Black Women Fight Weight and Win

From GirlTrek to Black Girls Run, women across the country are proving stereotypes wrong.

Black Girls Run (Via Facebook)

The power of being nurtured by a community of fitness-oriented women is echoed by many on the site.

“I used to hear older black women say, all of our issues lie in our belly,” says Audra Johnson, a mom and member of Black Women “Do” Workout who slimmed down to a size 6 at age 40 — after reaching 285 pounds at 5 feet 3 — and has kept the weight off for five years. “I really believe that if we help each other take care of emotions, the weight will take care of itself.”

Exposure to a culture of fitness was also what changed Rotunda Mobley’s life forever. More than 10 years ago, Mobley’s doctor told her that at 329 pounds, she was prediabetic. “So I said, ‘I’m going to take this on.’ I started by just walking up the stairs at work. Today my doctor has my before and after photos on her office wall,” says Mobley, who became a competitive body builder and is helping Adell develop Black Girls “Do” Workout.

“I also feel that it’s harder for us to combat messages from society and even our own families when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight,” says blogger Erika Nicole Kendall, who regularly takes on American culture and its impact on black women on her blog, A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, while sharing the fitness tips she learned when she was shedding 150 pounds. “In so many of our families we hear, ‘Why are you worried about a little meat on your bones? Why do you have to eat vegetables all the time?’ It’s a lot to fight.”

Science Backs the Trend

“We are so seldom celebrated for the good things that we do,” says Ann Smith Barnes, M.D., M.P.H. But her latest research, published in April in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, reported that a study group of black women had lost 10 to 24 percent of their body weight through diet and exercise. The work also analyzed how they kept the weight off. “The notion that black women [or girls] cannot benefit from diet and exercise is absurd,” Dr. Barnes says, but the research community says ‘show me.’ ” Barnes’ work did exactly that, documenting that the women who lost the most weight and kept it off ate less fat and less fast food, exercised and did not cut back on workouts to protect their hair.

Barnes does feel that significant emotional issues are in play for all women — not just black women — who are struggling with weight. “In my weight-loss clinic, I see a lot of undiagnosed depression, and treating it is definitely part of weight management.”

In a preview of work that will be published this fall, Jamy Ard, M.D., a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, asked a group of black and white women to sort issues, in their order of importance, that arose when they tried to lose weight. “We found that women of both races had similar issues, but they sorted into clusters. The largest issue for black women was struggling with multiple roles — mother, grandmother, breadwinner — and going from home to church, to work, etc. They felt stressed and therefore more likely to reach for fast food and less likely to work out.

“But we are seeing a change,” Dr. Ard continues. “There’s a shift in some of the women toward more natural hair, more active lifestyles. Only 44 percent of the women in the more active cluster were black, but they were less likely to be drawn to junk food and more likely to choose physical activity.” 

Ard’s statistics only confirm what Kendall already knows. “The women who come to my blog show me no black woman wants to take medication all her life or be overweight,” she says. “We just need support and to learn more about nutrition, fitness and making time for ourselves.”

Sheree Crute is a journalist who specializes in health and medicine.