Dieting While Black
My department at my day job is currently doing a weight loss challenge for 10 weeks. If we gain weight or stay the same, we are to pay the organizer $5. Whoever loses the most weight at the end of the challenge wins the money.
I’ve made progress so far, but then, this isn’t my first rodeo at dieting. Although I was average weight growing up, I’ve had weight issues for most of my adult life. And even as a teenager, I wasn’t satisfied with my body. I was a Black girl who was raised in a predominantly white community, so I got conflicting and toxic messages about body image. The white girls I went to high school with fretted over being fat even though a fair number of them weren’t more than a size 6.
Meanwhile, I felt obese among them, even though back then, my 5’8 height carried around 135 pounds, which is ideal according to the BMI or Body Mass Index, a measurement that is commonly used in this country. It’s a problematic tool, which we’ll get to later.
See, the reason why I felt obese was because my proportions were different than the white girls around me. I had a big ass and wide hips, whereas they barely had any curves. Basically, my curvy body shape was deemed grotesque, while theirs was the gold standard. It’s no accident that the bodies of Black women and women of color are routinely policed.
Professionally, we’re advised that our clothes need to be more conservative so that we don’t stand out or live up to the stereotypes that we are “fast,” “exotic,” or “fiery.” I had to wait over a decade for Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez to become celebrities who had more voluptuous frames than the pencil-thin aesthetic of their white counterparts before I remotely felt comfortable with my shape.
I’ve never seen 135 pounds again. Over the next 15 years, my weight crept up to the point where at my heaviest, I weighed 226 pounds. It was at that point that I made my first attempt to lose weight through Weight Watchers (now rebranded as WW ) through a program at the job I had at the time. It took 15 months for me get down to 155 pounds.
To most people, it’s a major accomplishment. However, dieting can be especially challenging for Black women.
We have the highest rate of overweight or obesity of any racial or ethnic group of women, at nearly 80%. This is where the BMI measurement comes in. This Medium piece gives a more detailed overview of it but in short, the tool was standardized by using white people as subjects.
Since Black people generally have higher muscle mass and carry our weight differently, the tool can actually overestimate the rate of obesity in our community. But, be that as it may, there are several factors for why we have higher obesity rates according to the tools used by the dominant society. Our traditional soul food diet, for example, fried chicken, sweet potato pie and collard greens cooked in hamhocks, is high in carbs and fat.
This is traced back to the poor diets we were forced to subsist on during slavery as our ancestors were given the scraps that their enslavers didn’t want.
In the 21st century, low-income Black and other people of color are more likely to live in “food deserts,” which are areas where residents do not have access to supermarkets that stock high quality produce and must rely on bodegas and other stores that only sell highly processed food.
In addition, Black women struggle to navigate two different sets of aesthetics-the toxic Eurocentric one where the ideal woman in this society is white, thin, blond and blue-eyed and our cultural one where being “thicc” is prized. Yes, that is how it’s spelled in AAVE (African American Vernacular English), which is a valid dialect. That’s a topic for another time.
Anyhoo, “thicc” is a state where you are fat in the right places and have appealing curves. Basically, think Beyonce and two or three sizes up from her. That’s thicc.
While Black women are ignored or shamed for this aesthetic from the dominant society, they can gain comfort from being accepted for it from our community. However, it’s still a fairly narrow standard as it excludes thinner sisters and those sisters who are far heavier than thicc, which further marginalizes them.
Dieting while Black can be a huge headache when you either don’t have access to healthy food, have to figure out how to navigate two widely different sets of beauty standards and/or don’t wish to eat foods that are considered “white people food” or are bland according to your palette, such as kale juice, cottage cheese or goji berries.
For instance, the Weight Watchers program assigns point values to foods. The foods that have lower point values generally have fewer calories and are healthier. However, using said book would be frustrating for me because many of the so-called ethnic foods that I loved to eat, such as roti, wouldn’t be listed.
This means that Black and women of color can feel forced to choose between adhering to their cultural diet or eating “white people food.” Essentially, we start to associate healthy eating with whiteness.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Sometimes, healthy food and traditional food can meet in the middle, such as telling people to cook collard greens in garlic and olive oil instead of hamhocks or grilling chicken instead of frying it. However, that still doesn’t solve the issues of eliminating food deserts or reconciling the two different beauty standards that Black women are forced to live under.
The food desert issue is a structural one that will take communities and governments to solve.
As far as the beauty standard issue goes, I can only give my perspective. At my heaviest weight, while I was ignored or demonized for my size by white folks, I was rarely criticized for it from my community. At 5’8, I am taller than the average woman by three or four inches, so due to my proportions, I wasn’t overly obese. In my community, some considered me “thicc.”
However, when I lost the weight and got down to a size 8, some Black people criticized me because to them, I was thinner than our accepted cultural aesthetic. By the same token, white people noticed me more and sometimes took me more seriously because I more closely fit their beauty standards. This dichotomy ends up creating stress and can leave one frustrated or resentful because it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
I didn’t lose the weight in an attempt to achieve whiteness but rather, I wanted to be healthier.
Obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension run in my family and I simply didn’t want to be a statistic.
Nor would I rather end up on dialysis, having to inject myself with insulin or wind up with amputated limbs, all of which have happened to various immediate and extended family members, which would put an immense strain on my budget and on our health care system.
I managed to keep the weight off for about 10 years but around 6 years ago, it started creeping up again, primarily due to age. I was eating the same way I had been eating for the past decade but I was gaining weight as my metabolism was slowing.
Three years ago, I weighed 195 pounds before losing 20 of them. That time, I simply cut back on my portions and eliminated processed sugar and fried foods but due to stressful life events, the weight crept up again to where I weighed in at 197.5 pounds as of a few weeks ago. Since I’m now 50 years old, getting down to my high school weight of 135 pounds is out of the question as it would be extremely difficult to maintain.
I wouldn’t mind a weight in the 160’s though. Right now, a healthier approach to weight loss is where I feel good and is not about a clothing size or a number on the scale. The only beauty standard I care about is my own.