Home The "Study" Guide Is There Enough Fat-Shaming In The Black Community?

Is There Enough Fat-Shaming In The Black Community?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Black girls…. let’s talk.

Apparently, y’all can’t be made to give even a partial damn about “being fat.” We like our lives… extra pounds or not.

From Jezebel:

The research is to be published in Applied Research in Quality of Life, a a scholarly journal about quality-of-life issues. Researchers asked about 350 women who technically qualify as “obese”— half of them black, half of them white— to complete a questionnaire about their qualities of life. Subjects were asked to self report on their satisfaction in areas like sexual pleasure, work life, physical function, and self esteem.

The study found that black women who are overweight or obese tend to believe that they have a higher quality of life than their white counterparts. This difference was most dramatic in the area of self esteem. Researchers believe that this indicates larger social acceptance of different body types within the black community, and this worries some experts, who note that “in the US, 80% black women over age 20 are either overweight or obese.” Since shaming overweight black ladies isn’t succeeding in convincing them to lose weight, researchers aren’t sure how to proceed in convincing them of the benefits of slimming down.

In short, they’re worried that overweight black women don’t feel bad enough about themselves.

Let’s clarify a bit – though I have yet to see the study (and someone out there may be kind enough to share the Applied Research in Quality of Life journal with me), I think the interpretation is a bit fuzzy. It doesn’t seem like the study said “Black women who are obese believe they have a higher quality of life than white women who are obese.” The question didn’t appear to be “Is your quality of life higher than white women?” It was “Do you think your quality of life is high?” It reads more like Black women who are obese ranked their quality of life higher than what white women ranked theirs to be.

I also have to question the conclusions of the study:

The implications of this relationship between weight and quality of life in black women remain unclear. While the highest quality of life is desirable as an indicator of overall well-being, black women’s perception of experiencing a high quality of life despite having a high BMI may also dampen motivation for attempting weight loss. Additional research is needed to understand the potentially bidirectional relationship between weight and quality of life in black women.

I had to double check this, because I needed to make sure this sounded like what I thought it was. From Essence:

Researchers seemed shocked to discover Black women reported a higher quality of life than White women of the same weight. Self-esteem also ranked particularly high among Black women.

The study also found that Black women appear to be more concerned about the physical limitations resulting from obesity, than by the potential mental and emotional consequences of being overweight or obese.

“The implications of this relationship between weight and quality of life in Black women remain unclear,” concluded Dr. Tiffany Cox of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who led the study. “Black women’s perception of experiencing a high quality of life despite having a high BMI may also dampen motivation for attempting weight loss.”

Huh?

[…]

I don’t get why there’s a problem with having high self-esteem or (gasp!) actually enjoying life despite the numbers on the scale. No woman, no matter her size or melanin count should be buying into the infomercial hype that the world becomes two deeper shades of mauve or that she’s more worthy of anything if she drops some pounds. Not only is it not true (weight loss is a start, but as a life coach I can tell you on good word it takes more than dropping inches to really change your life), it’s a damaging mindset.

[…]

I’m quite proud that the Blame-Shame-Game surrounding weight is a trap most Black women have managed not to fall into. Do we as a people need to get more fit? Undoubtedly. Our collective weight issues put us at higher risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and premature death. But to imply lower self-esteem or shame about our sizes should be a motivating factor? It’s a shame researchers should think that it should be.

And, to quote Jezebel, “they’re worried that overweight Black women don’t feel bad enough about themselves.”

And, though I saw some disagreement with this, I find it worth exploring. Is the study not implying, by mentioning the “bidirectional relationship between weight and quality of life in Black women,” that “we’re fat because we don’t feel like our lives are hindered enough by our weight?”

Can we really parse out what it is we want for Black women? Do we want us all to look a certain way, or do we want us all to feel a certain way? Do we want us all to not require expensive and prohibitive medications for food-related health ailments? Do we want Black women to stop raising children who are developing hypertension? Do we want to have healthier bodies… which doesn’t always include weight issues?

I, with most things, can see both sides of the coin, though. Bear with me on this one.

Quality of life includes much more than number of medications, health problems and self-esteem. Quality of life includes basic things like activity levels, ability to successfully complete activities, how mentally affected we are by our [in]ability to manage certain things. Quality of life, I have learned, is a mental perception created and influenced by not only how we feel, but by how our surroundings – including our support systems – make us feel.

When I was in (my predominately white, upper class) high school, I was one of, maybe, three overweight kids in my gym class. When it came time to run that mile, it took me over 16 minutes and I still wasn’t done. The gym teacher gave up on me. Before he finished his last lap, one of the football players who I actually thought was my friend, jogged up to me and asked me how much I weighed. I told him – I lied – and he jogged back to his friends to discuss (read: laugh.) Of course I still remember this, because high school was a time in my life where, had you asked me what I thought my quality of life was, I would’ve said it was pretty poor. In fact, writing this makes me sad for my teenaged self.

In fact, in high school, my mother tried with all her might – everything from buying me diet pills (remember – you’re supposed to diet and go on diet pills) to the occasional disrespectful blurt that most mothers are guilty of when it comes to expressing displeasure with their daughter’s bodies – to affect my weight, but to no avail. High school was one of those times where I simply couldn’t get away from my weight issue. It was constantly being beaten into my head that I had a weight issue that needed to be addressed.

My environment made it clear that I, with my excess weight and constant state of unathleticism, was a total outlier. Though no one knew what to tell me in regards to how to deal with that issue adequately, they just knew it was bad. I just knew it was bad.

Once I left that environment and got out on my own, however, things were different. I was surrounded by people who didn’t talk about weight. Hell, in college, I was surrounded by more people who looked like me. Not only just in skin color but in body shape. I felt like less of an outlier. I didn’t feel like anything was “wrong” with me. Suffice it to say, I felt “normal.” I didn’t feel the harried subliminal “concern” that comes with “measuring up” to ones peers.

I have to wonder, though. Is this a case of someone being “shamed” by their community regarding their weight, or is this “guilt” for not measuring up to their peers?

This also begs another question of whether or not this is the route one needs to take in order to affect change regarding one’s health*. If you don’t live in an environment that prides itself on having members who run often, do you really feel hampered by the fact that you cannot? If you don’t live in an environment where its members are vocal about how much effort they put into their weight management, do you really feel any kind of way about the fact that you don’t?

If you ask me – and because it’s my blog, I pretend someone’s always asking me – trying to affect a person’s quality of life isn’t the route to take on this. It’s not about making people feel some kind of way about being overweight. It’s about invoking that “come to fitness” moment that we talk about, here. It’s about making it a consistent and important part of the lives of Blacks, not trying to understand why people don’t feel bad that they’re fat.

But why is that? Why isn’t it about making people feel bad that they’re fat? Simple. Because, as I just shared above, weight is affected by various issues – environment, access to accurate resources regarding weight (is everyone around you suggesting diet pills? or are they just calling you “The Michelin Woman” and telling you to lose weight somehow?), access to adequate activities (are there sidewalks near where you live? is it safe enough in your area to go walking or running during your off hours? do you have a gym nearby?) – and it requires both a mental and physical commitment to do what it takes to overcome that. Blacks have to make themselves believers in the benefits of healthy living in order to do what is required of us to change.

So, do I think there’s “enough shaming” in our community? I think there’s too much especially since it’s not gon’ solve squat. Look at the white women in the study – they averaged their quality-of-life as poorer, and are still almost as overweight, by and large, as Black women. Clearly, “shame” ain’t solvin’ shit.

*I say “one’s health” because, let’s face it – even though the weight isn’t specifically the issue they want to address in the Black community- issues like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and the like are much more important than “not being built like Serena” – it keeps being clustered all into one little title of “weight” or “obesity.” It’ll be a long time before that changes, so let’s be flexible.

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12 comments

Dawn A. December 22, 2011 - 1:43 PM
Evelyn December 22, 2011 - 2:13 PM

Thanks for sharing the link, Dawn!

Tiana December 22, 2011 - 1:53 PM

Wow…I didn’t even finish reading the whole thing because right away I got the impression that the ppl doing the study found it hard to believe that black women could have high self esteem despite their weight. I don’t understand why they believe shaming anyone for any reason is the right way to go about anything. I personally feel that is rude and disrespectful. I am a pluss size chic and my only concern for losing weight is my health not what I look like because personally I love me…fat and all!!! I think their concerns are on the wrong thing…stop trying to shame people and educate them about health risks and leave it at that. This makes me think about all the young ladies who hurt themselves trying to lose weight or because they can’t lose weight all because someone shamed them into not loving themselves for who they are first. If you dont love yourself how can you fix the problem right and with the right frame of mind. I wouldn’t lose weight because somebody thought I was too fat and I don’t think anyone else should or should even be made to feel that way!!!

girldoc67 December 22, 2011 - 2:57 PM

hey erika, congrats on your tremendous accomplishments in losing weight, most of us fight the good fight with food on a minute to minute basis daily! the results of this study are in no way impressive or relevant to me as an african-american physician who has practiced medicine in the hood for seven years. no one feels bad about being overweight because big mama was big, mama was big and we just all have ‘big bones’. that statement, in addition to the fact that black people already have ENOUGH to “feel bad about” does not allow any room for the superficiality of feeling bad about one’s weight. i personally feel that the wrong approach was taken. ask somebody if they feel bad because madear died a slow painful death due to obesity related congestive heart failure or if they feel bad because their auntie has to go to dialysis m,w, and f because her kidneys are shot due to uncontrolled blood pressure and obesity. then ask them if they feel bad about the prospect of ending up the exact same way due to uncontrolled weight. i read a study the other day done in the “diabetes belt” in southern america. one of the things that struck me is that they used a term i can’t quite recall but the gist of it is that people had to buy in to how being overweight and unhealthy is going to affect them in the future. no longer can we stave off diabetes until our sixties, seventies and eighties. breast cancers are affecting women in their younger decades now more than ever. essentially we are in the midst of an obesity crisis black, white and yellow in america and if we don’t start to ask some relevant questions and come up with some relevant solutions, we will continue to lose our loved ones and friends to these obesity related diseases at alarming rates.

deewhy? December 23, 2011 - 11:49 AM

your response is dead on the money…black women are just fabulous creations…from our beauty… to our tenacity…but long term obesity has real consequences…that don’t seem serious…until…(gra’ma, auntie, mama, now even our babies)

your questions provoke critical thought…shame breeds more shame and self destruction…you’re spot on

Cherished December 22, 2011 - 4:12 PM

Great points!!!!

Asia December 23, 2011 - 4:14 PM

Not enough awareness, but definitely enough shaming.

Maybe I live in an alternate universe but fat black women get shamed all the time where I am.

We just dont cry, bitch and whine over it.

Sigh!

Stefanie December 23, 2011 - 8:42 PM

You’re right about it Asia! And good points made as well girldoc. When I got out, I am reminded of how fat I am. People treat me different than they would someone who appears in shape or who are not overweight. And I think we black women as a whole get just as down about being overweight. We deal with the same issues as our white counteparts. However, we black women generally know that we have to keep going and look good NO MATTER WHAT!

Miz_Fit June 7, 2012 - 12:49 PM

More than enough shame to go around in the Black Community.

The flaw of this “report” is thinking that “shame” is all that’s needed to cause change.

Ke July 22, 2012 - 6:44 PM

Yes there is alot of shaming in the community. Most people in this country are overweight. The black women I know are ashamed of themselves. When talking about obesity most people focus on the superficialness. The health should be the focus.

shawn January 4, 2013 - 4:21 PM

Let’s get healthy, Ladies! If the blood pressure is high, make getting it down your goal. If the cholesterol numbers are off, learn and eat the proper things to get them right.

We can be healthy AND stay fabulous.

Yes! I can imagine the day when the American obesity problem is a thing of the past. (In Arsenio voice) Let’s get busy!!!

Jay'L Harris January 6, 2013 - 6:20 PM

I love this site & all that you stand for. I was just having this conversation with my friend. You can’t bully people to change but motivate & encourage them along their journey. Thanks for the encouragement!

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