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Black Women and Physical Wellness: Creating Safe Spaces for our Health

By Nadine L. Leblanc

Black women are often plagued with disproportionately high incidences or mortality rates for various health conditions such as heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes and more. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention data for 2011-2013, approximately 7.6 percent of Black women have heart disease, compared to 5.8 percent of white women and 5.6 percent of Mexican-American women in 2011-2013. Additionally, in 2016, approximately 46 of every 100,000 Black women died from stroke, while 35 of every 100, 000 white women did.  According to the CDC, between 1980- 2014, the diabetes rate for White women’s diagnosis rate is 5.4 per 100, for Black women it is 9.9 per 100.

Black Women and Obesity

So why are Black women plagued by these diseases at such alarming rates? We often hear the stereotypical response that “Black women do not work out.” This is an easy assumption to make as according to Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center, “the vast majority of African-American adult women are either overweight or obese.” Approximately 80% of African American women are considered overweight or obese compared to 58% of Caucasian women according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.  However, is this the only reason?

Why Are Black Women Challenged With Health Issues?

Researchers have posited that the main reasons for Black Women being disproportionately impacted by health issues are because of: socio-economic status, access to health care, environmental factors, health behaviors related to culture and manifestations of discrimination. I will address three of these factors:

Socio-economic Status:   Poverty and unemployment rates for black women double that of White women, according to 2000 data from the Washington, D.C. based U.S. Census Bureau.   Why does poor and unemployed equal being overweight, shouldn’t the opposite be true? Some researchers have posited that the lower your income, the more likely you are to inhabit an “obesogenic” environment where food options are severely limited.

 

Culture and health behavior:  The food that is predominant in many Black families is high in fat, sodium, sugar and cholesterol: grandmas famous potato pie, collard greens with ham hocks,  stewed-peas with corned pork and salted pig’s tail (Caribbean), baccalo/ codfish/saltfish  (Latin American and Caribbean). These cultural habits, mouthwatering to those of us who are so conditioned, are a direct legacy of slavery where enslaved Africans were given the “what left” from the table of the white slave owners. As a result of employing creativity to ensure that the leftovers were palatable, Black mothers added ingredients such as the ham hocks to the collard greens, that were not necessarily the healthiest, in an effort to survive. During this period of enslavement, working over twenty hours in the fields daily was beyond sufficient to burn the extra calories these additives afforded. Accordingly, Blacks did not die from unhealthy consumption, they died from overwork, beatings, lynching, rapes etc. Fast forward to the present, these survival techniques have become a cultural practice, because that is how cultures evolve, and as such, we are still paying the price. These cultural norms coupled with a growing fast food industry has resulted in obesity.

Discrimination

In my experience visiting most gyms, there are usually more non-blacks present. Could it be that the gym like many other places are not safe spaces for people of color? Especially Black women? Do Black women stay out of the gyms or walking parks because they have already been discriminated against too much and adding the double layer of being Black AND  fat is just too much? What are your initial thoughts and feelings when you see an overweight woman on that treadmill before you? Add a Black woman to that thought? Do you want to encourage her or are you disgusted by her?

My Safe Spaces for Physical Wellness

Therefore, as we have ways have been forced to address our other needs: coffee, parks, pools, schools, churches etc., we must create our own safe spaces to become physically healthy. I have found mine, as I too, do not like the gym. Here are some suggestions to create your own safe spaces.

  1. Create your own mini -gym and opportunities while at home to workout.  I often workout in my house because I have control over how I do it.  I turn the music on and dance to soca, reggae, hip hop etc. I recently worked out to Beyonce’s entire Coachella performance and it was an incredible workout as I channeled my inner Queen Bey. I have a floor mat, 3 sets of dumbbells- 10, 8, 2 pounds, a kettlebell, an exercise band and a treadmill. I use countertop spaces for pushups and I squat while brushing my teeth etc.
  2. Find partners/groups to motivate you. I have always solicited my friends and family members to join me on my latest fitness challenges. In the absence of willing participants, I have joined workout groups (FitinStudio, Sexy Maintenance) and online motivation programs such as Girltrek as the camaraderie is essential to my success as an extroverted person.
  3. Enlist a trainer. If you can afford it, hire a trainer that is suited for you. Cut back on some of the excess things you purchase to disguise the discomfort of being overweight and invest in yourself with a personal trainer. (I will feature mine in the next article)
  4. Find a gym with odd hours, and figure out the best time for you.
  5. Identify your local parks and plan to walk before or after work and on the weekends
  6. Use your lunch time and walk around the building, up and down the stairs or walk to do errands
  7. Find a local lounge that showcases artists and music that you love and schedule to go dancing
  8. Create/suggest programs in your community organizations
  9. Use the gym at your college/University
  10. Like Mike, JUST DO IT!

I still struggle to reach the designated BMI level to be considered “normal,” I was NEVER ever at that level and probably will never be. As I am learning to view my body positively no matter the size, I am coupling that with strategic engagement in physical fitness activities that challenge these diseases. I have successfully warded off the diseases that plague Black women (except high cholesterol, which is going down) and you can too. We must RESIST by getting up off our well-rounded, bootylicious derrieres and tackle unhealthiness, not because you are not beautiful, but BECAUSE WE MUST for our health.

References

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Century of Women’s health:

1900-2000.Of ce of Women’s Health. Washington, DC: USDHHS; 2002.

Black Women’s Health Imperative:
http://www.nbwhp.org

https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_women_heart.htm

Photo Credit- https://justseeds.org/graphic/black-womens-health-matters/

 

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