By: Allegra Balmadier
The increasing rate of obesity in the United States is getting lots of attention. Unfortunately, much of the conversation oversimplifies the issue as purely about diet and exercise. In reality, higher body weights stem from a complex combination of reasons still not entirely understood.
What is clear is that much of the shift is societal or systemic in nature and about much more than individual habits. Statistics show obesity affects members of groups with varying social statuses in different ways. Notably, obesity is disproportionately common among black women.
That alone isn’t inherently significant: Body weight itself is not an indicator of health, and plenty of Americans fit the narrowly defined parameters for obesity without facing health issues. For others, however, obesity can coexist with metabolic disturbances, cardiovascular problems, and diabetes.
It’s in those instances that the disparity in obesity rates between black women and other groups become particularly relevant. According to the American Psychological Association, almost 60 percent of black women are obese, compared to 41 percent of Hispanic women and 32 percent of white women.
There are a variety of reasons for these variations. Due to the legacy of American slavery and racial discrimination, many black Americans live with financial difficulty that can limit access to nutritious food and safe places for activity –– two key contributors to health.
But systemic barriers to ideal diet and exercise conditions are not the only factors that affect health concerns among black women –– and don’t account for the increased rates of obesity among black women across socioeconomic lines.
Another major factor may be the stress of experiencing racism. An investigation by the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University found a correlation between increased frequency of racist interactions and higher obesity rates among black women.
Researchers theorize the stress of experiencing racism could be one factor in the disproportionately high rates of obesity among black women, as constant exposure to high stress has been shown to disrupt neuroendocrine systems in humans in a way that can cause increased body fat collection.
The complicated array of conditions that have contributed to a deterioration in American health comes at a cost. According to an infographic created by MPH@ GW, the online Master of Public Health program from the George Washington University, obesity is associated with more than 100,000 premature deaths and $150 billion in health care costs per year.
Yet, the problem remains difficult to rectify due to complex power and socioeconomic structures that dictate access to survival needs like food, safe living spaces, and trauma-free day-to-day living. Ultimately, change must stem from dismantling the larger systems that leave oppressed marginalized groups more vulnerable to poor health.
Boston University Professor Yvette C. Cozier has studied how racism can impact obesity in black women and envisions anti-racism programs on a workplace and community level to combat obesity connected to metabolic or other health issues.
The disproportionate impact of obesity among different race, gender and socioeconomic groups points to the way inequality in the United States directly affects the quality of life and access to food and safety. To improve the health care crisis in our country, it’s vital to investigate systemic barriers to elemental needs.