Through thick and thin, Black women love their bodies
Upon the heels of this week’s heated debate about Black women, fat and diabetes sparked by a recent New York Times op-ed, a new report released May 8th by the Institute of Medicine tempers the dialogue by placing it within the context of the national epidemic of obesity. “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving The Weight of the Nation” provides updated statistics that two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are obese or overweight in America.
While Alice Randall’s NYT article begins with a look at the numbers—four out of five Black women being seriously overweight, and one out of four middle-aged Black women having diabetes—the point of contention is her statement that the hidden, misunderstood factor is that “Black women want to be fat.” The article notes aesthetic, cultural, and political reasons for why we love to keep meat on our bones.
Randall is correct that anthems like “Brick House” have certainly set the standard of sexy as Black women with curves. Black women do yearn for fuller figures in order to attract and keep the interest of a man. We do delight in our curves, wherever they fall on our bodies, to reinforce our confidence and self-esteem.
I was a late bloomer who can recall wondering if the schoolgirl chant, “I must, I must, I must increase my bust” really worked after reading it in “Are you there God, it’s me Margaret?” When a male high school friend reconnected with me as an adult and admiringly asked me, “When did you get breasts?” the compliment was tempered by a female friend who caringly informed me that breasts are largely fatty tissue.
Yet, I still chose to be proud of my emerging bust line in my early twenties. As a first generation daughter of an Indo-Caribbean family, I grew up loving that the softness of my belly made a sari sexier. As a petite dancer, I modeled my body image after the positive example of the petite athletic build of Trinidadian-American dancer Pearl Primus, whose grace defied the thickness of her thighs.
The conviction of Black women to love our bodies and accept the beauty of all of our hues, sizes and shapes only becomes poignant in the midst of mainstream gender constructs of feminine beauty that revolves around the sleek angles of thin white women, and relies on the degradation of the image of Black women. Our self-love transmutes into a political act of resistance against this paradigm and transcends the conditioned insecurities born of troubled comparison.
The results of a February poll conducted by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation ran under the headline, “Black women heavier and happier with their bodies than white women.” It found that, “Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight and obese.”
But this state of happiness should not be equated or mistaken as a place of complacency that makes us indifferent about our health and fitness. As we age, shifts in our lifestyles, family size, activity levels, work hours, hormones and habits compel us to become more proactive, responsible and conscientious about the choices we make in order to prevent our weight from tipping the scales toward obesity.
The Post poll reflected this reality. Among a list of priorities, 90 percent of Black women said living a healthful lifestyle is important, yet two-thirds admitted to eating fast food once a week, and a little more than half actually cooked dinner at home on a regular basis.
Cooking has indeed become a lost art. I have many friends who are shocked that I, a professional woman, enjoy cooking and baking for myself and others. When did a professional woman throwing down in the kitchen become a contradiction in terms? Another myth that deserves debunking is that thin women are inherently healthy. In fact, fat people who exercise regularly are healthier than thin people who don’t. Our weight may have a correlation to our heath status, but it does not necessarily indicate causation.
Typical of most negative social indicators, African Americans suffer at disproportionate rates of disease due to lack of access to resources, affordable solutions, practical education and direct support mechanisms within our communities and institutions. Obesity is no exception.
I remember the day I stumbled across one of the stores in a chain supermarket in the heart of downtown Chicago while I was in college—and becoming angry at the stark contrast in the quality of its produce compared to the chain’s stores in the African American neighborhoods. The store looked like a museum, with robust, vibrant fresh fruits and vegetables presented in terracotta bowls and glass displays.
The scope and breadth of the national epidemic extends obesity beyond race and age, and Black women’s personal relationships with our bodies. It draws attention to the socioeconomic factors that exacerbate the problem such as vanishing parks and playgrounds; eroding neighborhood safety that hinders the most affordable exercise: walking; and limited or no access to fresh foods.
The Institute of Medicine was asked by the Robert Johnson Wood Foundation to include recommendations in its report, and it listed five key actions: 1) Integrate physical activity every day in every way; 2) market what matters for a healthy life; 3) make healthy foods and beverages available everywhere; 4) activate employers and health care professionals; and 5) strengthen schools as the heart of health.
These recommendations echo the core elements of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! National Initiative to help reverse the alarming trajectory of childhood obesity. It calls upon all stakeholders—from elected officials, schools, health care providers, parents and community leaders—to work collectively to increase awareness on nutrition, promote healthy alternatives and provide more opportunities for physical activity and exercise.
The weight of women is inextricable from the weight of our nation. We must make our health a priority—for ourselves and our daughters. We must thread it into the fabric of our lives as acts of love. And remain consistent—through thick and thin.
ADVOCACY for WOMEN'S ACTIVISM, RIGHTS and EMPOWERMENT. I am a journalist, poet, and photographer, creatively tumblin' thru notes & news, hues & harmonies