Is There Sexism When We Discuss Weight Issues in The Black Community?
Ever notice that any discussion on weight in the African-American community seems to only center on women?
I’ve noticed it. In blogs, on television and in news articles. Everyone wants black women to get fit, especially men. Boris Kodjoe once went on an ill-advised and bone-headed Twitter tirade/rant aimed at overweight black women. And NPR even ran a piece a couple of months ago on how half of African-American women in the U.S. are obese. It seems that everyone is obsessed with our weight and is out to save us from the terrible health dilemma associated with being fat. You could sort of understand as all the studies and crunched numbers show black women have the highest rates of being overweight and obese compared to other groups in the United States. Truth be told, it couldn’t hurt for us to focus more on our health and well-being. However our weight, as black women, is not the full story.
According to the latest statistics provided by the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, while 78 percent of African-American women can be classified as overweight or obese, the number of black men classified as either overweight or obese is 71 percent. And while black women represent a disproportionately large number of those classified as obese (as having a Body Mass Index of 30 pounds or greater), black men as a group were more likely to be classified as overweight (as defined as having a BMI at 25 percent or greater than the standard) than black women. In other words, what we have here is a situation of the fat pot calling the fat kettle a fat a**.
So how did the conversation about weight within the community become so skewed? I think that one of the reasons why the issue of obesity in the community has transformed into a women-only issue is because of our societal impulse to believe that women, and more importantly their bodies, are for gawking. Women are more often described, judged and criticized in terms of what we look like, rather than what we think or do far more than our male counterparts. As such, our society has created numerous industries – from cosmetics, to fashion, right down to weight loss regiments and programs – which help to further reinforce the notions that a woman’s body, particularly her shape, holds more value than anything else she has to offer.
The ironic thing is that obesity rates have increased sharply in the United States over the past 30 years in general, and today, nearly one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. These children are developing diseases normally associated with adults, such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. African-American children ages 6 to 11 are more likely to be obese or overweight than white children. And yet we spend a majority of the time focused on women.
Likewise, black men are more likely to be overweight the older they get, have a shorter life span than black women, and according to the Center for Disease Control, are more likely to die from preventable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. While we either chide or celebrate celebrity women such as Mo’Nique, Gabourey Sidibe and even down to Rihanna every time their weight fluctuates, we as a community are virtually silent about their male counterparts like Heavy D and Patrice O’Neal and Rick Ross, whose own weight issues have either contributed to poor health or even death. This gender specific emphasis on weight management might be effective in shaming the fairer sex into shape, but only focusing on women has done a major disservice to our men in the community, who are almost equally at-risk for obesity related illnesses.
This past weekend, I went past my grandmother’s house to visit. Over the last 10 years she has had a heart attack, two strokes and eventually a triple bypass surgery. Now she is on oxygen. Unfortunately, watching my grandmother deteriorate in front of my eyes has been all the inspiration I need to ensure that I am eating right and in the gym at least three times a week. Yet my uncle, who lives and helps to take care of my grandmother and has been a vocal critic of my grandma’s inactivity for years, suffered his first heart attack a few months ago. And still, his main focus is on what my grandmother ain’t doing as opposed to what he needs to be doing for himself.
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