Commentary: Why Is Obesity Not Getting Black Women Down?

Commentary: Why Is Obesity Not Getting Black Women Down?

New research shows that obese and overweight Black women have better self-esteem than many average-weight white women.

Published March 1, 2012

(Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/ GettyImages)

According to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African-American obesity is disturbingly high. Blacks in general are 1.5 times more likely to be overweight or obese than whites. But the problem is more severe when we look at Black women only.


In 2009, four out of five African-American women were overweight or obese, making them 60 percent more likely to be obese than white women. And with all that obesity, grim consequences ensue: “A recent study conducted at Boston University found that a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 and higher increases the risk of death among African-American women,” wrote in September of last year. “This study contradicts older studies that believe a higher BMI — 35 or more — increases death risk.”


Depending on how you look at it, all the news about Black obesity isn’t bad news. A new study from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that, despite the fact that they suffer from obesity at rates far greater than white women, Black women are able to maintain higher self-esteem than many white women. According to the Post, while only 41 percent of average-weight white women reported having high self-esteem, a full 66 percent of obese Black women said they had high self-esteem. It’s a conundrum: How can Black women be so heavy, which society says is unattractive, and yet still be so happy with themselves?


Washington Post writer Lonnae O’Neal Parker hypothesizes that the reason Black women have been able to deflect the “fat shaming” that hurts other women is because they’ve also been ignored culturally by standard beacons of beauty. For instance, because Vogue magazine hardly ever puts Black women on its cover, Black women have learned to ignore Vogue as being indicative of what’s beautiful. Parker writes:


The notion that all women must be culled into a single little-bitty aesthetic is just one more tyranny, they say. And black women have tools for resisting tyranny, especially from a mainstream culture that has historically presented them negatively, or not at all.


Freed from that high-powered media gaze, generations of black women have fashioned their own definitions of beauty with major assists from literature and music — and help from their friends.


To be sure, Black women being able to emotionally manage their obesity doesn’t necessarily help solve the obesity epidemic in the Black community. One would assume that depression would be a hindrance to weight loss, of course, but some people also believe that shame can motivate people to lose weight. Either way, what is more interesting is how, if Parker is right, racism against Black women has also contributed to some Black women feeling better about themselves.


In other words, when the world ignores you, maybe you should ignore it back.



The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.



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Written by Cord Jefferson


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