Politics & Race
We Need To Talk About: Black Bodies

Each Thursday our “We Need To Talk About” column will explore a different, seldom-discussed issue.


By Karen Reynolds

There has been a lot of talk lately about the treatment of Black bodies.  There are ongoing discussions everywhere about the mistreatment of African Americans by police, Black-on-Black crime and the disregard for the well-being of populations of color with the water crises in cities like Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi. These are all important topics, but as a physician I wish we could center the discourse around a growing crises that affects the lives of Black communities more than all of these combined–our health. Specifically, the epidemic of overweight and obesity that is emerging in the Black Community.

We first need to understand that being “overweight” and “obese” are slightly different for Black people. Because African Americans have more muscle mass a Body Mass Index of 28 might be healthy for a Black woman, but considered overweight for a caucasian woman. Although it is generally scientifically recognized that Black people have a different body type, we should also be aware that the skeletal structure is such a small percentage of your weight (12-18%) that the size and density of bones do not play an active role in whether you are obese or not. Yes, I’m sorry to say that being “big-boned” is not a real thing. Considering these factors, we should all strive to keep a BMI below 28. Even factoring the variables of the African American Body, anything above 30 is technically considered “obese.” You can use this tool to calculate your BMI.

This crisis affects Black women disproportionately. According to the Centers For Disease Control 37.9% of Black men and a whopping 57.6% of African American women are obese. I know we tend to have a fascination and reverence for “thick.” Men like thick. Thick looks good in clothes. Thick gets all the attention at the party. It is hard to find the line between health and aesthetically attractive, but thick can be unhealthy. Thick can be deadly.

Consider the adverse affects it has on our children. As parents and role models, showing them how to eat and live healthy is just as important as having “the talk” with our kids about safe sex or how to handle police. We are walking role models passing along our lifestyles to the next generation. It is not only our responsibility to teach them how to live fulfilled lives, but it is our responsibility to be alive and healthy so we can see it manifest itself. This all goes back to watching our weight.

If you are overweight or obese, it is hard to call yourself a healthy person when Obesity is the second leading cause for preventable death. If you are obese you are at increased risk for:

Type 2 Diabetes
Coronary Artery Disease
Sleep Apnea
Some Cancers (breast, colon, kidney, liver and gallbladder)
Mental Illness (such as anxiety or depression)

I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but this may be the number one issue facing the Black community. As education and income among African Americans rise, and crime lowers, the average weight in the community increases every year. Our weight is not just an ethereal issue of health. It has real consequences:

  1. It is a financial burden – Being overweight or obese comes with so many health problems that it increases the cost of health care. Because companies are required to pay health insurance, it can raise the cost of an entire companies’ health plan. It can lead to large doctor and hospital bills that ruin credit and cause debt. African Americans have the largest average medical debt.
  2. It is a emotional and psychological burden – Weight affect the hormones that make us feel happy or balanced. Studies have shown significant decreases in depression after weight loss.
  3. It is a physical burden – Aside from the increased risk of  diabetes, heart attacks, cancer etc., Obesity also adversely affects joints, organs and even skin.

If we take a holistic approach to healing the Black community, we have to start with ourselves. Diabetes alone causes an estimated 200,000 deaths every year. It is the leading cause of blindness and lower extremity amputations. It is as much a plague among Black people as police brutality, unemployment and discrimination.

If we want to be happier, we have to be healthier. If we want to live longer, we have to get smaller. If we want to  live to see our children’s weddings and our grandchildren’s birthday parties, we have to lose weight. Loving your people, your friends and your family includes loving yourself. Your body is the only one you will ever have, and you should love it and take care of it. If you treat it well it will love you back. If you abuse it, it will abuse you. Our weight is killing us, and we can prevent it.

But first we have to talk about it.


About the author

Karen Reynolds has practiced medicine for over 20 years with the United States Air Force and at hospitals and clinics serving poor and underserved populations. She is currently the primary care physician in charge of the Women's Health Clinic and the Anti-coagulation Clinic at the Cooper Green Mercy Hospital in Birmingham AL

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