To test H2, we examined associations between hegemonic feminine beauty ideal acceptance and sexual agency (Table 4). Hierarchical regression analyses tested whether hegemonic beauty ideal acceptance, thin-ideal internalization, and appearance investment were associated with lower levels of perceived sexual assertiveness, sense of entitlement to sexual pleasure, and sexual satisfaction. Control variables were entered on the first step and the three feminine beauty ideal acceptance variables were entered on the second step. H3 was partially supported. Women who reported higher levels of European beauty ideal acceptance (β = −.20, F = 14.02, p < .001, ΔR2 = .06) and appearance investment (β = −.10, F = 14.02, p < .05, ΔR2 = .06) also reported less sexual assertiveness. However, thin-ideal internalization was not significantly associated with sexual assertiveness. Although European beauty ideal acceptance was associated with less entitlement to sexual pleasure (β = −.11, F = 9.34, p < .05, ΔR2 = .01), thin-ideal internalization and appearance investment were not significantly associated with entitlement to sexual pleasure. Finally, European beauty ideal acceptance and appearance investment were not significantly related to sexual satisfaction, however, higher thin-ideal internalization was associated with less sexual satisfaction (β = −.15, F = 3.71, p < .01, ΔR2 = .04).

Table 4. Multiple Regression Analyses of Feminine Beauty Ideal Acceptance on Sexual Agency.

  Sexual Assertiveness
(N = 574)
Entitlement to Sexual Pleasure
(N = 534)
Sexual Satisfaction
(N = 530)
  B SE B β sr2 B SE B β sr2 B SE B β sr2
Step 1: Demographics                        
 Age .01 .01 .04 .00 .01 .01 .01 .00 −.01 .01 −.04 .00
 Sexual Orientation .02 .04 .03 .00 .02 .05 .01 .00 −.01 .06 −.01 .00
 Religiosity −.10** .03 −.14** .02** −.09* .04 −.10* .01* .04 .05 .03 .00
 Sexual Experience .57*** .08 .32*** .09*** .72*** .11 .28*** .07*** .41** .14 .14** .02**
 Racial Centrality .03 .02 .06 .00 .12*** .03 .18*** .03*** .09* .04 .12* .01*
 Mother’s Education .01 .02 .02 .00 −.05* .02 −.10* .01* −.02 .03 −.03 .00
 School .02 .07 .01 .00 −.08 .09 −.04 .00 .02 .10 .01 .00
 Step 1 adjusted R2 .14       .13       .03      
Step 2: Fem. Beauty Ideal Accept.                        
 Euro. Beauty Accept. −.19*** .04 −.20*** .03*** −.14* .06 −.11* .01* −.12 .07 −.10 .01
 Thin-Ideal −.02 .02 −.04 .00 .05 .03 .06 .00 −.11** .04 −.14** .02**
 Appearance Invest. −.08* .03 −.10* .01* −.06 .05 −.06 .00 −.04 .05 −.04 .00
 Step 2 adjusted R2 .20       .14       .06      
 Change in adjusted R2 +.06       +.01       +.03      
 Final Equation F 14.02***       9.34***       4.01***      


Note. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001. Standardized Betas are reported. Fem. Beauty Ideal Accept. = Feminine Beauty Ideal Acceptance; Euro. Beauty Accept. = Eurocentric Beauty Acceptance; Thin-Ideal = Thin-Ideal Internalization; Appearance Invest. = Appearance Investment.

4. Discussion

This research evaluated the relation between hegemonic beauty standard endorsement and sexual well-being among young Black women. Overall, findings from this study provide evidence that, to varying degrees, endorsing restrictive standards of beauty is associated with reduced affective and physical sexual well-being, with hegemonic beauty ideal acceptance, thin-ideal internalization, and appearance investment accounting for different proportions of the variance in the sexual affect and sexual agency outcome variables.

We hypothesized that Black women would not be exempt from the negative sexual consequences of hegemonic beauty ideal endorsement; thus, higher levels of restrictive appearance acceptance and investment would be associated with more negative sexual cognitions and less sexual assertiveness, agency, and perceived entitlement to pleasure.

Hegemonic beauty ideal acceptance—which emphasizes the importance of light skin tone, thin body shape/weight, and straight hair—(Awad et al., 2015Harrison, 2003Hesse-Biber et al., 2010) was negatively related to every dimension of sexual affect and well-being except sexual satisfaction. Women who endorsed restrictive hegemonic physical appearance ideals reported higher levels of sexual guilt and shame, emotional distancing during sex, and body self-consciousness during sex. These participants also reported lower levels of sexual assertiveness and less entitlement to experience sexual pleasure. Our results are consistent with previous studies that found that for women, habitual monitoring of one’s physical body enhances dissatisfaction with appearance (Overstreet & Quinn, 2012), which may in turn negatively impact their sense of self-worth and sexual self-efficacy (Yamamiya et al., 2006). Previous studies show that traditional gender ideology and hegemonic beauty ideal endorsement are negatively associated with sexual satisfaction among samples of predominately White women (Kiefer & Sanchez, 2007Pujols et al., 2010Sanchez et al., 2012). However, in our study, hegemonic beauty ideal acceptance was not significantly associated with sexual satisfaction. Overall, there has been a dearth of research that examines Black women’s experiences with sexual well-being, and given our findings, we speculate that for Black women there may be culturally-specific beauty ideal and appearance-related factors, that were not examined in this study, that better predict their sexual satisfaction. Future studies should assess the relationships between Black women’s endorsement of culturally-specific beauty ideals and their sexual well-being.

Novel to the current study, thin-ideal internalization was also related to the broader appearance beliefs of the Black women in our sample. Contrary to the extant research indicating that thinness is not important for Black women (Dawson-Andoh et al., 2011Shoneye et al., 2011), we found that 40 percent of our sample emphasized the importance of thinness—agreeing that they would be happier if they were thinner (nearly 20 percent reported relatively strong agreement). We also found that thin-ideal internalization was significantly related to more sexual guilt and shame, greater emotional distancing during sex, more sexual self-consciousness, and lower levels of sexual satisfaction. Our findings corroborate those from previous studies conducted with White female samples that link body image concerns with lower sexual assertiveness, pleasure, and agency (Yamamiya et al., 2006).

In this study, similar to hegemonic beauty ideal acceptance, Black women’s appearance investment was positively associated with sexual self-consciousness and negatively associated with sexual assertiveness. Unexpectedly, there was no association between appearance investment and some of the sexual affect (i.e., sexual guilt and shame and sexual distancing) and sexual agency measures (i.e., entitlement to sexual pleasure and sexual satisfaction). Unlike buying into restrictive beauty ideals, enjoying and adorning one’s physical body by applying make-up and styling hair is not associated with sexual well-being. We speculate that while it may not be harmful to be invested in maintaining a feminine appearance; instead, it could be harmful to be invested in achieving a restrictive and largely unattainable appearance. This interpretation mirrors previous investigations with White women that link negative sexual outcomes with body dissatisfaction and beauty ideal discrepancies (Dove & Wiederman, 2000).

4.1. Implications

The take-home message does not suggest that Black women abandon their individual efforts to achieve and maintain a socially-sanctioned feminine appearance. Rather, our findings highlight that “pretty hurts” because of the costs associated with Black women’s attempts to invest their self-worth in the achievement of idealized standards of beauty. Specifically, altering or enhancing one’s appearance in order to more closely approximate White hegemonic beauty ideals can diminish Black women’s psychological and sexual well-being. As Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2003) argued, the Lily Complex creates a constant pressure to alter one’s physical self in order to more closely approximate socially sanctioned and often unattainable hegemonic beauty standards. As such, the Lily Complex suggests that Black women may experience reduced sexual well-being in their pursuit of achieving narrow notions of “pretty”.

Although Black women are generally more satisfied with their physical appearance than White women, and heavier Black women are more satisfied with weight/body sizes than heavier White women (Cash et al., 2004Shoneye et al., 2011), Black women may also experience body dissatisfaction in response to broader pressures to fulfill hegemonic beauty standards (Capodilupo, 2015Dawson-Andoh et al., 2011Overstreet et al., 2010). However, Black women may also engage in a process of disrupting and challenging dominant notions of gender, power, and Black inferiority when they embrace an Afrocentric aesthetic (Patton, 2006). Future research should further consider how Black women’s engagement in media and retail markets that emphasize achieving and maintaining Afrocentric feminine beauty standards (i.e., curvaceous body clothing and lingerie, “naturalista” hairstyles, skincare and make-up brands for Black women, choosing culturally and/or politically oriented clothing and accessories) may be related to positive self-concept, physical appearance satisfaction, and sexual well-being.

4.2. Limitations and future directions

First, correlational models were used to test the associations between beauty ideal acceptance and sexual well-being, restricting our ability to make causal inferences. We cannot determine that endorsing hegemonic standards of physical attractiveness causes more intrusive appearance-related cognitions during sex that jeopardize sexual well-being. Second, our findings show that while some of our independent variables account for a good proportion of the variance in the sexual well-being outcomes, others account for a smaller proportion of the variance in sexual well-being. Although it is beyond the scope of the current study, future research should further interrogate the implications of how hegemonic beauty ideal acceptance, thin-ideal internalization, and appearance investment differentially contribute to Black women’s sexual well-being.

Third, our measure of appearance investment had poor reliability, and as such, may have contributed to our null findings between appearance investment and the sexual affect and sexual agency variables. Several researchers have suggested that investigating Black women’s experiences with appearance investment and weight-related body esteem would be improved with culturally-specific measures, including measures that interrogate specific body parts and curvaceously thin proportions (Capodilupo, 2015Dawson-Andoh et al., 2011Harrison, 2003). Future studies should incorporate these culturally-specific ideals and measurement to better assess Black women’s appearance-related attitudes.

Fourth, to obtain a sizeable sample we recruited Black women from two different school settings: (1) a large, predominately White, Midwestern public university (PWI); and (2) a small, historically Black Southeastern public university (HBCU). Given that our sample consisted exclusively of students, and particularly, students whose parents have high education levels, the generalizability of our study is limited. Additionally, in this study, we did not hypothesize about the differences between school setting and the role of school setting in influencing Black women’s endorsement of hegemonic and culturally-derived notions of femininity and their sexual attitudes and behaviors. Considering Black women’s potential varied experiences at PWIs and HBCUs, future research should examine how school setting may influence Black women’s endorsement of femininity ideologies and their sexual well-being.

Finally, a majority of this sample identified as predominately or exclusively straight; some of our measures reinforce and reflect this identification, such as our heteronormative measure of sexual experience. Future studies should aim to recruit a more diverse sample and include more expansive measures that better capture the experiences of Black lesbian, bisexual, gender non-conforming, and trans* identified women to see if these associations hold. Outside of interrogating weight-related issues, the extant literature offers us very little insight into how weight- and appearance-related concerns may impact the sexual well-being among sexual minority Black women.

Nonetheless, the present study has several strengths. It is one of few studies that quantitatively measures Black women’s investment in hegemonic beauty and thinness standards from a culturally-specific standpoint (e.g., considering skin tone, hair straightening and/or lengthening, artificial nails). Additionally, this study measured how endorsement relates to sexual attitudes, behaviors, and affective cognitions. Although the importance of studying Black college women’s gender and sexual socialization in the context of their own culture has not always been acknowledged, this study is part of an emerging body of research that uses culturally-specific measures of gender and sexual ideologies to examine sexual well-being (e.g., Overstreet & Quinn, 2012Poran, 2006).

5. Conclusion

The current study suggests that Black women are not protected from the sociocultural pressures of hegemonic femininity and its emphasis on Whiteness and thinness. Although Black women navigate complex appearance expectations that may enable them to maintain a positive sense of their physical bodies, in the context of sex, they also may engage in body surveillance that hinders their capacity to focus on achieving sexual pleasure. The present study elucidates how acceptance of Eurocentric, hegemonic beauty standards could increase intrusive appearance-related cognitions and body surveillance, which may contribute to negative sexual well-being.


This study was funded by the University of Michigan Office of Research (UMOR) and PI discretionary funds.

Ethics approval

The questionnaire and methodology for this study was approved by the Health Sciences and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board of the University of Michigan (IRB Study ID: HUM00068279).

Consent to participate

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Consent to publish

The authors affirm that participants provided informed consent for publication of the overall results of the study.

Author contributions statement

All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by Lanice R. Avery, Alexis G. Stanton, L. Monique Ward, Elizabeth R. Cole, and Morgan C. Jerald. The first draft of the manuscript was written by Lanice R. Avery and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Declaration of Competing Interest

The authors report no declarations of interest.


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