On Blacks and Fat: 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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I really tend to view weight in the same way. And I don't think that health is an obligation. I don't have to be visually attractive to other people; other people aren't responsible to feed me … my fat acceptance is very much rooted in bodily autonomy. I don't believe that anyone has the right to police other people's bodies.

I'm really not a fan of the health-and-diet industry, either. It's abusive and hurtful and is based on lies. I don't believe those famous TV trainers who tell you that if you just try hard enough, and if you exercise until you throw up and you buy the things that they sell, then you, too, will be an awesome human being. It's just sick and abusive, and it's toxic to people. And more than the "obesity crisis," I feel that is what is leading people to so much sickness and death.

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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?

SB: I would say that the most important thing, for me personally, was to have a moment where I understood that nobody owns my body. All of the people who would take issue with it, or walk by me and call me fat ass or talk about the food I buy in the grocery store — I had to figure out that none of those people was responsible for my body or for taking care of me. I would remind people of that.

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TR: What cultural, historical or psychological issues make the black community's relationship with weight and heath unique?

SB: Weight, I think, has become a really divisive and ugly thing in the black community. I've seen — probably in the last 10 years or so — this shift [among] young women trying to fit this very white, European standard of beauty that, unfortunately, they're just never going to have. And then you have other people that are trying to uphold the kind of very sexualized thick image of the perfect woman, and that's highly problematic as well.

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And then of course we have other people in our community, you know — a lot of us just don't have time to care. A lot of people in the community have so many other things to do. That's just not even on their radar.

When it comes to the numbers of African Americans involved in the fat-acceptance movement, the number is way smaller than it should be. But like every other movement that's been started, [getting followers] can be difficult.

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Next: Dr. Gayle Porter of the Gaston & Porter Health Improvement Center.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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