A recent poll has found that African-American women, while heavier on average, have higher self-esteem than their white counterparts. In a report by the Washington Post the unique relationship between weight and self-esteem for black women is explored as part of a series on the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll about black women in America. This poll, the largest of its kind in decades to focus exclusively on African-American women, was conducted with over 1,000 respondents.
One startling result is that African-American women do not link their weight to their self-esteem, as white women often do. The survey uncovered that, “41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem,” compared to the “66 percent [of] black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese” with high self-esteem, according to the Post.
This confirms the anecdotal observation that African-American women do not stigmatize being overweight to the same degree as whites. Indeed, a body many in the mainstream might consider “fat” would be described as “thick” by black women, who tend to positively view their bodies regardless of size.
Elements of black culture are cited in the report — particularly songs like The Commodores’ “Brick House” — for contributing to this unconventional beauty ideal. Ironically, the historic exclusion of African-American women from mainstream definitions of beauty has fed a culture in which black women are happy to be “thick.” This phenomenon has forced black women to create their own aesthetic standards and institutions that promote those standards, such as Essence magazine.
Michelle Gibson, an African-American woman who teaches high-impact work outs at a gym in Washington, D.C., exemplifies these findings. A mature woman who has never been married, Gibson proudly asserts in the Post report that she never lacks boyfriends because her five-foot-four, size 14 frame is très sexy. “Men have always said to me, ‘You’re not fat, you’re p-h-a-t fat,’” she told the paper.
As a fitness instructor, Gibson is in excellent physical condition despite weighing between 150 and 200 pounds. She hopes to encourage African-American women to focus on exercise as a key to health, rather than using self-hatred to motivate weight loss. The black women in her classes naturally agree with her inclination. None are seeking a twiggy appearance.
By comparison, Joseph Neil, a D.C. area trainer, says his white female clients set specifically low target weights. Yet black women think in terms of goal sizes ranging all the way up to 12 — essentially seeking to maintain “brick house” proportions.
“White women are not coming to a trainer saying I want to be a 12. Every white woman who wants to work out and train wants to be petite, petite, no curves, no hips, no butt, nothing, just toned,” Neil said in the story.
Experts on black women and body image explained that African-American women tend not to internalize images of models as white women do, which helps to expand their personal sense of what it is to be beautiful. Icons like Queen Latifah also illustrate that weight loss does not necessitate adhering to a stick thin ideal.
Yet, this greater self-acceptance might be contributing to the higher rates of obesity and related diseases like diabetes among black women. Forty-three percent of black women are obese in America, compared to 25 percent of their white counterparts. Despite the dangers posed by slipping from the “thick” into the unhealthy category, many believe the high self-esteem black women retain in a socially hostile environment is to be applauded.
“Historically, [self-esteem] research on black girls and women has always been the highest among all groups,” Imani Perry, a Princeton professor who teaches African-American studies, told the Post. “It’s really a powerful statement about our resilience given the dominant images of black women present in American culture, which have been generally degrading and unattractive, or hypersexual and less feminine.”
For black women like Gibson, her resistance to these negative messages is evident.
“This is how I’m genetically designed, and I’ve accepted that.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb