Body and Soul: The Black Women's Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being

Body and Soul: The Black Women's Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being


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Body and Soul: The Black Women's Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being by Linda Villarosa

Sponsored by the National Black Women's Health Project, this honest, straight-from-the-heart guide addresses the physical, emotional, and spiritual health issues and concerns of Black women today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060950859
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/01/1994
Pages: 574
Product dimensions: 7.42(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Our Bodies
Body Weight and Image

Although Black women come in all shapes and sizes, in our community we have an abundance of large women. We often celebrate a wealth of Black female flesh, but being large has also caused many of us an undue amount of pain--both physical and emotional. Along with all of the other derogatory names that we have been called, put "fat" in front of the insult and the injury intensifies.

Each woman deals with issues of weight in her own way. Singer Etta James proudly flaunts her abundant size across the stage. College professor and Essence magazine writer E. K. Daufin describes herself as "large and lovely," and she sometimes practices belly dancing in her spare time. Others, however, have been damaged by society's perceptions. They jump from diet to diet, become anorexic or bulimic, and quietly struggle with sorrow and self-loathing.

It's important for large women to take a hard look at their bodies. It's okay to be big, if you're healthy both physically and emotionally. But if weight is causing health problems or if you're hiding pain under layers of fat, it's time to face up, get help, and lose weight.

The Bigger the Better?

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 30 percent of the Black population is overweight. About 45 percent of Black women are obese, or 20 percent above the ideal body weight for their height, frame, and age. An alarming 60 percent of Black women between the ages of forty-five and seventy-five weigh far more than they ought to.

Though these facts stand, we do have reason to question how overweight and obesity are definedin this country. In the past, physicians used insurance-company tables to measure "ideal" body weight, and these ideal weights were largely derived from the insurance records of white males. In 1990 the government updated the tables as part of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Now, for example, the new tables say a person five feet four inches tall should weigh between 111 and 146 pounds if she or he is aged nineteen to thirty-four, and 122 to 157 pounds if she or he is over thirty-five. Despite the update, the tables remain controversial because ideal weights are nearly impossible to estimate. Plus, the guidelines don't distinguish between men's and women's bodies! Rather than relying on tables, it's best to pay attention to your own health--both physical and emotional--to determine whether or not you want or need to lose weight.

The Black community has always been more likely to accept large and voluptuous women than white Americans have been. In all traditional African societies, largeness is celebrated, particularly in women. In contrast to the pursuit and near-worship of thinness in America, Africans view full-figured bodies as symbols of health, wealth, desire, prosperity, and fertility.

This cultural appreciation for and comfort with large women remains in the African-American community today. Large Black women are seen as capable and nurturing, holding up the world on their steady shoulders. Fat "mammies" like Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone With the Wind; Ethel Waters and later Louise Beavers as Beulah, TV's favorite Black maid; and pancake maven Aunt Jemima (although her image has slimmed down in recent years) are a few of the familiar images of fat Black women. Perhaps the most well known and loved contemporary African-American woman of any size, Oprah Winfrey is everywoman, a kind, caring, nurturing symbol to our community and to the larger society. We accept her and find comfort in her size, even as it fluctuates.

Alice Walker has explained that in our community, thinness, not fatness, is rejected "because we don't have a tradition of skinniness in any sense--not in our food, not in our bodies. The sense of roundness . . . is a very precious thing we share with the majority of peoples in the world. The whole thing about being angular and linear . . . it's not our culture, it's not our tradition."

Embracing our African roots can be a positive and affirming process for Blacks throughout the diaspora. Yet it is vital that we examine and change the undeniably negative consequences of obesity among Black women. More than a matter of aesthetics, excess weight puts us at a higher risk for diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, and hypertension--all debilitating, life-threatening health problems. Already at greater risk for all maladies ranging from headaches to heart attacks, Black women can ill afford to ignore any problem that shortens our life span, as obesity has been proven to do.

Why So Much Fat?

According to some experts, there is a direct correlation between heredity and body weight. One researcher has noted that if both your parents were obese, you have an 80 percent chance of being obese, while the risk drops to 18 percent if neither parent was obese. Other researchers suggest that obesity is a physiological phenomenon that is influenced by our metabolic and nervous systems. They say that overweight people often have a slow metabolism (the process that turns food into energy) that hinders the ability to burn up the calories they consume.

African-Americans may carry a specific gene from our African forebears that predisposes some of us to excess weight, according to Lorraine Bonner, M.D., a physician who practices in Oakland, California. "There is evidence to suggest that the Africans who survived the Middle Passage to this country were those who were best able to utilize and retain the meager scraps of food they were fed," explains Dr. Bonner. "People who are in an environment of famine maintain fat as a means of selective survival. I think it's safe to say that many African-Americans today have retained this genetic marker from their African ancestors who were brought here as slaves."

The food we eat also plays a part in how big we are. Soul food, a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation, is high in fat, sugar, and calories. Much of it is fried in grease, and fatty pork parts add to the flavor of many dishes. What's more, poverty also helps determine who's fat and who's not. Poor women are twice as likely to be overweight as their more affluent sisters, and the Black community has more than its share of poor folks. Low-fat, low-calorie foods and fresh fruits and vegetables are often expensive or unavailable in poor communities. Many people are left with high-fat, high-calorie, processed choices simply because these are the only foods they can afford or find.

Unspoken Pain

Tradition, heredity, metabolism, and poverty are major factors in Black obesity, but that is still far from the whole story. Recent studies indicate that for Black women, overeating and excessive weight gain are often triggered by deep-seated and painful psychological problems. Women are socialized to be around food--planning meals, cooking them, serving them, and cleaning up--especially in our culture. Food is a socially acceptable, controllable, legal, cheap addiction.

Obsessed with food, many Black women are trapped on a physical and emotional roller coaster that leaves them filled with self-hatred, hopelessness, and despair. "All too often people are not eating for nutrition; rather, they're eating for comfort," notes Gladys Jennings, Ph.D., associate professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington.

Sociologist Becky Wangsgaard Thompson, Ph.D., of Princeton University is among a handful of experts who has conducted research on the emotional aspects of compulsive eating among women of color. In her study, Dr. Thompson found that many Black women overeat to quell the fear, rage, grief, and disappointment that pervade their lives.

The title of Dr. Thompson's research paper, "Raisins and Smiles for Me and My Sister," was prompted by a poignant story an African-American woman shared with her. As the story goes, Rosalee (not her real name) grew up in a violent home. Whenever she would hear her parents fighting, she would sneak a box of crackers, a jar of grape jelly, and raisins from the kitchen. She would spread the jelly on the crackers, arranging the raisins in the shape of a happy face, a ritual that always made her younger sister smile. As their parents screamed at each other in the next room, the sisters would stuff themselves with one "happy-face cracker" after another.

"At the age of four, Rosalee was already using food to protect herself from the pain of her family," Thompson explains. "Compulsive eating is a mechanism many Black women have devised to cope with hardship. Food is a cheap, legal, and accessible commodity women use to combat oppression."

Compulsive Eating: The Impact of Sexual Abuse

For many Black women, overeating is a response to the loss of childhood innocence that has been stripped from them in the form of physical and sexual abuse. Indeed, the sexual abuse of children is one of the country's most frequent and widespread crimes, affecting as many as 25 percent of female children before they reach the age of thirteen, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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