The data is disturbing: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four out of five Black women in the United States are overweight or obese. A common theory is that Black culture promotes larger than average female figures, and the acceptance of a fuller body has become its norm and serves to shield Black women from society’s ideal slender female body. The question is how did Black culture get to adopt a norm that’s so different from the main culture?
From the beginning of American cinema, on the one hand, Black women were portrayed as overweight housekeepers only capable of following simple instructions. That negative portrayal remained largely unchanged. That portrayal served as the lens through which society has judged Black women, a group deemed far below what they considered beautiful or even acceptable.
Meanwhile, the Black community was advancing its own ideal, one heavily influenced by European standards but with one exception, that a larger size is not a deficit. With the advent of rap music videos, for the first time Black women graced television screens and magazine covers as attractive and were on an equal playing field with their white counterparts; unfortunately, they were over-sexualized.
According to the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, Black women have, at the same BMIs, a higher sense of attractiveness than their white counterparts. For white women, there seems to be a negative relationship between high BMI and attractiveness, but for Black women, BMI and attractiveness are not related. The Black culture is shielding its members from the reality of being denied access to the greater society.
Why the divergence? Since the slave era, Black women were categorized as females whose values were not measured by intelligence, charm, and physical beauty but by the ability to work. Thus, value was assigned to the practical advantage of a robust figure. Later, Black women were banned from mainstream beauty contests, and the first Black contestant in the Miss America beauty pageant was not until 1971.That exclusion granted freedom to create their own standards. Most beauty variations in racial and cultural adaptations are benign. Regrettably, the cultural acceptance of larger size has made Black women a demographic with the highest prevalence of obesity and a decreased life expectancy.
What can we do? The public health institutions can launch a campaign to address an issue that causes physical, social, and political harm. There must be a campaign of inclusion to counterbalance the perception of being “other,” a concerted program that advances healthy weight guidelines to be practiced by all, an overt promotion targeting Black women as people who are as valued as all other members of our society and whose contributions are embedded into the fabric of this country.
Marie-Ange Moise holds a master’s degree as a nurse practitioner, currently enrolled in CUNY School of Public Health pursuing an advanced degree in epidemiology.