To grow up black is to grow up learning about a variety of health problems you may be prone to contracting simply by accident of birth. 40 percent of us have high blood pressure. We’re twenty times more likely than whites to contract heart disease. And who can forget the infamous sickle cell, a disease almost exclusively suffered by blacks? Thanks to recent strides in medical research, we now have the information to know that many of the health problems that blacks disproportionately suffer can be either avoided at best, or managed at worst.
In the spirit of both the problems that plague us and new knowledge enabling us to live healthier lives, one Historically Black University – Lincoln University in Pennsylvania – has taken bold and decisive action. They require overweight students to take a fitness and/or a nutrition course before graduating with their diploma. This year, twenty-five students must prove they’ve lost weight before they can walk across the aisle and accept their degree. From this professor, Lincoln’s plan gets an A for effort, but an F for execution.
Lincoln overstepped its bounds as an institution of higher learning. Perhaps more than graduates of any previous generation, the twenty-five Lincoln students whose degrees hang in the balance have been exposed to the dangers and potential health risks associated with obesity. It is in their recent memory that the sheer amount of information about the topic has skyrocketed. It is in their generation that the volume of policy initiatives enacted by state legislatures across the country have ballooned. It has been during these students’ own educational careers that public health campaigns aimed at reaching out to those who suffer from obesity have become exponentially more vociferous.
The university should capitalize on these advances by continuing to produce the kind of scientific knowledge that leads to even more widespread changes in policy. It should be an echo chamber, compounding those resounding voices encouraging students to pursue healthier lifestyles. It should teach and motivate young adults to think critically and make informed life decisions that will positively impact themselves and the communities in which they live. This is the mission of the university – dispensing information, encouraging critical thought, and providing endless opportunities for exploration.
Lincoln’s weight requirement bears little resemblance to this, the fundamental task of the university. It bears little resemblance to the type of scholarship that produced the likes of a Langston Hughes or Thurgood Marshall – two of its most accomplished alumnae. Rather than the kind of education that better equips students to make the best choices (whether they ultimately choose to make the best choice or not), the Lincoln plan bears the marks of a stern father, imposing his heavy-handed, patriarchal will on a household full of helpless wives and simple-minded children, claiming to have their best interest at heart. The university speaks. Students listen. No question. This is not the way of higher learning.
Consistent with its institutional history, character and complexion as an HBCU, Lincoln’s educational encroachment into the private and personal decisions of adult students has racial implications as well. By predicating students’ (most of them black) educational achievement on bodily appearance – no matter the good intentions – threatens to undo many of the positive coping skills that blacks (women in particular) have developed in order to maintain positive mental health, and further stigmatizes those who already live lives stigmatized by both race and weight.
Studies suggest that Blacks have fewer body image problems than Whites, leading Blacks to more infrequently engage in unhealthy weight-loss practices. This may be the case because Blacks’ image of beauty is not as narrow as the mainstream. Despite this, however, studies do show that Blacks (women in particular, but men also) do deal with significant weight pressures, primarily the pressure to look more like the thin ideal portrayed in mainstream media. By redoubling the stigma, the Lincoln requirement ultimately hurts more than it helps.
Obesity and the related health risks associated with it is a real problem for Black Americans. But Lincoln University’s misguided plan is not the answer. It is time that the University’s rethink its role as an institution of higher learning, and come to grips with its limitations. We must equip our students with knowledge. We must ensure their brains receive an ample workout. We must encourage and inspire them to use that knowledge responsibly, to make their lives better and to make life better for those around them. But in the end the choice is, and must remain, theirs alone.