On Blacks and Fat: Shannon Barber

This fat-acceptance advocate and blogger says that being healthy is not an obligation.

Courtesy of Shannon Barber
Courtesy of Shannon Barber

(The Root) — Obesity is more common in African Americans than in other ethnic groups. But when it comes to black people and weight, that’s where the agreement seems to end. Is food the culprit? Is exercise the solution? Is there even a real problem to begin with, or should we be focusing on health — or even self-acceptance — rather than the number on the scale?

Against the backdrop of a first lady’s mission to slim down the nation’s kids, black celebs getting endorsements after shedding inches and a booming weight-loss industry, The Root will publish a series of interviews with medical professionals, activists and fitness enthusiasts that reveal the complexity of this issue and the range of approaches to it.

For the seventh in the series, The Root talked to Shannon Barber, a self-described fat-acceptance advocate, who blogs at Nudemuse about topics including body acceptance, challenging mainstream views of weight and the pitfalls of the diet and exercise industries.

Read the rest of the interviews in the series here, and check out The Root’s other obesity coverage here.

The Root: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are 1.5 times as likely as whites to be obese. What’s going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?

Shannon Barber: Well, my first issue with that is those statistics almost always go by the BMI (body mass index), and the BMI is — I would say, if no one’s aware of it, just give it a quick Google — it’s one of the most flawed and inaccurate and awful things going on right now.

And unfortunately, with the BMI, there isn’t any real acknowledgment of other muscle types, bone density, muscle mass and other things that can make you go from being perfectly fine [in terms of BMI] to being morbidly obese. It’s completely misleading. The BMI was never even meant to address people in this manner; it’s not really what it was for. But it has become the ruler and the standard — and the big fear tactic.

TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?

SB: I don’t believe in the idea of binary health, for African Americans or any other group. I don’t believe people are absolutely healthy or absolutely unhealthy. Given the bio-differences of humanity, no one’s ever going to be healthy in the same way.

Let’s make it not about weight for a second: You and I can get on a plane together, and someone sitting between us coughs — I might catch a cold, you might not. That doesn’t mean you’re better than me. It just means that your particular biology is different from mine. And that’s not bad, that’s not good … it just is.