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Roundtable: Black Women and Body Image


This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

How are African-American women confronting eating disorders, obesity and pop culture stereotypes? For our Roundtable today, we'll talk to three women working on the front lines of black female body image.

But first this question: Why do so many people still think affluent white girls are the only ones suffering from anorexia and bulimia? NPR's Allison Keyes gives us a broader picture of the problem.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Ruth Striegel-Moore, head of the psychology department at Wesleyan University, has done several studies involving the prevalence of eating disorders among women of color. Contrary to popular belief, she says the conditions are a significant issue for African-American women.

Professor RUTH STRIEGEL-MOORE (Wesleyan University): Women of color are experiencing eating disorders and very often go unrecognized by the health-care system.

KEYES: Striegel-Moore's most recent study followed a thousand African-American women and a thousand white women between the ages of 18 and 21 in California, parts of Washington, DC, and in Cincinnati, Ohio. Researchers found no cases of anorexia or self-starvation among the black women compared with 15 cases among the white women involved. Striegel-Moore says women of color in her study did suffer from bulimia and bingeing, two other eating disorders, though in smaller numbers than white women did. She has also seen other research supporting the premise that women of color with a close association to white culture are more susceptible to these diseases.

Prof. STRIEGEL-MOORE: What we think drives some of the binge eating is stress-related, and so if you're talking about someone who is upwardly mobile or who is in a context where they're, you know, a token person, they may experience a considerable amount of stress and that that may, in part--contributing to their eating problem. I mean, the other explanation that's related is that when you are upwardly social and mobile, we know there's a very strong association with having to be thin when you're affluent.

KEYES: Many say that African-American and Latino women with eating disorders are buying into the mainstream media image of white beauty, an image that is often slimmer than the silhouettes one sees on the streets in many neighborhoods of color. Striegel-Moore says one of the African-American women she studied who suffered from an eating disorder felt she had shamed her race by having a white woman's disease, but concern over appearance, the professor says, is only one contributing factor.

Prof. STRIEGEL-MOORE: We found that in my studies and others have found that, you know, physical abuse, sexual abuse, other severe types of trauma can increase risk for an eating disorder.

KEYES: An 18-year-old Ft. Walton, Florida, woman says she started on the path of anorexia and bulimia as a way of dealing with an assault she suffered six years ago. Instead of using her real name, she asked that we call her Michelle. Michelle has visited Web sites that promote anorexia, known as Ana, and bulimia, nicknamed Mia.

MICHELLE (Eating Disorder Patient): I had a very traumatic experience. I was 12 years old and didn't know how to cope with it and didn't tell anyone and just--I tried to sort my emotions out by dealing with them in other ways, by focusing on things that I thought I could control, like eating.

KEYES: Michelle says even when she was starving herself on one piece of kiwi fruit or cup of soup per day, she felt superior to others because she had more control than they did. But she says she's now trying to recover from her eating disorder, and she hopes to keep others from falling into that pattern.

MICHELLE: Well, it becomes a way of life. It's not a religion. It's not a cult. It's not a form of voodoo or anything. It's not something that you make a conscious choice to do. It's a disorder of your mind. You can't think clearly, and you make choices because you have no control over yourself or your impulses.

KEYES: Stanford researchers released a small study last month that found 40 percent of adolescents with eating disorders had visited Web sites actively promoting anorexia and bulimia. Postings on several such sites make it clear that women of color and some men are among those who use them. A larger study is under way examining the impact of such sites. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

CHIDEYA: You'll find the complete interview with Michelle, the 18-year-old in this piece, at the NPR Web site, npr.org.

And now we're joined by three women who have a range of experience in black women's health and body image. From member station NPR in Washington, Rovenia Brock on--Dr. Ro. She's author of the book "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy." Also, we've got Katrice Mines. She's the executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Sandusky, Ohio, and she joins us by phone. And Cheryl Boykins, former CEO of The Center for Black Women's Wellness in Atlanta. Thank you all for joining us.

And let me start with you, Katrice. You wrote an article a few years back in Glamour magazine about your girlhood struggles with body image and how you're trying to stop being so self-critical. What do you know now about body image that you wish you could tell your 13-year-old self?

Ms. KATRICE MINES (Big Brothers/Big Sisters): I wish I could tell my 13-year-old self that these ideals are socially constructed. When I went to graduate school, I studied American culture studies, and I was amazed at the ideals that were just made up by someone, and they'd just taken on these huge lives of their own and become things that we obsess about, and really, when you go back to the root of it, it doesn't mean anything. And I never was like really, at that age, around a lot more black girls at a day-to-day basis. At that age, actually, I was just getting around more black girls in school. And by that time, you know, fourth grade, I'm believing, is when girls are making a lot of sense of the world, where they're starting to make decisions about themselves. So I probably would have to go back and speak to my 10-year-old self to make some changes.

CHIDEYA: So what do you think about this whole idea that eating disorders are rising among youth of color?

Ms. MINES: I think it's very true, and I think they've been rising for a while. We just weren't the people being interviewed, and that whole ideal that African-American women and women of color have a healthier body image was pushed for so long with no one coming back to ask us. It was just saying, OK, well, they say that they feel better because they know their mothers and their grandmothers and their aunts to have more robust figures. No one was coming to interview us as often as they were going to interview other groups, and so that ideal just went for a long time when our eating disorders were rising earlier than just now.

CHIDEYA: Cheryl, you used to head The Center for Black Women's Wellness in Atlanta. Did you see any cases of eating disorders in the black community?

Ms. CHERYL BOYKINS (Former CEO, The Center for Black Women's Wellness): Not that they were diagnosed as eating disorders. The way that most of us look at eating disorders is that people are either obese and are not active in activities or exercise. My concern with most of the issues and the topics that we're discussing relative to eating disorders is that for black women, what we ought to be concerned more about is the health--I mean, some of us are big, some of us are short, some of us are thin. We have big bones, middle bones, and some of us just look very different.

But what I'm more concerned about more than the cosmetic look of whether I can fit into a size five or 10 or six or eight suit is whether or not my heart pumps regular. You know, what are the kinds of health problems or issues that I'm having? How healthy are you? Can you walk and not breathe hard? Can you talk without gasping for breath? That is the thing--those are the things that I'm more concerned about, and those are the things that black women talk about more than just the eating disorders.

Because what I'm noticing, I mean, just from--I have a personal testimony. I was always aware of my body coming up, and so I played sports, and I was an athlete and all of that good kind of stuff. But about five years ago, I was in a head-on collision with a dump truck, so I--yesterday, as a matter of fact, I was in the gym oiling myself up after exercising, I said, you know, I have come to love these scars. And I think that black women have more to talk about more than just being obese and anorexia and bulimia and a whole lot of other things. It's just because we ought to be more concerned about the values that we have relative to who we are inside, that essence that carries us.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Ro, you know, bouncing off of what Cheryl said, can you just love yourself, top to bottom, no matter whether you're big, small, have scars, just for being alive and doing the best that you can with health? It seems to me that some of the stuff that you do in your book "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy" is really about trying to embrace your physical self and challenge your physical self, even though it may come in different sizes.

Dr. ROVENIA BROCK (Author, "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy"): Farai, I just want to say, first of all, I am in agreement with Cheryl wholeheartedly. I mean, we, I think, both bring parts of the same message to this discussion, and that is to say that at a time when one in two black women is overweight or obese and at a time--and that's by the time we're age 40. By the time we--at a time when we suffer disproportionately from all of these diseases, such as heart disease, even some forms of cancer now because of our obesity and overweightness, hypertension, Type II diabetes, we really need to be working on ourselves from the inside out. And we really need to be focusing on how to change those statistics. And the good news is that the power lies within each of us to do so, without, in some instances, even having to think about it. There are small, incremental lifestyle changes that we can incorporate in our daily lives to make those changes such that we will be there for those generations who will come behind us.

But to answer your first question, I would say, yes, it is possible to love yourself on a day-to-day basis, no matter what your size, no matter what your height, no matter what your body shape is, and I really do think that's a mind-set that we need to focus on, you know, attaining. And to love yourself means also to take care of yourself, and it means to, you know, be able to do those things that are going to increase your quality of life such that you can have a full, rich, more healthy and productive life, and not have to worry about, as Cheryl has said, you know, gasping for breath and going up and down a flight of stairs without being winded. You know, those are some of the kinds of things that we can do to treat ourselves well, to love ourselves and to be good to ourselves.

CHIDEYA: So what do you think are the psychological reasons why more African-American women aren't in better shape? You've got 50 percent of black women are clinically overweight. You've got other women who have eating disorders. And it seems as if there's kind of a Scylla and Charybdis, where people feel squeezed by either trying to attain some super-thin ideal or saying, `I'm just going to treat myself to these ribs and this steak' and whatever, and then you get fat. So...

Dr. BROCK: And I...

CHIDEYA: ...what do you do?

Dr. BROCK: ...think it's more the latter, too...


Dr. BROCK: ...by the way. But I think part of the--we do have some cultural concerns. We've got some cultural kind of baggage. First of all, understand that there's a body of research that has come out, the University of Pennsylvania, a nutritional anthropologist whose name is Shiriki Kumanyika. And what Dr. Kumanyika says is that essentially, first of all, we, as a group, have--and I think Katrice also spoke to this earlier--we kind of embraced the notion of having thick bodies.

Ms. MINES: Yes.

Dr. BROCK: And so in a study of over 500 women from the Washington, DC, area, as a matter of fact, more than 50 percent of them were very happy with their, you know, overweightness because their husbands or counterpart felt that--the person in their lives felt that that's the way they liked them, so they were very satisfied with having hips and thighs, and this is a norm for us. So what our standard of beauty is in our community does not jibe with what people of other groups' standard of beauty might be. And that's OK to have a healthy perspective of yourself and a healthy view of yourself and your body, but to the point where those extra 20, 30, 40, 50 and sometimes much more pounds increase your risk of disease, we've got a problem.

CHIDEYA: Katrice, let me go back to you. So you are working with Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Ohio. What do the young girls think about all of these different perspectives on body image? It sounds like there's all of this stuff in stereo on different views of what a black woman's body should be like. How do you get girls to take charge of their own image of what their body should look like instead of looking to everyone else for approval?

Ms. MINES: Well, I can speak to that from two different angles. I have a program for African-American girls called Inspiring Excellence(ph), where we work one-on-one, in groups actually and one-on-one with African-American girls on issues from everything from perceptions of beauty to academic success to health and fitness, and then at Big Brothers/Big Sisters, we match women with girls to kind of get them to experience friendship and a good bond, and so we don't necessarily have a lot of girls in our office, but often, when we talk to Big Sisters about their matches and ask them what is the prevalent discussion that they have with their girls, and one thing that they noticed, when they become about fifth grade and up, they start to talk about--more and more talk about how they feel about themselves and how they look and what somebody said to them at school, and there's so much comparison to the other girls based on what young men are saying to them from, like, fifth grade up through high school, and typically the girls that we serve are probably about six to 12, and that 12-year-old age is when we try to give them more and more material, our Big's resources to activities and programming at the university and different places that they can take their girls where they're hearing more positive things about being a woman and being a young woman and being different and your variation being a blessing and not something that's wrong with you because you don't look like what's on TV.

CHIDEYA: Katrice, let me--we don't have much time left--transition to the issue of hip-hip and pop culture, music videos. How does that play into this whole thing of teen-age girls trying to decide how they should look?

Ms. MINES: The scary thing is that the TV is basically raising a lot of these girls, and they are becoming obsessed with this ideology of looking like the young women in the videos and so that they can do the dances and so that they can get these guys. And one thing that is kind of hurting them is that they're falling into the pit of teen pregnancy because they are doing what--they're living out of that ideology: I have to look like this, I have to dress like this. And then they're getting involved in early sexual behaviors, and they don't understand that that is a career for those women, and that a lot of those women don't get paid, and they don't know all of the other information. All they know is what they see and they don't understand that those women are props. And it's like an obsession. I mean, they don't necessarily know how to get those bodies, but they want to look like them, so they're just wearing the stuff and starving themselves, as a whole.

CHIDEYA: And, Cheryl, let me ask you the same question. How do you deal with girls who just try to pattern themselves after what they see on TV?

Ms. BOYKINS: Well, I think the children are only taking the pattern that we gave to them, and they are, as the to--there's Michael Jordan in everything that we handed down to them. And it did not start with them, but they have definitely enhanced it and improved upon it. But what, again, I think we should be focused on--the only place--when people keep saying self-esteem, self-esteem and self-esteem, self-image, self-image, self-esteem, the only place that self-esteem and self-image comes before work is in the dictionary. We have to pull together our mind, will and emotion, which is the soul of us as people, as human beings, not humans doing, not trying to get a man, not trying to look like and fit into somebody's wardrobe--I don't care who it is--whoever brand name it is, but to be comfortable in our bodies, knowing that our bodies are the vehicles that carry the essence of who we are as spirits and kingdom children and people who want to be well in this world, no matter who we are.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. We've been talking with Cheryl Boykins. She's former CEO of The Center for Black Women's Wellness in Atlanta. Katrice Mines, executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. She joined us by phone from Sandusky, Ohio. And in Washington, Rovenia Brock or Dr. Ro, author of the book, "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy." And we will keep track of how to live healthy. Thank you all for joining us.

Dr. BROCK: Thank you.

Ms. MINES: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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