(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."
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.