Female Obesity Encouraged in Black Society?

Obesity in America is a problem across the racial spectrum. But columnist Debra Dickerson suggests that African-American women are more inclined to be overweight because African-American men prefer them to be so. Dickerson defends her argument and is joined by a blogger who disagrees in this week's Behind Closed Doors.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

There's no denying that obesity is a serious health issue in the country, and it's a particularly big problem for African-American women, more than half of whom are considered overweight.

Now, one commentator suggests that one reason black women are overweight is that the brothers like it that way. That is to say that the culture rewards women for a little extra padding.

Author Debra Dickerson wrote an essay about it for Salon.com, the online magazine, and she joins us by phone from Albany, New York, for a behind-closed doors conversation. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. DEBRA DICKINSON (Columnist, Salon.com): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you know, a lot of Americans are overweight. It's the first thing a lot of international visitors comment on. But you think the culture rewards black women for being big?

Ms. DICKERSON: Yes, I think it does. You're always going to have pockets, and I think there's probably some class issues there. But I've heard since I was a little kid, nobody wants a bone but a dog, you know, and that sort of thing. And it was like only entertainers who could really get away with being obese, like Aretha Franklin and people like that.

Yes, there is definitely some - a market preference for women who have junk in the trunk, or however you want to put it.

MARTIN: But junk in the trunk is different from being obese, and I guess I'm thinking about movies like that Eddie Murphy movie that came out early…

Ms. DICKERSON: Which - yes.

MARTIN: …this year, "Norbit," where black women are, you know, fat women or big women are held up as objects of ridicule. And I look at the magazines, I look at, you know, the universal cultural marker, music videos, right?

Ms. DICKERSON: Right.

MARTIN: And I don't see a lot of big women in them. At least not held up as beauty objects.

Ms. DICKERSON: I think we're talking - again, we're on dangerous territory here, but I think we're talking about sexual fetishes. I'm not so sure we're talking about beauty objects.

And I think especially the jumping off point for me was that article I read in the Village Voice about how apparently there are all these new urban lad mags where that specifically looked for sort of round away sisters with these humongous rear ends. It was really quite striking. So I'm not so sure it's a beauty image. It's more sort of a sexual fetish.

MARTIN: I want to bring in another voice here. We're also going to be joined by Jasmyne Cannick. She is a blogger and commentator, and she joins us from her office in Los Angeles.

And I should also mention that I'm not telling your business, Jasmyne, because you've been blogging about your own efforts to lose weight. So this is something that you should talked about. What do you think of Debra's argument?

Ms. JASMYNE CANNICK (Blogger): I think there's a lot of truth in it, but I also - I mean, I just came back from the motherland and, you know, aka the land of big butts aplenty, okay? So when I look at…

MARTIN: Wait a minute. You're not talking about Atlanta, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CANNICK: Africa.

MARTIN: You mean West Africa, okay.

Ms. CANNICK: West Africa. Well, you know, I felt right at home. If anything, I was too small. But, you know, going from here over there and just looking at us as African-American women, yeah, there was a huge difference.

I mean, you can't argue with the numbers in terms of obesity within our community. But you also, I think, have to look at the factors on how we ourselves play a role in it as well. And what steps do we take, you know, to curb it. If we find it, there's a problem. I mean, like you said, I've been struggling on my own weight loss and I'm - I have lost about 46 pounds now and so…

Ms. DICKERSON: Congratulations.

Ms. CANNICK: Thank you. And I still have quite a few to go. And a lot of what made me do that. besides seeing "Norbit"…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What?

Ms. DICKERSON: …was this sort of wanting to be more healthier. But at the same time, I'm in Compton, and I have to tell you. There is not one single healthy restaurant. There's only one sit-down restaurant. Everything else is fast food.

MARTIN: Let me read, shall I?

Ms. DICKERSON: Okay.

MARTIN: Okay. According to a Village Voice article by Ben Westhoff, there are a slew of urban magazines finding success with men of color by replacing the traditional photo spreads of well-known bony models and actresses with unknown round-the-way sisters, looks and fitness not required.

Ginormous butts and weaves - must have. And now, here - I want to edit for radio. Buffie, for the 45-inch butt, is the reigning queen of the scene, and her popularity speaks to blacks' normalization of a very un-pc fatness.

Besides being a cover girl, Buffie appeared in the movie "ATL" as Big Booty Judy, and is as recognizable in the black community as some supermodels. Debra, why are you hating on Buffie? Come on, now. Why are you hating?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKERSON: You know, I like Buffie. She came across as a down home, round-the-way sister. And what hurts me in all these blowback is that people don't seem to get that I'm coming from a place of love for my sisters. And it bothers me that this woman felt herself to be too skinny at 120 pounds.

She put on that behind, supposedly she said, drinking these GNC protein supplements. She doesn't exercise. Everything she eats is, quote, "Southern fried" and a sugary drink. Buffie's not going to be with us too long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But she's not obese. And guess what? How much of that, I bet, is marketing. Because that - Buffie's probably undercover at the salad bar.

Ms. DICKERSON: Probably, and besides she's…

MARTIN: But I see your point. You're basically saying she's glorifying an unhealthy life.

Ms. DICKERSON: She's unhealthy and the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the diabetes and the hypertension and how much sooner we die than other people. When we get those conditions, we get them much more severely.

So I think there's a whole tsunami of things going on. A lot of this is black women don't want to get their $200 hairdos messed up sweating at the gym. It's - there is a whole lot of cultural things going on in here, and I took pains that piece to say what you like is what you like - if you like big breasts, if you like big butts.

But if like something that's killing somebody, you have to learn not to like it so much.

MARTIN: In case you're just tuning in, we're talking to Debra Dickerson and Jasmyne Cannick. We're talking about obesity among black women and whether the culture actually enables it.

Jasmyne, you were making a point earlier that you're not so sure it's the culture. You think it's, maybe what? The circumstances that a lot of black women live in that don't offer healthy choices?

Ms. CANNICK: Yeah. I think that has a lot to do with it, also with the fact, you know, from day one, we're just not raised to think about ourselves in that way, especially in terms of our weight.

But I can't tell you how many times I've gone to my grandmother's house to sit at a table full of fried chicken, every starch in the world…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CANNICK: …the greens with pork in them. And it's so much a part of our community, but at the same time, we truly do believe as black folks that somehow that food is good for us because that's the food that we were raised on.

Ms. DICKERSON: (unintelligible)

Ms. CANNICK: But that's the food that we ate because that's all we could afford to eat. And it was passed down, obviously, from generation to generation. And so here I am, at 29 years old - I woke up one morning and I was 236 pounds.

And even though I was 236 pounds, I considered myself to be relatively healthy in terms of no other sort of health conditions, but I was fat. I was very, very fat. I mean, it took a little while for that to sink in. And when it did, I had to make some lifestyle changes. But it's not - and it hasn't been easy, Michel, because in my neighborhood, if I want to get good, healthy food including groceries, I have to go the West Side.

You know, and that's an issue from, you know, from the West Side of this country to the East side, wherein predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, we just don't have access to the same things that more affluent neighborhoods have access to.

Ms. DICKERSON: Sure.

MARTIN: But you also saw something earlier, Jasmyne, that even when - as you were putting on weight, you were inclined to think you were okay. I wanted to talk about that because Debra cites a statistic in her piece from womenshealth.gov, reports that compared with overweight white Americans, overweight black Americans are two to three times more likely to say their weight is average even after they're been told they're overweight or obese by a doctor.

Jasmyne, you think that's true?

Ms. CANNICK: Well, first of all, I will never ever put myself on the same scale as a white woman because automatically, my body structure's completely different. We have certain assets that others pay for that we just are born with naturally. And so, you know, at five-six, for me to be 135 pounds, it's just not going to happen.

MARTIN: Debra, you know, I think Jasmyne's also raising another point here, which is that isn't there something equally unhealthy in constantly comparing yourself to people whose body types might be very different from yours? And I'm thinking about like look at Serena and Venus Williams, who are very muscular women.

Ms. DICKERSON: Right.

MARTIN: And there's s no question that they are healthy, you know. I felt…

Ms. DICKERSON: I think they're beautiful. I think they're absolutely beautiful.

MARTIN: But some people don't. Some people think they're not feminine enough because they're not, you know, slender and waif-like, you know.

Ms. DICKERSON: Right. I love bodybuilder's bodies, and I know some - my own mother, when I was a bodybuilder, thought my body was disgusting. So my problem is the health outcomes: earlier deaths, hypertension, diabetes, diminished quality of life.

MARTIN: Well, what got you onto this topic, Debra? What made you think about this?

Ms. DICKERSON: There's certain things - it just breaks my heart when I read about how low our levels are of organ donation, and it's much more likely that a black person who needs a liver or kidney or something like that is going to match up to another black person.

The unbelievably hideous numbers about black women in breast cancer is killing me. What we're doing to ourselves in this community and we're so up in arms about racism, but there's so much more we could be doing to take care of ourselves. And black women in particular, we take care of everybody and nobody takes care of us and we don't take care of ourselves.

MARTIN: Jasmyne, as you are losing weight, how are you feeling - what's the word I'm looking for? Because I know that you're not like on an index of, like, hollers on the street. I know that's not the vehicle - you know, that's not the standard by which…

Ms. CANNICK: Actually, I do use that.

MARTIN: Well, okay.

Ms. CANNICK: I do. To tell you the truth…

Ms. DICKERSON: I wanted to ask you got at 236?

MARTIN: Yeah, why did you get it? Exactly? Debra, see, there you go. How are you received by the holler index at 236, and how are you feeling now?

Ms. CANNICK: Okay, using the holler index, I didn't too many at 236. But I have to tell you now, when I step outside of the door at work here in Compton, the brothers are stopping. And it's funny to me because I'm lesbian, but even if I was having heterosexual, I'm not going to give anyone the time a day that shout their holler at me from a car.

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. CANNICK: But it definitely has increased substantially. I know I'm on the right track, let's just put it like that.

MARTIN: Okay, Jasmyne, I'm sorry. I have to ask, does it matter what type of car?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CANNICK: No matter what type of car.

MARTIN: All right. I just had to ask.

Ms. DICKERSON: Your momma raised you right.

MARTIN: And she raised you right. Jasmyne Cannick is a blogger and commentator. She joined us from her office in Los Angeles. And Debra Dickerson is a writer and columnist for Salon.com. She joined us from her home in Albany. And you can find a link to her article at our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore.

Ladies, thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. DICKERSON: Thank you, Michel. I had fun.

Ms. CANNICK: Thank you.

MARTIN: And eat healthy.

Ms. CANNICK: Will do.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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