Wednesday, July 26, 2006

More than 80% of black women older than 40 are overweight and more than 53% are obese

Kayce T. Ataiyero:

Last weekend, black comedian Mo'Nique held her second ``Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance,'' a beauty pageant for full-figured women who are ``fabulous and thick.'' The popular show, on the Oxygen network, encourages fat women - and the world - to believe they are beautiful by shattering myths about big girls. Fat girls can look sexy in lingerie. Fat girls can ride horses. Fat girls can do choreographed dance numbers.

But what Mo'Nique doesn't tell you is that big girls also have big health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes. Ain't nothing sexy about a stroke.

Obesity in women is one of the most serious public health threats in the country. Of women ages 20 to 74, 62 percent are overweight, according to the American Obesity Association. And 34 percent are obese, which is defined as having a body mass index of 30 or higher. Body mass index is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

The situation is particularly dire in the black community. More than 80 percent of black women older than 40 are overweight, according to a study released this month by The Cleveland Clinic. More than 53 percent are obese. And the incidences of heart disease, high blood pressure, hypertension and diabetes among black women are at epidemic levels.

These women are the ones Mo'Nique is targeting. She has made a career out of being an overweight woman. And she is at the forefront of one of the more socially irresponsible movements of our time.

For generations, obesity among black women has been deeply rooted in our cultural heritage. African women's wide hips and thick bodies were viewed as well-endowed, affluent, sturdy enough to bear many children. These women ate high-calorie, fatty foods to get the energy they needed to work in the fields.

On a subtle level, African girls learned that African men and families valued large women, said Ruth Johnson, an associate professor of nursing at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. Those cultural values were transmitted to the United States during slavery, Johnson said in an article analyzing obesity trends in black women.

These early ideals have lingered among black women, despite mainstream society's emphasis on thinness. A 2004 Boston College study of body-image issues among black adolescent girls found that they have high self-esteem about their bodies and, by and large, do not accept white notions of weight.

Many black women have a distorted view of their weight, and that view is reinforced by their cultural aesthetic, said Dr. Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Rush University Medical Center.

``I had a woman in a workshop whose (body mass index) was higher than 30 say to me, `I am not obese, look at me,''' Rucker-Whitaker said. ``They might look good in their clothes or be attractive to their boyfriends, and you have these cultural icons saying it's OK. That is really the wrong message to send.''

To be certain, notions of beauty are not the only culprits. Many factors are converging in this epidemic.

Some researchers point to diet, saying the eating habits of black women have long been influenced by cultural tradition. A LaSalle Bank study released last week said blacks who live in ``food deserts'' - neighborhoods where there are more fast-food restaurants than grocery stores - tend to make poor food choices.

Other studies suggest that black women, particularly those with low income, might be using food to cope with ``psychosocial stress.'' High rates of single motherhood have many black women assuming sole responsibility for sustaining their families, pressure that can prompt compulsive overeating. But higher rates of obesity in black women are seen at all socioeconomic levels.

Though the medical community has mixed opinions on what is hurting black women, it's clear that encouraging them to be overweight is not helping.

Persuading women to love themselves is a good thing. Far too few women of any size have a positive self-image. But too many black women are using our culture's affinity for thicker bodies as a license to carry too much weight. And Mo'Nique's celebration of obesity sets a dangerous example for women who wrongly equate loving themselves with accepting a size that is unhealthy.

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