(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—A couple of years ago I was in the passenger’s seat driving with a group of friends to dinner. As is often the case when you are the only single man in a car full of three single women, the conversation moves to dating, marriage and the inevitable “Who do you think is good looking?” Each side pitched names back and forth with the usual results. I say “LL Cool” and the women all coo about his chest and lips. They say “Kelita Smith” and I say Bernie Mac was the luckiest man on television.
But eventually the conversation turned to a name that put me on the spot in a way I didn’t expect. “Jill Scott?” my friend posed. I said she had a pretty face; and before I could say another word I was bombarded with a torrent of comments about how Black men don’t appreciate plus-sized sistas, that plenty of men found Jill Scott beautiful and that my attitude contributed to a host of problems from low self-esteem in girls to the breakup of the Black family. Ironically, I hadn’t said anything about Jill Scott’s weight but the reaction of the women in the car is a reflection of the real problem that the Black community has about weight issues. Our obesity problem is killing us and no amount of social badgering and whining is going to save us if we don’t take our weight problem seriously.
In a recent column I suggested that Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity as first lady was a soft-ball issue picked to avoid bringing any controversy her husband’s way. But the truth is that she might be tapping into something that is a lot more serious than many of us accept, especially in the African-American community. Obesity in America is having serious consequences on commerce, our culture and health care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reports that 35 percent and 53 percent of African-American men and women are obese, respectively. Now bear in mind that’s obese, not overweight, plenty of us could benefit from shedding a few pounds but obesity is another issue entirely. The long-term health consequences to obesity, colon cancer, diabetes and heart disease are pretty well known, but the short- term costs are often ignored.
Obesity is getting expensive. Department stores like Lane Bryant and Today’s Man are starting to charge more for plus sizes for men and women because they know it’s harder to comparison shop for a size 52 dress slacks. Airlines have started to charge obese passengers for two seats, health insurance costs go up and then there’s job discrimination. Studies have shown that obese White women make 6 percent less a year in income than their skinny friends, even when education, experience and performance are taken into consideration. It’s even worse for Black women. While men don’t suffer nearly as much wage discrimination due to obesity as women, the higher you move up the income scale, the more likely you are to be passed over for promotions and advancement as public stereotypes about “fat people” affect job evaluations. .
Being overweight is something that most African-Americans can control with changes in diet and exercise. We’re way past simply giving up extra helpings of fried food and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. If moving to a lower fat diet, and walking up and down the stairs in your apartment complex, or walking to the grocery store with your kids instead of driving can end up saving you thousands of dollars in clothes, health care and denied wages over the next several years that seems like small price to pay.
I think it’s a great thing that in the Black community we can appreciate women and men of all sizes and shapes as beautiful. However, that does not mean we can simply forget that weight problems are having a serious impact on our community. For the record, I think Jill Scott is a pretty attractive woman. I’ve always preferred natural-haired, nose ring, artsy “Freddy from a Different World” types of women. But whether we like big like Ruben Studdard and Jill Scott, or fit like Trey Songz and Gabrielle Union, we cannot continue to avoid the issue of weight in the Black community. Some preferences have bigger consequences than others.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)