Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

December 15, 2012

Black women fight obesity

Words, activism aim to teach healthy habits

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nicole Ari Parker was motivated by frustration. For Star Jones, it was a matter of life or death. Toni Carey wanted a fresh start after a bad breakup.

All three have launched individual campaigns that reflect an emerging priority for African-American women: finding creative ways to combat the obesity epidemic that threatens their longevity.

African-American women have the highest obesity rate of any group of Americans. Four out of five black women have a body mass index above 25 percent, the threshold for being overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, nearly two-thirds of Americans overall are in this category, the CDC said.

Many black women seem to not be be bothered that they are generally heavier than other Americans.

Calorie-rich, traditional soul food is a staple in the diets of many African-Americans, and curvy black women are embraced positively through slang praising them as "thick" with a "little meat on their bones," or through songs like the Commodore's "Brick House" or "Bootylicious" by Destiny's Child. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post earlier this year found that 66 percent of overweight black women had high self-esteem, while 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women had high self-esteem.

Still, that doesn't mean black women reject the need to become healthier.

Historically black, all-female Spelman College in Atlanta is disbanding its NCAA teams and devoting those resources to a campus-wide wellness program. In an open letter announcing Spelman's "wellness revolution," president Beverly Daniel Tatum cited a campus analysis that found many of Spelman's 2,100 students already have high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes or other chronic ailments.

"Spelman has an opportunity to change the health trajectory of our students and, through their influence, the communities from which they come," Tatum's letter said.

Jones, who underwent open heart surgery in 2010 at age 47 and now urges awareness about heart disease among black women, was met by an overflow crowd earlier this year when she convened a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation panel on black women and obesity.

"We have to get ourselves out of being conditioned to think that using soft words so we don't hurt people's feelings is doing them any favor," Jones said. "Curvy, big-boned, hefty, full-figured, fluffy, chubby. Those are all words designed to make people feel better about themselves. That wasn't helpful to me."

Now, she advises women to make simple changes such as reducing salt intake, exercising 30 minutes a day, quitting smoking, controlling portion sizes and making nutritious dietary choices.

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