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 consensus 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 the 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 first in the series, The Root talked to filmmaker Darryl Roberts, whose documentaries America the Beautiful and America the Beautiful II: The Thin Commandments set out to challenge mainstream notions about weight, beauty and health.
The Root: According to the latest statistics, African Americans are 1.5 times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be obese. What's going on, from your perspective, with black people, obesity and overall health?
Darryl Roberts: What I've found is that one of the things going on with African Americans and obesity is that we are living with a lot of stress in inner cities, and that stress is causing us to invite disease in our bodies and causing us to do emotional eating. In addition, there are food deserts [in black communities] where people simply can't access the type of food they need to be healthy.
TR: When it comes to African Americans and obesity, what is the biggest myth or misunderstanding?
DR: The biggest myth would be that African Americans have these horrid eating habits, they live off McDonald's and KFC and Popeyes, that they don’t exercise … People say this kind of thing in a way that's totally devoid of the concept of the stress going on in black people's lives. The other thing that's hurting us in the black community is we're not given the proper knowledge — we're beat down with the message that you can't be overweight and healthy — when in actuality, studies show that you can.
America the Beautiful II deals with the fact that most blacks will be overweight or obese just from our body build alone. It does not mean you have to be unhealthy. In [the film] we explore how BMI [body mass index] is used as a proxy for health and how that can be meaningless, especially for black people who are built in a particular way. So that can cause more harm than good.
TR: If you could make just one suggestion for people to implement in their daily lives with respect to weight and health, what would it be?
DR: I would strongly advise people to start exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week. And eat in a more balanced way. You don't have to give up the fast food completely, but add fruits and vegetables and grains. If you engage in healthy behaviors, you will become healthier whether you lose weight or not.
That's the tricky part in the black community because sometimes people will start off eating right, start off exercising and then step on the scale and the scale hasn't moved, so they stop their healthy behaviors, thinking they aren't working. And that isn't true. You're becoming healthier; you just may not be losing weight. So in the black community, I really want to disconnect the concepts of health and weight and focus on the health part.
TR: What cultural and historical or psychological issues make the black community's relationship with weight and health unique?
DR: I think there are many unique cultural things related to growing up black in America that make our relationship with health unique. Whether it's unemployment rates or any other aspect of our lives, we're dealing with a cloud of stress that a lot of other races aren't dealing with. If you go to an inner city, just to be black brings upon it a certain amount of stress — Deepak Chopra discusses this in the film — and that can kill you.
Next: Erika Nicole Kendall, author of the blog A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is the staff writer for The Root.