Opinion: African-American women and fat? Consider context, choices
A recent article about black women's health spurred discussion about environmental factors that contribute to obesity.
May 16th, 2012
04:29 PM ET

Opinion: African-American women and fat? Consider context, choices

Editor's note: Maya Rockeymoore, Ph.D., is the director of Leadership for Healthy Communities, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and president of Global Policy Solutions, a policy consulting firm in Washington, DC. This piece was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

By Maya Rockeymoore, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Talking about being overweight is always an uncomfortable topic, no matter what color you are.

But when the New York Times ran an editorial, “Black women and fat”, it opened a wound most of us would like to ignore.

After all, aren't there more important things to talk about when it comes to African-American women and our lives?

Why talk about the “sugar down below’’as the author Alice Randall put it, when black women are facing high rates of unemployment, poverty and HIV/AIDS?

Since the publication, I have been discussing obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Weight of the Nation Conference and at screenings for the HBO documentary, Weight of the Nation.

Plus, I have been in more personal conversations with my friends who have confirmed how embarrassing and deeply personal the issue is in their lives.

But obesity is worth talking about for a single reason: it places our lives and those of our children at risk.

Being involved in this conversation in different venues and with different audiences over the course of a week has highlighted a fascinating paradox: public health professionals tend to focus on the structural factors that contribute to obesity, while those who do not work on this issue on a daily basis think of it in cultural and personal terms.

About four out of five black women are either overweight or obese. And studies show that African-American girls have the highest rates of obesity of any group of youth.

I was one of those women.

Despite my professional work in the area of health, I often succumbed to the convenience of eating packaged foods without looking at the ingredients, eating out frequently without knowing how my food was being prepared, and drinking beverages without paying attention to how much sugar they contained. And, I allowed environmental cues–like television commercials for burgers, fries, pizza and tacos–drive my consumption patterns.

While some may argue that black women and girls are making poor choices when it comes to food and fitness, it is important to understand that our choices are often shaped by our environment.

There is no doubt that the structural barriers are real.

Many schools have eliminated recess and physical education from their curricula for budgetary and academic reasons. In addition, for years, schools have offered unhealthy options in cafeterias and vending machines without thinking about how it contributes to weight gain of students.

How are students expected to maintain a healthy weight when the environment where they spend the majority of their time offers few healthy choices?

In many lower income communities, especially those where African-Americans are concentrated, the choices are not any better.

There are fewer food markets offering affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. And, because there are fewer places to run, walk, bike, and play, it should not be a surprise that these neighborhoods have limited opportunities for healthy eating and active living.

Studies by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity have found that black children see at least 50% more fast food advertisements than white children.

Can we ignore environmental factors if our kids' preferences for unhealthy foods and drinks are being influenced by Madison Avenue?

Given the array of factors that contribute to our obesity epidemic, I can understand why the average person thinks it is simply a matter of encouraging people to make healthier choices.

After all, eating healthier while maintaining regular physical activity is the often-recommended approach for weight loss and maintenance.

While this is true, we cannot divorce personal behaviors from the environments that shape them. Context controls choice: one is not separate from the other.

I have found this in my own practice: I must be cognizant of my food choices, and conscious of environmental factors as I make social plans, travel and live my daily life.

We must commit ourselves to living our healthiest, most productive and powerful lives.

This means rejecting food and drink products that undermine our health and working with policymakers to make our schools and neighborhoods healthier places to live, work and play.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of  Maya Rockeymoore.

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Filed under: Black in America • Health • What we think • Women
soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. PureEyes

    I have to share this true story:

    One day in 1981, I was visiting the Vailsburg, NJ area [outside of Newark, NJ] A large black animial walked in the street as me and my friends sat on the porch. A hound dog went to greet it in the street. Suddenly, the dog's ears stood straight up on it's head as it backed away in a total confused state of mind. That's when we all leaned forward and noticed that the animal was a RAT. It was so large it looked cartoon-like. It stood as tall as the dog and showed no fear. However, we were frozen with fear and could not move until it had passed us. When it passed we fought and cursed to get a unlocked door open [like in the movies] That experience change me forever. Nature is a huge laboratory and that was a rat living off of human food. Are we surprised that kids/teens are so big? Are you surprised you know someone who is having trouble loosing weight? No matter what they do?

    We are Consumers not scientist. As such, we MUST educate ourselves/others about food additives, preservatives,etc Sadly, what I have learned over the years is not even taught in high school.

    May 17, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. PureEyes

    I am a black woman and I appreciate this article. I was raised in New Jersery and I have been living in Atlanta for 20 years now. In the old days we had mandatory PE so my generation is lucky there. However, there were some large supermarkets in [i.e. East Orange, NJ ] that did not have fresh produce so we had to drive to Uniion City, NJ were produce was fresh,plentifu and cheaper. Those food trips with my mom were an education. Demographics? or lazy food managers?

    That said, I am healthier in Atlanta because there are several whole foods stores. Moreover, the big chain supermarkets have a Natural Food section. There are a few neighborhood health food stores too. Best of all, these stores are accessible by public transportation! Yes I have a car.lol But it's nice having so many stores with the price of gas. People in Atlanta can't use 'lack of access' as an excuse.

    May 17, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Elizabeth Davis

    I am a white woman about 25 lbs overweight and spent most of my life dieting, losing weight and gaining it back and all the while feeling very ashamed. I always admired black women who were are curvy but not ashamed to show what they have, holding their heads high and looking beautiful. And black men who love their curvy women. I think the black culture embraces differences such as weight whereas the white population has been taught to be ashamed if you are not anorexic, unhealthy and skin and bones. I wish whites were less judgemental on physical features!

    May 17, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      Elizabeth, don't buy into the media/business B.S. generated image of the ideal female body. It's just Madison Avenue hype generated by limp-wristed misogynists and character-challenged businessmen who want you to buy expensive, uncomfortable clothes & shoes that they wish to make as cheaply as possible. You seem like a nice woman, the type for whom affections grow the more you know her...

      May 18, 2012 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |
      • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

        @ Elizabeth Davis
        Fat is not beautiful.

        @ Jorge
        Lol media generated eh? Ask your doctor if being 25lbs over weight is okay.

        May 18, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • EKIA

      Your health will suffer even if you and your significant other are okay with your weight.

      May 18, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Zuri

    Ignorance is just plain contagious. I am black and nowhere near overweight. 30 years old and I work out 5 times a week and a very healthy diet. I see black, white, brown, and others fat and overweight but not because of their race but the poor choices they make. Get a clue people. I think education plays a major role in obesity. Educate yourselves of what you put into your bodies and you will make better choices.

    May 17, 2012 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  5. JOSE0311USMC


    May 17, 2012 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
    • steve

      they wouldn't go to the gym with that 600 bucks
      they would eat it up

      May 17, 2012 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • SAWolf

      Planet fitness costs me 27 cents/day and I go 7 days /week. It's not the cost, but motivation.

      May 19, 2012 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
      • evansgw

        Planet Fitness prices are great. It seems that to keep the costs down they are based out of central locations, at least in Baltimore, where I live. That would make it quite hard for anyone relying on public transport to get to the an affordable gym.

        May 23, 2012 at 6:15 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jorge

    I see more obese, out-of-shape white women between the ages of 18 and 40 in the Georgia city I live in than black or any other race combined, but I've noticed that there are more overweight and health-illiterate folks in the Deep South overall than anywhere else I've lived. I also notice that there are more overweight people in pedestrian and cyclist-unfriendly towns like Augusta than elsewhere.

    May 17, 2012 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Deborah

      i aint reinterratin nutin i aint dum ask u calls me b***ch u jus jealous cause u aint blac take yo pale selfs elseware!!

      May 17, 2012 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
      • G

        man what

        May 17, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
      • ramblinglarry


        If you're black, black people like you make it exceedingly hard for educated and knowledgeable black people. If you're not black, you should be ashamed of yourself for assuming that's how black people talk/type. It's not a tweet, you can use correct spellings and the appropriate amount of letters.

        May 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
      • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

        Deborah may indeed be playing the stereotype. However the reason it IS the stereotype is because generally speaking it rings true. Exceptions do not make the rule. If you have a problem with it, take it up with your fellows.

        May 21, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • Fitriehsllu

        Maggs, I don't think once can deny that there is an element of RACISM in the feictroy with which the liberal media is pursuing the Minister. True, he is not perfect. Far from it. But, as you have pointed out, ALL politicians are liars. So why aren't the liberals baying for the blood of WHITE politicians too?Hey?

        October 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Deborah

    yall wite peeps dont no nuting bout ne ting dats y yall laugh at us. win dat end of da world come den u will feel da hurt we half felt den wut? um heavy sew wut its dat chitlins n soul food yall made us eat win slavery was wit us!

    May 17, 2012 at 6:59 am | Report abuse |
    • SAWolf

      Your people were freed almost 150 years ago, but your mind is still enslaved.

      May 19, 2012 at 3:56 am | Report abuse |
    • PureEyes


      ' u dig ' has not been used as slang word since 1978.

      May 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
      • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

        Someone forgot to tell the people in Jacksonville that.

        May 21, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. below me

    so black women are fat because they see more fast food advertisements? i guess self control has nothing to do with it. you could survive off of sugar water and a daily multivitamin if you wanted to. poverty is no excuse to be fat. excess calories gains weight so EAT LESS FOOD and you wont be fat, DUH.

    P.S. I am overweight, I have a office job and the only physical activity I do is yard work and golf. I've lost 30 pound in 1 year, and have about 30 to go. the only thing i've done is eliminate candy, sugar pop, and use smaller dinner plates to help control portion size. THAT'S IT!!! America is fat because they want to be fat.

    May 16, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • african beauty

      sadly you are right. America is the land of opportunity and unfortunately some people us that to hurt themselves.

      May 16, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • ramblinglarry

      You obviously missed the main point of the article. Obviously, African-American women are complicit in their weight gain. But the author raises interesting points in terms of the affordability of healthy foods and taking healthy options out of schools. If the government were truly concerned with the overall health of its citizens, they would mandate healthy school lunch options (not simply healthier options). Each of us is ultimately responsible for our choices. However, to deny the overwhelming influence of one's environment is very shortsighted.

      May 17, 2012 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
      • Polgie

        All people are complicit in their weight gain. The American lifestyle itself is encouraging the overweight epidemic in this country. I was shocked to find that not one single state had a overweight population less than 55%. Not being overweight makes you a minority in America. School lunches are part of the issue, but that doesn't explain the older population that did have access to healthier lunches and PE while growing up. There is something fundamental to the American lifestyle that leads people to overeat and remain inactive.

        May 17, 2012 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
      • Deborah

        um proud 2 b blac n dis aint no joke its called eboinics u dig??

        May 17, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  9. fatties_can'_tread

    Her statement was that 80 percent of black women were overweight or obese. Do you know what the difference between obesity and overweight is? There is a difference. Furthermore, 44-50% obesity rate is not high, that's obscene. The fact that this statement doesn't make you upset proves that either you've got fat in your ears, or you are so accoustomed to everyone you know being fat that it's sad. Good article, and obesity within the black community needs to be addressed strenuously. Look at the nations' fattest states, and then the black population, and you'll notice that both have the highest concentrations of the other.

    May 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUSerious

      That 44% stat was for overweight and obese if you want to nitpick. Which is only 10% off from white women. It's interesting to note that that 80% stat floats around the web in many forms. Some say it's for overweight and obese, some say it's just obesity, some say it's women over 60, Some say it's women over 20.

      I'm sorry there's no excuse for reporting sensationalist nonsense with fake statistics. Obesistiy is an issue in America period. Now if you had bothered to look up one single fact you'd realize Alaska is the 2nd fattest state in the nation, its black population is 3%. Followed by Arizona(4% black), Arkansas(15% black), and California(6% Black). See, you're perfect proof. All this article has done is made you more ignorant of a national issue than you were before.

      May 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
      • RUSerious

        Correction, it's W Virgina(3%), Alabama(26%) Louisiana(32%) S Carlina(27%) Tennessee(17%) Kentucky(8%) Oklahoma(7%) Arkansas(15%) Indiana(9%). Those are all over the board as far as demographics go.

        May 16, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
      • ramblinglarry

        But what percentage of the blacks is overweight or obese? It likely doesn't skew the numbers in favor of the authors statistics. But if 80% of the 4% overweight, the density of overweight people is far greater even if the total number is far smaller.

        May 17, 2012 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
      • pbradbury

        Are you serious? Did you notice you listed states in alphabetical order not based on the actual figures of which have the most obesity? And why even talk about Alaska as it has about 100 people who live there. I am not sure if you should go after the author about bad stats when it appears you can not even understand tables and graphs. It appears your goal is to point out that whites are fatter. How does that help address a very serious issue? Keep minimzing the issue while people keep dying.

        May 17, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  10. RUSerious

    I'm not aware of where you got that report or what methodology they used but the CDC states the obesity rate for African American women is 44%-50%, which is high, but not as ridiculous as what you posted here. I found that information in 2 minutes by googling the CDC website.

    May 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • RUSerious

      I would expect a PHD to be better at fact checking.

      May 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |