Q: I feel like every time I read the health section of any major news source there is a new article about how black women are in poor health. There are boundless statistics about obesity rates, cancer rates, diabetes rates etc. While the popular articles certainly stretch the truth found in the original medical research, I am not going to deny that there is truth in all of these figures. Yes, as a population, we do have disproportionately high rates of a multitude of health issues. However, do you ever feel like you separate yourself from these figures?
According to BMI charts I am one of the 4 out 5 black women who are overweight or obese in the United States [I know BMI charts are flawed and do not take into account muscle mass, but since they are considered the metric of choice in the medical world, I will use them as well]. I am one of the women contributing to the epidemic and “costing” the nation billions of dollars in medical costs. When I read these figures, I often feel a sense of guilt that I am part of the number. I am physically “fit” by most standards. I ran a half marathon recently, I go to the gym 4-5 times a week, and my blood pressure and other vitals are in check. Why do I still feel a sense of guilt that I am part of that figure? If I lose the last 10 lbs and become the 1 out of 5 who are not overweight/obese, will I have finally arrived?
After yesterday’s news came out, I felt like answering this question was appropriate for today. I may even break Q&A Wednesday tradition and respond to that post on today.
Listen. And listen carefully.
Sometimes, you have to just give a clean, cold, freshly-manicured mental middle finger to messages that don’t reinforce the good within you.
It’s the same message delivered to women who have children out of wedlock, the same message delivered to single parents (yes, you divorcees, widows and the like are all lumped into this bunch, too!), the same message delivered to fat people. You’re a problem, you’re flawed, and I really wish you’d stop bothering me with your presence until you’ve “married your baby daddy”/”invited me to your wedding”/”lost some freaking weight, already… unless you’re going on the Biggest Loser, in which case I’d love to watch you torture yourself to lose that weight.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I’ve separated myself from these figures; I’ve just always felt like there’s an agenda out there that is hyperfocused on making everything about me “a problem.” Before I was engaged, before everyone knew there was a man in my life willing to commit to me and my child long-term, I had to endure all the people beating me over the head with statistics about single parents and how my out-of-wedlock child was going to be the downfall of the entire race. Before I lost weight, I had to endure all the messages about how my being “as big as a house” was going to result in me being a bum, living under an overpass, with a pet rat named “Luchini.” (Sorry, Camp Lo.)
I mean, in a way, this is how society self-regulates, yes? Society determines what is acceptable, and is pretty protective of its standards. If you have a trait that is deemed undesirable, society regulates you – shames you into compliance, relishes in watching you struggle to comply, then pats you on the back for “falling in line.” The “falling in line” part is important, though – now that you, after all your struggling, have complied, you then become another foot soldier in showing other people that they, too, can do it. They, too, can do what you did, “fall in line” and receive all the benefits that come with compliance. Also, chances are high that because you struggled and sacrificed to receive those benefits, you’re that much more adamant about defending those standards.
Take weight, for example. You’re fat. Society shames you for it. Watches weight loss porn to watch you struggle with losing the weight, so that you can absolve yourself of the shame… and enjoys it. Then, after you’ve lost the weight and started receiving the benefits that come from being thinner, not only are you personally invested in defending “thinness” as being ideal, but now you’re also that much more likely to become a person who shames those for not doing what you’ve done.
The same happens with Black women’s hair. Heaven forbid you not fit the long, thick, bouncy, straight stereotype. (There’s weave for that, you know… just shave your hairline back and glue one of those permanent ones on!) The same happens with single parenthood. The same happens with wanting to be athletic and have a more muscular build. All of these are things that I’ve experienced… and I just learned early that most people, quite frankly, don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
It’s one thing to know that you’re not physically fit, can’t run to save yourself in the zombie invasion, can’t lift yourself up from a crater in the Earth if you accidentally fell into one, have no physical strength, high blood pressure, pre-diabetic or are type 2 diabetic. If you know that, then feel like you need to address those concerns for you. Not so that you can offload the shame and guilt the media insists upon forcing down your throat.
If you already know that they don’t know what they’re talking about because they’re going by BMI, and you already know you’re physically active, with a clean chart and healthy bloodwork, and only 10lbs away from being what a stupid chart says is your “ideal” weight, then why the hell would you let media messaging influence how you feel about yourself? Why care so much? And that’s not meant to mock you, it’s meant to challenge you – why care so much about the thoughts and feelings of people who don’t know you from Annie, and don’t care if you’re OK?
The bottom line, really, is that neither shame nor positive reinforcement should come from outside sources. You don’t let the media make you feel bad about yourself for being “different,” and you don’t let it make you feel good about yourself for being what society wants. Continue to strive for what you define to be excellence, always be on the lookout for healthy and sane ways to grow, and use that knowledge as markers for when you’re stagnant. It shouldn’t matter to you if your last ten pounds would mean you’ve arrived; at that point, your own opinion of you would matter far more than a bunch of strangers who are trying to decide your worth by looking at you.
Like I said earlier. Sometimes, it’s perfectly okay to give a freshly-lotioned, well-manicured mental middle finger to the media. And any time that media imagery starts to make you feel any guilt or shame about being who you are, might just be a perfectly good time. Like now.