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A Plus-Sized Problem: Black Women and Obesity

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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Kimberly Seals Allers

She enters the stage in a revolving pyramid and haze of smoke. Dressed in shiny gold wide-legged pants and a matching gold jacket, she confidently walks to center stage.

In a boisterous voice she calls for all the "fat girls" to stand up and take a bow. It's the beginning of a popular and very funny stand-up routine of Mo'Nique, Golden Globe winner and comedy star, a routine where she spends a lot of time making fun of skinny girls--I won't use her exact words in this family friendly blog.

Suffice to say, Mo'Nique made a name for herself in the stand up circles as the poster child of "big girls" and quickly became one of America's best-loved plus sized personalities. She even penned the New York Times bestselling book, "Skinny Women Are Evil: Notes of a Big Girl in a Small-Minded World," published by Simon and Schuster.

I gotta admit, watching her comedy clips on YouTube--the act is very funny. But really obesity is no laughing matter.

Now I know we've never entertained the same body image perspectives as white women. Our families are full of Big Mamas, robust Aunties and other big women who doled out good food and good love, both in earnest portions. And let's face it: Black men tend to like us with ample thighs and a little "junk in the trunk," as they say. Or as my Granny would say, "Don't nobody want a bone, but a dog."

But things are getting beyond a little healthy meat on the bones. Overweight and obesity has increased for all Americans across the board. It's no wonder, President Obama recently announced a new obesity reduction initiative to be spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The problem is particularly pronounced in our community. Nearly 70 percent of African Americans are overweight compared to 62 percent of white Americans. Among black women the statistics are reveal a greater difference. About 78 percent of black women age 20-74 are overweight, compared to 57 percent of white women in that same age group. Fifteen percent of black women are classified as severely obese, compared to 5 percent of white women.

The culprits in our community are typical: poor dietary choices, lack of healthy or organic food options in many urban areas, lack of physical activity or exercise and our greater acceptance of larger body types.

The ramifications can't be ignored. In pregnancy, being overweight or obese can lead to pregnancy complications and a difficult labor and delivery. The risk of a pregnant woman of being hospitalized goes up four times if she's overweight.

The March of Dimes Task Force on Nutrition and Optimal Human Development presented a report indicating that women who are overweight or obese are 30 to 40 percent more likely to have a baby who has major birth defects such as those that affect the brain, heart, and digestive system. Among the most common obesity-related birth defects are neural tube defects, heart defects, and abdominal wall defects. Folic acid supplements, usually effective in preventing these conditions, may not be as protective in overweight women, according to some studies.

Beyond our babies, obesity often leads to heart disease and many other problems in black women. This is not about a number on the scale; it's about being healthy. It's time for big girls and skinny girls and everyone in between to come together for all girls.