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 lb.
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.
To read Noliwe Rooks’ entire story, go to Time