The relationship between race, genetics, and health is a complicated one. Through the Human Genome Project, we know that biological races do not exist. However, this statement continues to cause controversy. People see races, but they are a social construction. On the other hand, we see differences in health that are placed along our visual perceptions of race. From here, one can see why the relationship between race, genetics, and health is tightly bound yarn ball filled with controversy.
To illustrate how race can be viewed as biologically sound, one must first understand that health disparities along socially constructed race lines can be attributed to an array of factors. One can use the gene frequency of sickle cell anemia as an example. This allele is recessive and can be lethal when inherited homozygously. However, in heterozygous inheritance the allele helps protect against death by malaria. This is why we see an increased sickle cell allele frequency in areas with high rates of malaria, because it is an adaptive trait. And where do you see high rates of malaria? – In relatively poor areas, with a high population density, and a surplus of mosquitoes. In other words, one is likely to find Malaria and increased sickle cell allele frequencies in area such as Central and South America and Africa. This example displays how the environment influences race, genes, and health socially, politically, and ecologically. Over many years humans have evolved and adapted, and some of these traits are visible while other traits are completely random. We see these traits and we associate them with a socially constructed idea of race. Then we allow the social and political world to further confirm our bias toward these constructions. In the case of sickle cell anemia we see race, and we assume people must be genetically different from us (which they really are not all that different – we give looks way too much credit), then we differences in heath. For example, an increased rate of malaria, so we assume an even larger genetic difference because we want to confirm our assumption. But in reality, these people would not have such high rates of malaria if they were not pushed into poor and overcrowded areas by unfavorable cultural and political practices. Though, in the mean time their genetics have to adapt for survival. Allele frequencies have to change in order to survive malaria and the conditions they are pushed into. The harsh reality is they have to evolve or die – this is not genetically because of their race, but genetics and health problems are noticeably related to socially constructed race, as well as many other factors.
Another example where health disparities between race and ethnicity are evident is eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is commonly referred to as the rich white girl disease, and as far as the numbers go it is partially true. Something about growing up in mainstream America puts white girls at an increased risk to develop disordered eating. Not only anorexia, but bulimia and binge eating disorder as well. One of the main factors discussed for this difference in numbers is the social construction of body image. One article I read discussed the influence race and ethnicity has on group therapy. The article used qualitative research to illustrate how race, ethnicity, and culture play a role in the development of anorexia. When speaking the black and Latina women expressed how their body image changed while around white women and when exposed to white beauty standards. From their perspective, curves were more acceptable – it was when they were around white women that they felt insecure. The white women on the other hand were raised with a mindset that they had to be thin, and were even influenced by their parents. In one example, a white girl discussed how here parents were constantly dieting and she felt the need to diet as well in fear of being judged by her parents. Meanwhile, a Latina girl expressed her family’s love for food, and her boyfriend’s love of curves. It was when she turned on the television that she was faced with body conflict. This article illustrated how white women, from an earlier age are placed at a higher risk to develop anorexia nervosa, partially because of an increased social pressure to be thin. This is a dismal fact, considering anorexia nervosa the deadliest of the mental heath illnesses.
This image illustrates disordered eating discrepancies between black women and white women. As you can see, a higher percentage of white women develop all types of disordered eating when compared to black women.
Here are some other interesting statistics about women’s body image and eating disorders.
Franko, Debra L., and Jessica B. Edwards George. “Eating Disorders, Culture, and Ethnicity: Connections and Challenges in Group Therapy.” Group – Group Therapy and the Treatment of Eating Disorders: Challenges and Rewards 30, no. 4 (December 2006): 307-20. Accessed July 11, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41719134?origin=JSTOR-pdf.
Rader Programs. Accessed July 11, 2014. http://dailyinfographic.com/women-are-dying-to-be-thin-infographic/infographic4_final.
Health Resources and Services Administration U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed July 11, 2014. http://mchb.hrsa.gov/whusa04/pages/ch2.htm.