Beyond BMI: Why Black Women Need Fairer Measures of Health

27 Comments
November 21, 2011 ‐ By

Is the BMI Wrong For Black Women

My coworker came into the office noticeably flustered after visiting her primary care physician one day. It didn’t take much to pry what was wrong out of her — the doctor had warned her that she was in danger of becoming obese and she was outraged. The Miami-Cuban accent that came out of her was priceless as she told us how she explained to the doctor that while she had gained a bit of weight, she was still 30 pounds away from falling into the obese category and certainly didn’t appreciate his insinuation.

Being Latina, my coworker deals with many of the same body issues as black women — full thighs, wider hips, bigger butts, pudgier waists — and pressures to tone what genetics has already dictated as irreversibly thick. I’m sure the doctor’s intention was to prevent my coworker from having weight-related complications down the line, but his words had just the opposite effect. The way she saw things, if at her current weight she was almost obese, there was no way she could ever get down to an acceptably healthy size — and therefore she wouldn’t try. I think the same type of thinking rings true for many black women as well.

When you consider it, the concepts of overweight, obese, and morbidly obese are arbitrary, taking into account nothing more than height, weight, and age. These measurements have been standardized into something called the body mass index, and it is a dubious tool with deleterious effects. Documentary filmmaker Darryl Roberts (who happens to be an African-American) attacks the validity of these notions in his latest project, “America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.” The film is a follow-up to his first award-winning documentary, which centered on the oppressive aspects of beauty in our culture such as rampant plastic surgery. In part two, he addresses dieting.

In an interview with CNN, Roberts explains that the original intention of the body mass index (BMI) was to show the average sizes of populations, not diagnose health or establish someone’s ideal weight. He adds that the current use of BMI to predict health didn’t come into play until the 1970s. When the government obliged Weight Watchers’ request to lower the BMI range for those considered overweight in 1998, the dieting powerhouse suddenly had a slew of new customers. Basically, a lot of people became “overweight” over night.

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  • nogoodnews

    I see many black women who say they are “curvey” when they is just fat. But if the word curvey helps them get through their next fried chicken wing and watermelon slice ….Heck … I saw one black gal at work down 12 (twelve) heavily fried drumsticks. My DH and I eat 5 total between us (3 for him and 2 for me) and we don’t fry our food. Perhaps that’s why her “curves” were 400 pounds or so.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000209883080 Jane Smith

    Extremely interesting article. One person in the comments states that BW have less osteo than WW – had no idea about that but just googled & yes it’s TRUE according to studies. Wow, again fascinating!

    As far as weight & AA women – true the BMI scale goes for small boned WW (who are more at risk for Osteo) & the BMI scale actually needs to be adjusted for ethnicity imho. Many Jewish women could also come under the AA BMI scale if it ever gets developed because many of them have AA traits.

    I just returned from Europe and the BW in Paris are stunning, totally totally slim, think Asian slim – just like the WW. It is because in Paris you walk like 5 – 10 miles a day, every woman in Paris that lives there is super super slender – that’s what happens when you walk and take the train/tram everywhere imho.

    The only thing Parisian BW are not doing is wearing their hair natural like more and more BW here in the USA & I think that’s a shame.

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  • Swanhilde

    Blacks cannot compare themselves to Whites as far as BMI or anything else for that matter. Remember all of these “health standards” are White – originated, meaning that they are attempting to apply thier standards to everyone else. They can’t – it is like apples and oranges. The closet race to them as far as build and bone density are Asians. Whites have less bone density than Blacks, this is why they are more subject to osteoporosis. This is why at the same height and basic build we are heavier.
    Consider the source. Stop listening to the news when it gives you all of these comparisons because of course, we always wind up not coming out as healthy wealthy or wise. Its a sick little head game – “well, again, you guys just aren’t up to par”. Forget that. Unless you have a problem that is directly related to a clinical trial, do not participate in one. Why? Because very often we are not the recipients of medical treatment that is new or innovative that is a result of a clinical trial – we usually get what is expedient, inexpensive and not very effective. We are good enough to experiment on but not good enough to diagnose accurately or treat effectively.
    This is what needs to be done:
    Instead of getting whatever garbage they have down at the convenience store, go to a store that has frozen bagged vegetables..it is the closest to fresh that you can get. If you cannot get fresh meat get the frozen and I don’t mean the chicken with the breading – if it says anything other than beef or chicken on the packge, do not buy it. Take the time to shop smart. Stay away from the easy – to fix stuff-again, full of preservatives and other additives that your body doesn’t like and won’t know how to metabolize. Cut down on the salt in your cooking, use more spices to flavor your food.
    Cut down on your consumption of sugars-that soda you are drinking is not only full of sugar, but preservatives and all other kinds of garbage that your body doesn’t recognize. Stop doing fast food so much – it’s loaded with calories. A hamburger fixed at home is much cheaper and healthful. Learn to cook from scratch, even if you have to get a cookbook from somewhere.
    Take a mulitvitamin. If you’ve got enough time to surf the web for other stuff you’ve got enough time to look at natural supplements and find out about thier healthful qualities as well.
    Exercise, exercise, exercise…go for a walk, walk in place if you must-at least 30 min a day as many days a week as you can. Can’t do 30 min right now? Start with 5 or 10 min and work up to the 30.
    Understand this- WE must take control of our own health because (and I know this from over 35 years of experience with the American Medical community) the medical community in this country really doesn’t give a damn about us. If this were not the case then Blacks would not have such bad medical outcomes. It’s not because we are different, or because we don’t go to the doctor (if we can we do) and it doesn’t matter our health insurance status (I had had good insurance and I have none in my life) the quality of our treatment is still lousy.
    We won’t need the doctor as often (if at all) if we take care of ourselves. If enough of us do it, that is another unfortunate statistic they cannot throw in our faces to try to make us feel badly about ourselves. It is time we decide, unequivocally to take charge of ourselves and our destiny as a people.

    • Dani

      I like to say Natasha is right! In AA community we are being pressured to be fatter, I am going to call it like it is, because its show aint thick at all! I am a short girl 4’11 and when I was 99 pounds to 100 pounds in which it is normal bmi for my height, my own AA people still looked at me as thinner like I was aneroxia, when actually I was normal weight for my height! Now I can see if I was 5’8 113 pounds like buffie the body who was actually was aneroxia for her height, because she was taller! But being shorter I was considered normal weight zone very active and eating healthy!

      But in the AA community they don’t want that, they want their women fat all over, I am a black woman myself! I had black women who was fat all around the gut and all over, to tell me to gain the weight to their level! And yes I am afraid in many aspects they thought they were thick, that is why I donot take stereotypes as far as a black woman, being thick in the butt and hips and thin in the waist is all a lie! Not every black woman is built like that, you have black women, built like white women and how the society would see it as no hips or butt at all! But let me remind everybody of this! People period comes in many shapes and sizes, including black women!

      They put people in categories, that they should never be put! I have seen it all! I have seen black women as fat as white women and both built the same, fat gut and everything, but because one is black, she is looked at as being thicker, while the white girl is automatically as looked at as being fat! I totally disagree, when they both carry the same amount of weight, people are people race has nothing to do with a certain built, people just be built a certain way because god made them and therefore, he tells you to take care of your body! But AA community we have to stop justifying the fatness like its alright or ok to be that way, when actually its not, that’s called being lazy!

      You can’t say its mostly muscle, if you haven’t even picked up a weight yet at your local gym! Now that’s when fat turns into muscle! But people today wants to justify the fatness so they wouldn’t have to workout like that’s automatically muscle, but excuse me, you workout to gain muscle, you don’t sit on your butt to do it! But what I am trying to say is this, I am sick of these stereotypes, when people of every race have their own body to attend too, instead of putting race into a cateogry!

    • Dani

      I like to say Natasha is right! In AA community we are being pressured to be fatter, I am going to call it like it is, because its show aint thick at all! I am a short girl 4’11 and when I was 99 pounds to 100 pounds in which it is normal bmi for my height, my own AA people still looked at me as thinner like I was aneroxia, when actually I was normal weight for my height! Now I can see if I was 5’8 113 pounds like buffie the body who was actually was aneroxia for her height, because she was taller! But being shorter I was considered normal weight zone very active and eating healthy!

      But in the AA community they don’t want that, they want their women fat all over, I am a black woman myself! I had black women who was fat all around the gut and all over, to tell me to gain the weight to their level! And yes I am afraid in many aspects they thought they were thick, that is why I donot take stereotypes as far as a black woman, being thick in the butt and hips and thin in the waist is all a lie! Not every black woman is built like that, you have black women, built like white women and how the society would see it as no hips or butt at all! But let me remind everybody of this! People period comes in many shapes and sizes, including black women!

      They put people in categories, that they should never be put! I have seen it all! I have seen black women as fat as white women and both built the same, fat gut and everything, but because one is black, she is looked at as being thicker, while the white girl is automatically as looked at as being fat! I totally disagree, when they both carry the same amount of weight, people are people race has nothing to do with a certain built, people just be built a certain way because god made them and therefore, he tells you to take care of your body! But AA community we have to stop justifying the fatness like its alright or ok to be that way, when actually its not, that’s called being lazy!

      You can’t say its mostly muscle, if you haven’t even picked up a weight yet at your local gym! Now that’s when fat turns into muscle! But people today wants to justify the fatness so they wouldn’t have to workout like that’s automatically muscle, but excuse me, you workout to gain muscle, you don’t sit on your butt to do it! But what I am trying to say is this, I am sick of these stereotypes, when people of every race have their own body to attend too, instead of putting race into a cateogry!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=33600487 Natasha Stovall

    I had to laugh at this article.   While I agree that those standards are based on the average Caucasian and we tend to have different builds which puts us in the higher range (I was 145 and a size 4 and my doctor expressed concern about how much I weighed), which does not tell the whole story.  However, we all know that there are many pressures placed on AFAM women in regards to our weight and within our society it is to be thick so although this article points the finger at the medical standard which is trying to push us to have a healthier lifestyle, our culture is telling women not to loose weight or get “too skinny.”  As a slim woman since the age of 10, I have had to deal with family, strangers, etc telling me that I need to eat more, get thicker, “don’t work out too much, you don’t need to get any smaller”… at 5’5, 140 lbs and 40 inch hips I’m just fine but there is a cultural push to be thick even if it means eating unhealthy not exercising and being paranoid of loosing fat.  I would argue that many black women have negative ideas about body image NOT because society tells us to be skinny but because the AFAM culture tells us to be thick in the hips with “an a** so fat that you can see it from the front.”  The truth is our unhealthy lifestyles and eating habits are killing us, our husbands and our kids.  They can say what they want but there are plenty of “almost obese” chocolate women, men and children in urban areas no matter how skewed the standards are. 

    • w8tLOSSguru

      I was 5′ 3″ 145 lbs and a size 3/4 in juniors and I was highly concerned with losing weight. My BMI was on the high side, and I thought my thighs were too big, my butt was too big, and my waist could stand to be smaller. The “thick” pressures on AA women are nothing compared to the images in the media showing everyone that a universal aspect of beauty is being thin. Also, walking around in a country with citizens who are also exposed to these ideals of weight means that although I get compliments when I am thicker, more are given when I am more thin. So, regardless of what the AA community pressures hold, the majority always wins, and in this case, the white standards of beauty are definitely the front runner. And this effect and idea of caucasian beauty on all the other cultures in this country expands into so much more territory than just weight.

  • Ebonydiva82

    The BMI is very misleading. Although I am not concerned as I am within my normal weight range, I don’t like that it does not distinguish between fat and muscle.

  • Britt

    Its crazy how every time I read an article that speaks on black women and health issues from obesity, I always read the same things: women of color are naturally born with bigger hips, thighs, and breasts to justify why most are overweight. STOP IT!!! Everyone is genetically predisposed to have a certain body type whether you are thin or fat. What most fat people don’t seem to get is the fact that you are recommended by professionals to lose weight to be at a healthy weight, not to be model thin. So making excuses for yourself to build up your lack of self esteem and underlying health issues is not necessary.

  • Namia20

    Correction!! African women are not prone to  thick waists!!!!! may be butts, hips, thighs..but not waists!!!…thought i should point that out..any way Fat is fat…deep down every body knows when they are tipping the scales..stop kid gloving..making excuses wont wish the fat away..

  • Torontochick

    My good friend is a Polish-born Blonde. She weighs 140, I weigh 150. We are the same height roughly. She is literally in disbelief everytime I reminder her of that because, well, not to be arrogant or anything but we BOTH know I’m more toned and compact at ten pounds heavier than she is. I think this sounds about right, we can handle a good ten – 15 pounds more than white women of the same height and have the same amount of body fat (heavier, denser bones and greater muscle mass), but anything more than this and you are probably just kidding yourself unless you’re as athletic as Serena. Sorry, ladies.

    • MsDdre

      So, why are you chiding A.J. for his comment, when you’re pretty much making the same assessment?

      You tell AJ not to make excuses because ‘fat is fat’, and yet you torture your white friend for being in better shape than her by being ten pounds heavier.

      Make up your mind…

  • http://www.reflectionandreview.com S Kat

    Thank you for this article. It’s great that you emphasize that our focus should be on health and fitness as opposed to achieving an “ideal” weight that doesn’t take our particular physiological structure into account – and, girl! – you dropped some science with that Weight Watchers bit – SMH but not surprised.

  • A.J.

    I couldn’t agree with this article more.  Black women and white women carry their weight differently.  A white woman who weighs 190 pounds may look heavier than her African-American counterpart.  No one is saying that we should just brush obesity off; it’s a serious problem. And a few simple changes (walking or biking, eating healthier foods, skipping super-sugary desserts, finding natural alternatives to certain medicines) can make all the difference. But just because someone is overweight does not mean that they’re automatically a flight risk.  And that BMI chart needs some serious work, as the expectations that it sets are unrealistic.  I don’t think that they factor in height as much as they should, either. 

    • Torontochick

      A white woman who weighs 190 pounds is still fat, though… and so is a black woman. Come on ladies let’s not get silly here LOL.

      • SeeMe

        observe that in A.J.’s comment he didn’t mention height to go with that weight. 190lbs on exceptional tall females (>/= 5’11”)  will carry differently than say, My 5’6″ frame (and to make my point a female/male who is 6’3″ and weighs 190lbs would fall in the normal weight catergory according to the bmi index – 23.7 to be exact). Moreover his/her point was that Black Women have a higher ratio of muscle to fat so that The white female counterpart may look more pudgy than the black of the same weight. You simply chose to latch onto the weight that was used as. an. example. and not the point that A.J. was trying to make about why the bmi index does not work for everyone. ANother point as to why the BmI index is inaccurate in it’s assessment of the general population is that men have more muscle than women (bringing me back to my point that 190lbs is not necessarily fat); the original bmi INDEX doesn’t account for even that. 

      • Kellie Martin36

        it depends on the height, so YOU don’t get silly her please…

  • Getit!

    Pudges and bulges tell the observer that you are eating more food than you work off. It’s a deal. You eat as fuel. When you abuse food as a drug you end up with unhealthy mood swings too much sugar converts to alcohol in the blood stream and acts as a depressant. Switch a couple apples in your snack bag instead of chips. Have a leafy dark green salad as a side instead of mashed potatoes and biscuits(not this Thursday though) and see don’t you have more energy.

  • Girliusmaximus

    First I’d like to point out: I work in a hospital (I won’t name it), and the nursing and doctor staff there are some of the heaviest health professionals I’ve ever seen. I find it funny that doctors want to tell you that you’re overweight but they aren’t leading by example… What if there was law that didn’t allow docs/nurses to practice unless they met certain weight requirement???

    I think this can be applied to all women. BMI tends to be destructive because like the writer mentioned it is too general and standardized and does not take into account different body types. Look at white women who are 120 pound and say they need to lose 15… Unless you are under 5 feet tall 120 lbs is fine. And yes I believe that people should pay attention to their weight and health overall as it applies to them and not based on some mold to people should fit into. What works for one might not necessarily work for another.

    Most diabetics I know are skinny not overweight (skinny according to white people’s standards). Weight does not tell the entire story when it comes to a person’s health. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer and all other manner of sickness don’t discriminate. Skinny and fat people alike have problems. And of course excess weight exacerbates medical conditions, but it’s not always the primary cause. “Fat” peple can be fit, and skinny people can be out of shape. Not everyone is making excuses to be fat, but no one should be subjected to criteria that doesn’t apply to everyone and isn’t appropriate.

  • Jay

    another article excusing the weight problems AA women have. Eighty percent of you are Fat, get over it!

    • astodghill

      Yes, if you read the article, I think you might reconsider that it’s statements like this one you are making that makes people want to give up, and not even try to be healthier. I for one weigh about 125 pounds, but people look at me and think I weigh about 110. I often tell people to try to pick me up as a joke, as a way of helping them realize that you can look like you are a certain weight, but often black women are heavier. I think there is more muscle there than you think, and that this can actually help us lose weight with encouragement if we try. (If we need to.) But some people have been led to believe they are so far gone, that there is no reason to even make simple changes.

      Positive, realistic encouragement to be healthier, not cruel words, Jay.

    • Truth0312

      If I wasn’t so concerned with keeping my just thick enough size 6 frame intact, I’d ask you to pass the crack pipe.  Please take your ignorance elsewhere; your self-loathing is unwelcome.  This article hits on some legitimate points.  I used to be 200 lbs and size 18/20, but I was never “sloppy” for lack of a better word.  I don’t mean to offend my sisters out there.  I was very solid, bigger to be sure, but I didn’t have a lot of jiggle or rolls.  Both of my parents are short with solid musculature, so my arms & legs are still bigger than most White women my size even though I’ve lost weight there, too.  Black/Latina women do carry weight differently than White folks and BMI isn’t the end all be all of healthy body proportions.  

      I wasn’t even trying to get thin, just wanted to cut back on fast food and soda.  A friend was getting in shape for her wedding and wanted a work out buddy, so I decided to help her out.  I thought I’d fall off the wagon after she moved away, but to my surprise, the weight just kept falling off.  I never thought I’d be able to drink only water for as long as I did, I was a soda addict!  But it’s all I drink now and I limited drive-thru lunches to once a week if that, bring a sandwich and fruit from home.  There are small things we can do to get healthier that eventually turn into lifestyle changes without us even realizing it.  It CAN be done ladies, I’m riding with you. 

      • Guest

        Good job!  I’m a male athlete who is 5’9″ and weighs 185lbs with a body fat of 10%.  Women generally have higher body fat percentages, so any woman who weighs as much as I do or more than not healthy.  200 lbs size 20 is not “thick.”  Its very overweight.  I’m glad you were able to lose weight by making healthy choices and not doing a stupid crash/fad diet.