Are 4 out of 5 black women obese simply because they want to be? According to an opinion piece by novelist Alice Randall that recently appeared in the New York Times, the answer is yes. Randall says that in addition to fatty foods and poor eating habits, the music and poetry in black culture lionizes a larger body type, which can lead to obesity. She recounts tales of black women with black husbands who worry about their wives dieting and losing their voluptuous shape. Randall even discloses that her own mate is one such man. Nonetheless, she ends by vowing to buck the trends and become the “last fat black woman in my family.” She also calls upon every black woman to commit to getting under 200 lbs.
While I certainly wish Randall luck in her quest and fully understand how difficult it is to lose weight, it is important to put her characterizations and generalizations about black women and obesity in a context larger than her own personal health journey. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one-third of all Americans are currently obese, and another third are seriously overweight. This phenomenon cuts across race, class and gender. Obesity is not just an issue for black women, nor is it only found in black culture.
For black women, poverty, as well as lack of education, can often predict obesity risks. For example, CDC research shows that among all women, the prevalence of obesity grows higher as income decreases. This is particularly true for black and Latino women. As a result, it’s clear that obesity is a symptom of an ill greater than itself. This is a point that Randall seems to miss. However, the same isn’t true with men, whose weight tends to increase with rises in income.
The same basic phenomenon holds true with education levels. Among men, there is no significant relationship between education and obesity, while the less education a woman is the more likely she is to be obese. This is true for white, black and Latino women. In other words, for black women, even more so than black men, social factors influence obesity rates. Saying that high numbers of black women are fat simply because they want to be doesn’t do justice to this complex issue, nor does limiting the definition of black culture to music and poetry. The culture of a neighborhood can be just as — if not more — meaningful than anything else.
By way of an example, last year, my husband and I moved from the decidedly upper-middle class, Princeton, N.J., to a lower-income area in the South Bronx. When we lived in Princeton, we were a five-minute drive and a 15-minute walk from a number of gyms and roughly the same distance from supermarkets and health-food stores. While walking or driving to work, the supermarket or the gym, we would often see residents out walking, jogging or riding bikes. We had the time, access and opportunity to make exercise and healthy eating a consistent part of our lives.
Compare this with the area of the Bronx where we currently live. There are no gyms. And even though there is a supermarket up the street, much of the food readily available there is highly processed. We rarely see anyone out jogging, and the most accessible form of exercise is hiking up the stairs from the subway. As a result, I know firsthand the difference income and neighborhoods make in trying to stay at a healthy weight.
That said, three years ago, my niece Deborah made a commitment to lose 180 lbs. Mostly, she did it for health reasons. In our family, many of the women are overweight and some have begun to suffer health consequences. Deborah decided she wanted something different for herself, and this past month she reached her goal. In the process, she shrank from a size 28 down to a size 12. She didn’t have surgery or take pills. She ate well, sweated and ran her way to better health and a lower weight. The key here is that she had the educational level, financial stability and community support to reach her goal. If we want to fully address the problem of obesity in America, we need to first make sure that all women, no matter their education level, income, race or location, have access to the same levels of support, security, education and knowledge that my niece had.