In 2013 there was an explosion of news stories reporting on a study that claimed that black/African American women have a much harder time losing weight than their white counterparts.
I didn’t know how to take this at the time. Was it an insult, an explanation, an exoneration? Haven’t we as black women been beaten down enough with all mainstream society’s allusions to our imagined inferiority?
I was pissed because in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but to think that this was just a farce to blame black women for being stereotypically lazy or slovenly and unable or unwilling to comply with the required behavioral interventions when it comes to healthy eating and exercise. You know, like, black women don’t run, don’t exercise, don’t swim, don’t ski, don’t hike, don’t surf and just secretly sit around like bumps on logs cramming our faces full of fried chicken and Twinkies or something. I deleted these stories one after another as they appeared in my newsfeed.
Until I came across this.
For years, the problem had researchers flummoxed — why, in weight loss trials that require participants to diet and exercise, did black women have consistently less dramatic results than their white counterparts? Now, one group of researchers purports to have the answer: it’s not that black women aren’t trying; it’s that it’s actually physically more difficult for them to lose weight.
So I took a look at the source myself to find out clues to why this might be. According to the International Journal of Obesity,
African American women exhibit similar adherence to intervention but lose less weight due to lower energy requirements
Nothing in the study said what some of the articles and blog posts were implying. Some people, and even I at first, misunderstood the crux of the study. To boil it down,
It is genetic differences in metabolism that make losing weight more difficult for black women.
So maybe the typical mainstream fitness and weight loss schemes don’t work well for us, so why keep on putting ourselves through that, only to face more disappointment?
The studies imply that in order to achieve a healthy weight the solution is to be more restrictive with our diets and more intense with our exercise than white women. I disagree. The answer is not to “try harder”, in other words, really step up to even harsher diets and more grueling boot camp workouts, because many of us have already tried it and it didn’t work to slim us down and reverse chronic lifestyle disease indicators long term. The key thing here is LONG TERM.
Let me explain:
We may not think of it this way now, but body fat is a protector against starvation and to some extent, malnutrition. Historically, we as black/African American women have had heavy burdens to bear. We labored hard gathering water and firewood and more back in the motherland. We were forced to work like beasts of burden in the slave plantations in the West.
And consider pregnancy, childbirth and mothering under those conditions. Food supply was either precarious or substandard because we had to live off of meager scraps. All this on top of the challenges and stresses of nurturing a people. So, the truth is that a slower metabolism was an adaptation to our environments that played a major role in our survival as a race.
Fat is not meant to kill us
Now, over the past 50 or so years, we have been bombarded by pressure to conform to western culture’s arbitrary standards of beauty, the main one being thinness. The mainstream media, and often the professional health establishment relentlessly replay the message that we as black women are somehow unworthy of love, health, beauty and success because we aren’t (un)shaped like women like Jillian Michaels. Some of us fell right into the trap, while others of us just to hell with this nonsense and let it go. Most of us are just not meant to be impossibly bone-skinny little frail princesses, no matter what.
But these expectations are ridiculous for women of all races and cultures, but especially so for us as black women of the African diaspora. With our historical backgrounds, these expectations make absolutely no sense. Would our ancestors have prevailed if they were as skinny and frail as today’s supermodels? Oh hell no! And so while we work and diet and work and diet, our genetics never got that memo. How could we, as a race have survived until modern times given slavery and racism? After all, only 2 or 3 generations or so have passed since that body fat we curse now was keeping us alive, and evolution takes far more than a few generations to take place. Our fat is literally holding on to us for dear life! But at the same time it’s killing us with chronic lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
Today, science tells us that the major contributing factors to weight gain or difficulty losing weight are stress, inflammation, lack of rest and poor quality food.
Historically and especially today we have neglected or been unable to sufficiently fulfill our human need for pleasure and relaxation because we were too busy nurturing and carrying heavy burdens of others. So instead of abusing our bodies into skinny submission that we can’t maintain anyway, let’s take another path now. Instead of fighting against our bodies, why don’t we just give them what we know they need? Love, acceptance, pleasure and rest–things that have been historically nearly unattainable to us.
I’m NOT saying that we black women shouldn’t eat well and exercise. We absolutely should. What I am saying is that if you’ve been there, done that, stepped up your efforts, and feel like you’re wearing yourself down and still have not been able to achieve and maintain the health you’re looking for, then you probably are wearing yourself down and need to try something more appropriate.
The very actions we take in the pursuit of optimal health and fitness create chronic stress and anxiety that makes our bodies betray our efforts and hold on to the fat even more. The good news is that we need to go in the exact opposite direction, and be kinder to our bodies.
Facing A New Paradigm for Black Women’s Health
If you are one of us who has been struggling with extra weight I challenge you to try a new path now. First, stop fighting against your own body and lovingly acknowledge that your body fat is not inherently flawed. The storage of fat had its usefulness but now it has become a detriment because of our modern lifestyles.
Most people only think of psychological stress when they hear the term “stress”. When asked what causes stress, they might say things like losing a job, having a fight with your spouse, driving in traffic or getting audited by the IRS.
While it’s true that psychological challenges like this are major stressors, what many people don’t realize is that stress is also caused by physiological challenges, such as:
- chronic infections
- autoimmune disease
- environmental toxins
- too much exercise
Even if your levels of psychological stress are pretty low, any of the conditions listed above can provoke a chronic stress reaction in your body. And as we’ll see in the next section, chronic stress can make you both fat and diabetic.
Acceptance, kindness, pleasure and self care are key components of lasting health, as much as eating well and moving our bodies.
For many of us, this is hard to do.
I believe the stress of weighty expectations and doing too much takes its toll on us. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens over weeks and months and years of pushing our own needs and desires down until we can’t feel them anymore. It happens, subtly, until it makes sense to do too much because that is just the way things are, the way things have always been.
I would like to add another tip to Crunk’s: Ask for help when you need it. This includes investing in your own health the way you invest financially or emotionally in others. Because just like when you’re on a plane and the attendant explains that in an emergency you should put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others. The reason is that if you go unconscious, you can’t help anyone.
It’s time we as black women start taking care of ourselves, which in turn, greatly benefits our families and communities.