Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

Part 2: What's Eating African-American Women?

Illustration for article titled Part 2: Whats Eating African-American Women?

(Second of three parts.)

Black women and weight. Could there possibly be a thornier subject? We are a sensitive bunch when it comes to confronting our obese reality. There’s embarrassment and shame, sadness and fear, and a great deal of anger.


But there’s an elephant in the room, and no it’s not your Aunt Boo: With four out of five black women overweight or obese, this is nothing short of an epidemic, but you’ll never hear about it on the evening news. No one’s sponsoring 5K races to fund a cure for big black women or holding telethons (because a waist is a terrible thing to mind! – sorry). There’s no need: Obesity is 100 percent curable.

So why are so many of us not just overweight or obese, but increasingly part of a newer, growing category called “super obese” – meaning about 200 pounds or more overweight? While each person is different, I firmly believe there exists commonalities worth exploring, because you can’t have 80 percent of black women being overweight without having something, anything in common – unless you want to say that overweight is our new “normal,” and the 20 percent who aren’t are freaks of nature.


Pretty scary stuff. And yet, that’s where we’re headed unless we get to the root of the problem.

Here’s what I think, based on my experience, keen observations and personal knowledge of life as an African-American woman in these United States. I’m going to ask you to put away your knives for a minute while I lay down these stats and back away, slowly:

· 60 percent of African-American women suffer from depression. (U.S. Surgeon General)

· Only 7 percent of black women seek professional help because of the stigma of weakness. (Surgeon General)

· 63 percent of African Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness, and only 31 percent believe it is an actual, treatable medical problem. (Mental Health America [MHA])


· Twice as many women become depressed as men. (MHA)

· Depression affects more black women than white women. (MHA, again)

I get the “weakness” stance. After all, our ancestors survived slavery; we have no right to complain. And sometimes we’re told by our pastors that depression is from Satan, so the only person we should be talking to is Jesus.


“Some of this is cultural,” says Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a D.C.-based, national nonprofit dedicated to advancing the health and wellness of African-American women. “Many of us were raised to play multiple roles and assume responsibilities that our men sometimes don’t. So we overcompensate.

“There’s this whole notion of being big, black, female and strong,” she says. “Bigness can denote power. We’re enamored of the idea that we as black women are all powerful. By being overweight, we’re big and in control, taking care of our kids and everyone else.”


It’s a myth that’s slowly killing us, and as black women, we need to come together to support one another in health and wellness – something we don’t do well. “There’s a lack of meaningful and personal relationships among black women, and we need to do much better. We’re lonely, and have trouble believing in ourselves.

“What we need to do is take back our lives. We need to put our husbands, boyfriends and children in their proper place and take care of ourselves – so that we’ll be around to take care of our families.”


Part of taking back our lives is calling a spade a spade, if you will. Sure, we can suffer from stress. Tension. Loneliness. The blues. But after two weeks of being sick and tired, it should be called by its name: clinical depression.

However, our doctors aren’t always the best listeners. We go in seeking help for stress and come out with blood pressure meds and told to go on vacation, get a massage, exercise and lose weight. So we remain moody, angry, weary and sad, and turn to the one thing that doesn’t talk back or judge us, and always makes us feel good: ice cream, cookies and cakes, chicken wings, burgers and yes, we’ll have fries with that.


As someone always known for her strength, it was excruciatingly difficult for me to subjugate my ego and admit (to an older, white, male doctor) that maybe I needed a little help. Still, I gave him full-frontal attitude: No freakin’ way was I going to try antidepressants. Drugs are for losers. Talk to someone? Not the kid.

What’s funny to me today is how many women I’ve spoken with since starting this blog that have not only lost a great deal of weight, but who are also meeting with therapists, or take antidepressants, or both. Turns out I’m just not as special as I thought I was.


But don’t take from this that I’m saying treatment for symptoms of depression is the answer for all black women. That would be ridiculous. I’m just thinking that excess weight is a symptom of a much larger problem that more likely than not has its roots in an emotional issue.

Now. Bring out your knives . . .

WEDNESDAY: The sins of the mother will be visited upon her children.

Leslie J. Ansley is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur who blogs daily for TheRoot. She lives in Raleigh, NC.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter