Black women heavier, happier with their bodies

Feb 28, 2012

According to a recent poll, black women are heavier than their white counterparts, but they also report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem.

Post reporter Lonnae O'Neal Parker writes that black women say "the notion that all women must be culled into a single little-bitty aesthetic is just one more tyranny."

Parker and the main subject of her story, longtime fitness instructor Michelle Gibson, discussed the story with Post readers in a live chat on Tuesday.


- Graphic: Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of black women in America

- Video: Shifting portraits of the American black woman

Good Morning I'm Michelle Gibson.  Thanks so much for joining us on the chat.  I want everyone to know that it's okay to embrace your body image, even as you're working to get more fit.  We're absolutely, always striving to be more fit.  I look forward to chatting with you.

Hi everyone,

I'm Lonnae. It was great fun reporting this story and getting to meet Michelle and all the boot camp women. I hope we can chat about the things that weigh us down when it comes to self esteem and body image.

Thank you, ladies. I *loved* this article and I would dearly love to take classes with Michelle Gibson! So much of it resonated with me. I'm not African-American, but I'm a size-18 dancer and dance teacher who has struggled to be taken seriously at a fit person and fitness professional, particularly by other white women. Big/curvy/healthy just cannot equal fit/attractive/sexy to a lot of us, and I see it as a huge barrier to fitness. There's a sense that if you're not striving to be a size two, or even capable of becoming a size two, you might as well give up and hide at home. (Sorry, my bare BONES would never be a size 12!) This isn't anyone's path to health and happiness. I think one thing the study shows is that there's potentially a lot more traction for the health-at-any-size movement in the black community. I hope it continues to grow.


There's one thing I'd like to add my big-white-chick perspective on: "She preaches acceptance but says white fitness professionals often seem almost resentful of her confidence. 'If I were this plump, meek person doing the same thing I do, I think they would embrace me.' I've tried it both ways, and meek doesn't seem to help either. What a lot of thin fitness pros seem to resent, no matter the color of anybody's skin, is the premise that big does not equal bad. A confident attitude in a large woman just makes it that much MORE threatening. If they accept that you and I can be happy and healthy and strong with big legs -- and know it, and show it, and enjoy it -- that might make them ask themselves the hard questions: What if it's a lie that thin equals fit and desirable? What if it feels *good* to look a little more like us? Then what have they been starving and torturing themselves for all this time? What if the shame driving the fitness industry in this country really is just wrong? It's scary what a little confidence can do. Damn, I'd make me uncomfortable, too. Keep it up, Michelle. You rock.

GM you are exactly what my message is we All women black and white have to embrace our happy hips,  we have gotta start loving ourselves from the inside out.  I would love for you to join me in a session My Boot Camp Diva's 530 am classes have a lot of love. In fact every one womens shape and size is represented.

Women should be content with their bodies appearance. That said, 1) watch out for weight related illnesses and 2) don't complain that the rest of us are not thrilled to pay higher health costs to support your health and weight issues.

My goal is not to have anyone pay higher health cost. My goal is to always work on being a healthier person. Bottom line accept yourself and my goal is motivate people to attend classes and join the gym even if you don't have a six pack or biceps and triceps.

Weight related illnesses, especially for black women, are a real concern. The article points out it's a slippery slope toward obesity and from taking Michelle's class, I know she's encouraging women to get healthy and get in the gym, no matter what their size.  Poor self esteem and not taking care of yourself leads to bad health outcomes, so Michelle's message is the opposite of that. 

Why does this article portray all black women as being obese and not worried about it? It just perpetuates a stereotype. That woman with the fanny pack hoisted over her breasts does not help.

Gm correction the article doesn't say we are not worried about it. The point we are trying to make is yes we have health issues and yes every hour on the hour is a struggle to live a healthy life style but I am not killing myself trying to fit into what society says i should be.  I'm a fitness professional living outside the box embracing all that i am and all that I am not.  I invite you to attend any session with me to obtain a better sense of my purpose.

A few months ago, a story circulated around racial news blogs that a researcher had determined that study subjects found African-American women less attractive than women of other races. I believe he was dismissed for reasons that, depending on the viewpoint of commentators, was either poor methodology or speaking unpleasant truths. Do the women you work with comment often to the effect that men don't them them as attractive as they of themselves as being?

We're not plagued by a dearth of information about the health costs of obesity. First Lady Michelle Obama has a campaign about it, morning shows run regular segments and there are weigh loss articles and information everywhere.

This article gets into the conversation differently and, I'm hoping, gives people examples of  women who aren't distressed by their bodies, even as they work to make them better.   Michelle says often women feel like they are too big to even come to the gym. A good workout starts first in your head, with a decision to move something.


My Master's thesis, completed in the 80's, dealt with Black women and eating disorders and found the same data. How do you reconcile the report that Black women are now seeking treatment (at higher rates) for "once-hidden" eating disorders with the claim of their greater acceptance of their heavier weights?

It's both/and, not either/or.  We're not talking about a monolith, there are a range of black women's sizes and a range of feelings about them. The Post Kaiser Family Foundation poll simply cites higher  self esteem when it comes to even obese black women and body image. This said, some black women, many in fact suffer in silence from bulimia and other eating disorders as do white women. Especially for younger black women who see Jennifer Hudson and other stars touting their weight loss, and who might be trying to fit into a video chick model, weight can be a devastating issue. In general, though, historically and culturally, black women are better insulated from the sharpest parts of  media judgements about weight, and do less internalizing of those images. 

Can you recommend anyone with your outlook near the College Park/Greenbelt area? I hate being the only big girl in a class of size 4 folks.

GM, come on! you need to come hang out with me!  i teach at several locations. I' m at the LA Fitness in Greenbelt on Monday Nites at 5:45 pm Boot camp and Boot Camp on Saturdays at 1 pm.  Come out and join me you will have so much support in the room from my power house petite sisters of all colors and of course from me Representing Women of Figure. I've got EVERYBODY in my room. And men! Hope you can make it.

Michelle Gibson is rather large and usually when someone chooses a trainer, it is someone they aspire to look like. To make the article and the photos more balanced, could you have included photos of personal trainers that have a healthy BMI and weight for their size and frame? There are a ton of black woman who actually want to be thinner and I don't think this article represented that population.

Thank you. There are enough articles published that addresses your desire to see thin trainers.  Yes Im rather large and  when you train with me you will clearly see its not about wanting to look like me. Its about you looking like the best you can be. This exactly why this topic needs to be address. We have to change our mind sets,  stop wanting to be someone else just be you.   I have the experience and knowledge to get you there. Hope to see you soon.

"In 2009, black women had an obesity rate of of almost 43 percent, compared with 25 percent for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, African American women suffer from higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and other serious health problems."


This is all your article said about the health consequences of being overweight and obese. Frankly, I think you were wrong to downplay the huge consequences of obesity and emphasize that black women in the US die at an early age than other women, suffer from more breast cancer, contract breast cancer at an earlier age, and have more aggressive breast cancers, have significantly more major health problems, including strokes and heart attacks, than white women because of their obesity. There's not much point in having a good body image if you're dead or blind from diabetes or disabled due to a stroke, is there? I think you did your audience an injustice.

But if you have a good body image, you're more likely to get out of bed, get to the gym, get moving. To a person, no one in the article talked about laying around eating chips, they were actively engaged in physical fitness and actively engaged in loving themselves.

Gm morning, dont be mistaken a thin body is not always a healthy body.  I interact with a wide variety of people and many  say I'm on high blood pressure medicine and they are often smaller than me.  I'm on no medications thank you Jesus.  It about living healthy no matter your size.

Is it possible that black men are more accepting of the full figured woman then white men are? I'm not endorsing getting one's self-esteem only from one's desired partner pool, but I do wonder whether that has an impact.

Wow in my opinion secretly All men accept full figure women. I've never had any problems with dating.  However, men of color are more open to publically expressing themselves and I jut love them for this!!! 

I love this Post series on black women and the Pew poll, and think the attention the Post is giving to this poll and the fleshing out of the stories is well-deserved and fantastic. However, when I just posted this article on Facebook, a friend criticized it for being overly rosy about the lives of black women (which I don't agree with to begin with, but). Obviously, my friend hadn't seen the other articles in this series. Could the Post include references/links to the other stories that are based on the Pew poll to make it easier for those who don't see the Post every day (shame on them!) to get up to speed?

Producer's note: The links to the other stories, videos, etc are in the left-hand sidebar of today's article. But for quick reference, here are a few highlights:

- Survey paints portrait of black women in America

- For some black women, economy and willingness to aid family strains finances

- African American women see their own challenges mirrored in Michelle Obama's

I have a question and a comment. First, why did the article/poll use numbers comparing "average-sized or thin white women" to "black women considered by government standards to be" overweight or obese? Why didn't the author/poll use numbers for "overweight or obese" white women? Isn't it like comparing apples and bananas? Second, I happen to be a 46 year old, 5 foot 3 inch white woman who lives in Prince George's County, and weighs about 180. And no, I'm not perfectly round. I was in the Marine Corps once upon a time, still relatively "fit," and when I weighed between 120 and 130 my normal blood pressure was so low my doctor told me I should have a MedAlert bracelet. At 180 pounds, my blood pressure is 120/80, and my cholesterol and sugar levels also are normal. I also have a thyroid issue that makes gaining easy and losing hard, but I'm still "healthier" at the higher weight. But most importantly? I'm okay with the way I look - my self-esteem is perfectly fine. I am who I am, and anyone who doesn't like it doesn't have to look at me. But plenty do. I have nothing against skinny women, if they're meant to be skinny. But I do feel sorry for the ones who feel like they "have" to be skinny, even as their bodies and health tell them otherwise.

I absolutely love it!  You are an anthlete! I'm so happy to hear from you.  Keep you head up and doing what you are doing. 

Hi there,

Thanks for sharing your story. We used the government standard numbers whenever we talked about weight because there was such a discrepancy between the weight people self reported and the government measurements (where people literally came into people's homes to weigh them). So all the weight comparisons are on the same standard.  The full poll report is available and has the numbers about white women and obesity.


[Producer's note: Click here for the complete poll results]


We  pulled outthat  stat as a comparison because it was so dramatic. Even overweight or obese black women had better self esteem than average sized white women and we wanted to find out why.

I loved this article. I'm concerned about women who have their fitness goal tied to their clothing size. Clothing manufacturers have changed the sizes so much that they are meaningless. Oddly, it's what contributes to size 00. If the smallest size in 1980 was a size 5, but with vanity sizing a size 5 is what a 9 used to be... then a 00 is what a 5 used to be. Fitness goals should be related to objective measures, like distance, time, weight-lifted, etc. Keep up the good work Michelle! Exercise makes us happier and healthier!

My big legs and behind caused me years of body-loathing, especially in my teens and twenties. And then miraculously, at age 45, I got the fitness bug at the same time that curves on women got new acceptance. I am happier with my body than I've been at other periods in my life...and yet still succumb to media images over what it should look like. So instead I'm focusing on being fit, and on helping others get fit as an instructor. And helping them see that doing this later in life has huge benefits for their self confidence, stamina, energy, and looks. I am strong, I am mentally sharp, and I look younger than my years. And I am healthy. This is absolutely what we need to stress.


So my question...How do we get black women -- who aren't necessarily driven by a need to change the size or shape of their bodies -- to get active and eat healthier? What is their motivation, especially if they haven't yet experienced any negative health effects related to their diet or inactivity?

It starts at home. i thank my mother  i remember being the only kid at the bus stop eating yogurt. My mother was such a great cook,  she could make any vegetable taste great.  My mother gave me the foundation to healthly eating without focusing on health issues and body image. I ate my broccolli because it tasted good,  I and ate yogart because my mom bought it and i liked it.  In additon, i grew up in the Metropoliation metro area and  my mom had me involved in all types of activities. I ran track, drill team, modeling, cheerleading.  Family outings were playing soft ball in the neighbor hood.  Without even knowing it,  I fell in love with fitness.  It was always there. It starts in the home.  How to motivate people now?  I remember the first thing I did was i changed my circle I stoped eating the free food at happy hour (!) and made a date at the gym on purpose.  Eventually, i started to interact with likeminded folks.  Which is why I've been teaching a Advance Step Class happy hour time  on Friday nights, and packed the house!. I'm around beautiful people we share solicited and unsolicited information with each other. Gurl this is a good shoe, lets try not to eat after 7 pm.  Bottom line get off the side lines, make new friends with people that are already motivated to be where you want to be.  

Hi Lonnae, thanks so much for writing this article. why do you think black women seem to love themselves no matter the size? do think this is ingrained from childhood? also, what's your take on how you see yourself after writing this article?

Hi there,

Thanks for reading. I don't know that its true that black women love themselves no matter their size, just that we have places to go psychically other than self loathing. There are all sorts of cultural supports for larger body types and that can perhaps make the pain less acute for black women.  Also, keep in mind. Black women are bombarded with images of women unlike themselves--  Blonde, blue-eyed, long hair whatever-- and are very practiced at not internalizing those images.  To do so would be to walk around in a constant state of lack. So black women were forced into self-definition and in some important ways, its served them well.

um, how do i see myself? I'm fabulous (!) but i don't really have any thickness : (.    (Michelle is sitting next to me lecturing me that I'm still fabulous and it's a mindset. She really never turns that affirmation thing off!) 

I am a 35 yr old, Black mother of 2. I'm 5'7" and weigh approx. 120lbs. I'm a size 0/2. I have what one would call a "model's shape" and I am totally self confident and proud of what I look like and who I am. The people that I get the most hate from? "Thick" Black women who feel the need to size me up and put me down just because I'm not a 12 or 16 or whatever. I'm healthy (even if I don't have a consistent workout routine) and I don't starve myself (as some would suggest). I even worked with a woman (who was obese) who said to me "If I didn't know you, I wouldn't like you just because you're so skinny." WTH! Just because I'm not a bigger sista doesn't mean I'm not "Black" or that I think "I'm all that". Black women come in all shapes and sizes. Even a size 0. And although this article didn't address this topic I felt the need to share my experiences as a thin, happy, self-confident, Black woman.

Sending some love your way my friend from Michelle Gibson Representing Women of Figure. Size Zero to 32 we have to learn to love ourselves and others.   Thanks for chiming in.


My point, Lonnae, was to suggest that it is possible that many of the black women polled affirmed a higher degree of self-esteem than what they really possess. I "get" that we are not a monolith, but I also believe there are so many other challenges (racism, sexism, etc.) "weighing" black women down that many (read: "not all") have developed a sort of learned helplessness as regards management of their weight and health. This notion manifests as these women "talking the talk" publicly but suffering silently in private. And please understand that I don't suggest these women use racism, sexism, et al. as an excuse, but I also don't believe one can deny there is some cognitive dissonance at play when you look at the statistics about higher rates of publicly acknowledged eating disorders and publicly endorsed high self-esteem. (P.S. Thanks for the article! You go, Michelle!)

Gotcha! I think you're right about there being lots of factors that go into those self esteem numbers and I don't dispute that some women say they feel good when they don't. That's not something we can control for. Obviously there are lots of other things going on in communities of black women, but at least with regard to the women I met and reported about, they are joyful.  And I think it's a deliberate choice. Still, there's no denying there's plenty of other health work to do mentally and physically. Thanks for the exchange.

This has been an wonderful experience chatting with you.  I hope this discussion continues to ring. It's okay if you don't fit inside the box I want to thank Lonnae and Marvin Joseph; and my entire fitness family for always supporting me. I hope to see you in a fitness session with me Michelle Gibson "Move Something!" Cheers

Okay folks, we're out of time.

It's been great chatting with you and I hope you contine to talk in the comments section to share your stories and best practices. Nice if women could start to own the body image self esteem conversation ourselves-- instead of being dictated to magazines and videos.

Thanks again!


In This Chat
Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Lonnae O'Neal Parker has worked as a reporter for The Washington Post for 20 years, writing for Style, Metro and The Washington Post Magazine. She's also the author of the 2005 book I'm Every Woman, Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work.
Michelle Gibson
Michelle Gibson has worked as a fitness professional for 12 years, teaching 10 aerobics classes a week. She grew up in Prince George's County and works full time as a National Institutes of Health contractor.
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