I started in the health and wellness industry over 10 years ago and it has been a journey. I have seen the evolution of mindsets move from ridiculing any suggestions for losing weight and engaging in a healthy lifestyle, to at least accepting the importance of exercise and activity even if the actions haven’t happened yet. When I first started hawking my gospel music exercise video “Taking It To A Higher Ground”, to encourage African American women to exercise, I thought I was providing an answer to their workout dilemma, finding a motivating way to work out. What I came to understand is that at that time, many women really did not see the importance of exercising.
For the most part African American women have very positive body images which is a good thing. The problem occurs when those body images allow for life threatening obesity to be acceptable. And many times lifestyle changes don’t happen until the condition provides a wake-up call event. Maybe it’s a health scare like not being able to climb stairs, or extreme joint discomfort walking and performing common activities. These are all God’s gentle warnings that changes have to be made. These warnings can be most significant to parents who realize that if changes are not made, they may not be there for the kids.
So back to my story. My first cultural reality check for why exercising and activity was not a priority for my sisters was at the Essence Music Festival in 2000. A woman approached my booth and said “I really would like to exercise but girrrrl, I can’t sweat my hair”. At first I thought she was joking but then I understood what she meant; spending $30 to $50 to get a hair style that had to last two weeks. Natural hair was not the mainstream way to go back then. Now with the advent and public acceptance of natural hairstyles and innovative hair products, women are beginning to abandon this excuse. I will go into more detail about hair and exercise in a subsequent blog.
OK so at my next event I had the video playing at my booth and a heavy set woman walked over to take a closer look. I smiled, we started chatting and then her significant other came from behind and pulled her away. As they walked away I heard him tell her “Girl you look good just the way you are, you got curves”. So revelation number two, many African American men like their women big so we may not want to be “thin”. “Baby got back” is an important requirement in the dating scene for African American women, most times more important then breasts! Again this is not a problem as long as the “back” does not correlate to obesity or a BMI higher than 30 which is the US Government definition of obesity.
Now per a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there is healthy hope for maintaining a curvier size if exercise is in the mix. According to the study of women, published in the Sept. 8, 2004 “Journal of the American Medical Association,” activity, or lack of it, was the biggest predictor of heart disease.
“The women were given angiograms to detect heart disease. They were assessed for weight and BMI, with 76% being overweight (BMI’s of 28 – 30) and 41% of those considered obese (BMI’s greater than 30). But those risk factors did not result in more heart disease. Instead, assessing physical activity, the least active women showed the most evidence of heart disease. Weight did not matter. Exercise and activity matters.”
I still contend that being obese is not an option because being large still forces your heart to work harder than it has to. However if you are exercising, being in the so called overweight category is acceptable if you (and your man) prefer your curves. Ultimately your quality of life becomes the determining factor to making sure exercise is a part of your life.
During that same summer I attended the “Gospel Music Workshop of America” conference. This workshop is a yearly gathering of the gospel music industry’s finest and includes record industry showcases and gospel choir competitions. Folks there was some serious singing going on there! Choir after choir graced the stages and while enjoying the music I noticed an interesting pattern. Roughly 70% of the women were obese, not overweight but obese. It appeared to me that obesity was acceptable and maybe even comfortable because everyone fit in. So revelation number three hit me. If everyone in my choir, family and social environment is obese, than it’s really not a problem. I find this phenomenon to be the hardest obstacle because like anorexia or drug addiction, people in life threatening health situations have to believe they have a problem before they will try to fix it. I believe that houses of worship have the responsibility to do a better job in getting their flock to be more aware of health issues.
Thankfully in the years since these scenarios occurred there has been a growing awareness and acceptability of the seriousness of obesity and not taking care of ourselves. Gym memberships are up and I see more folks out walking and running. But we all know many people who haven’t gotten the memo or misplaced it. This cultural thing is a touchy subject but we have to keep it real….
Just some food for thought.