(The Root) — With hard work, determination, friendship and sometimes faith, a group of black women have mounted a successful, national battle against obesity that’s helping women in communities all over the country.
Surprised? That’s expected. Recent media coverage of obesity among black women provides a near-constant diet of stereotypes and hopelessness, while giving sisters a public scolding for supposedly choosing to be fat.
A study conducted at Cardiff University in England, for example, reported that black girls are “less sensitive to the effects of physical activity” when it comes to weight loss. CBS News, the Los Angeles Times and U.S. News & World Report, among other outlets, jumped on the story — each failing to question the accuracy of self-reported data gathered from 13-year-olds or why the researchers identified the girls solely by race without at least discussing their ethnic origins, since there is no genetic basis for skin color.
A few weeks before the Cardiff study, the New York Times decided to ask a black female novelist (rather than a fitness or health expert?) to share her opinion on why black women were fat. Alice Randall’s now somewhat notorious essay suggested that black women were willing to risk ill health through obesity in order to appeal to black men — a message that major media outlets were more than happy to re-report.
Of course, negative media are not the source of the problem. The fact is that four out of five black women are overweight or obese, but fitness professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping black women slim down and get healthy say there is a much more balanced, accurate and beneficial way to have this conversation.
“There are organizations out there doing great work and offering real solutions to the problem, so why choose this story? Our constant woe is so often the storyline,” says Vanessa Garrison, the founder, along with T. Morgan Dixon, of GirlTrek. In 2010 they created the not-for-profit organization to “inspire black women to live their healthiest lives … and inspire healthier communities.”
More than 10,000 black women have completed GirlTrek’s 10-week walking challenge. Their goal is to reach 100,000 women by 2015. Dixon and Garrison also teach women to serve as health “trailblazers” in their communities and offer fellowships for a life-changing health adventure. One of this year’s GirlTrek fellows hiked in the wilds of Alaska and will now share her experiences with other young black women.
At about the same time that GirlTrek was formed, Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks started Black Girls Run to fight the obesity epidemic and provide resources and encouragement for black female runners. Their national network is now 44,000 strong.
While Dixon, Garrison, Carey and Hicks agree that the recipe for better health is to move more and eat less, they acknowledge that more attention needs to be paid to the other issues that contribute to the problem. “We see so many women with self-esteem issues. That’s why we bring black women together to support each other,” says Carey, a runner, who won her own battle with weight as a teen. “I was a size 22 in middle school, but I gradually took it off.”
Creating a Healthier Culture
The success of GirlTrek and Black Girls Run is no surprise to Dallas personal trainer Crystal Adell. In early 2009 Adell was sick of hearing that “we don’t work out,” she says. So she started a Facebook fan page, Black Women “Do” Workout, posted fitness and nutrition advice and asked black women to add their workout photos and healthy-living tips. “We now have nearly 200,000 women on the page, and they share with one another to keep each other inspired,” she says. “It shows that when we work together, when we care about each other, we can accomplish so much.”