Researchers, black bloggers debunk women's weight myths

theGRIO REPORT - CeCe Olisa's struggle with her weight isn't one that's unfamiliar in the African-American community...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“I’m a plus sized girl, but I didn’t have any plus sized friends.”

When CeCe Olisa moved from the west coast to New York City to pursue her music career, she had to learn to deal with an industry where image is considered almost as important as talent.

“There was a lot of stuff I was working through in regards to my body image, specifically when it came to dating, that I just didn’t feel like I could really talk about,” she told theGrio. This realization is what led her to start The Big Girl Blog.

“Sometimes you have to talk things out to kind of purge them and find out how you really feel about them,” Olisa said about her website. “I wasn’t really writing for anyone but myself, but writing the blog was my way of purging it.”

She described the experience as “nerve-wracking” when she first began. She wasn’t accustomed to publicly sharing personal feelings for just anyone to read. In fact, she initially wrote anonymously and avoided including any photos of herself in posts.

“It was a lost easier to be completely raw and honest when there was a little bit of separation,” she said.
Gradually, her small, private space on the web began to grow in readership and Olisa began to realize there were other women who related with her story.

“I think there’s something powerful when you think you’re the only one going through something and then you see someone else say it or you see someone else do it and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought it was just me!'”

It isn’t just her. Olisa’s struggle with her weight isn’t one that’s unfamiliar in the African-American community. In fact, the U.S. Office of Minority Health has said that in 2011, four out of five African-American women were either overweight or obese.

These numbers are alarming by anyone’s standards, but new research shows weight may not be as much of a health hazard as previously considered. The New York Times published an article last month suggesting we may all be focusing on the wrong thing when it comes to personal health.

The Obesity Paradox: is being overweight healthier?

The New York Times article reports on what health experts call the “obesity paradox” – that is, the idea that overweight and moderately obese people with certain chronic illnesses have a higher chance of recovering than their average-weight counterparts. The supporting evidence debunks the widely-held belief that there is a strict association between body fat and disease.

The idea isn’t new, but the mounting evidence from recent studies is gaining attention among physicians and health experts.

The Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed several studies earlier this year and found that adult diabetes patients of normal weight were more than twice as likely to die compared to overweight or obese patients.

“Our findings are consistent with other studies of people with hypertension, end-stage renal disease, and congestive heart failure: those with these conditions have higher death rates if they are normal weight,” wrote Dr. Mercedes R. Carnethon of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

These findings aren’t meant to suggest those who are overweight or obese shouldn’t slim down, but rather that factors other than whether a person is obese or not should be taken into consideration when treating illnesses. Body mass index, or BMI — the calculation that determines when someone is obese — doesn’t take into account body fat, muscle mass and other aspects of physical health.

The New York Times article suggests it may be time for physicians and researchers to stop framing health issues in terms of obesity and, rather, to look into other potential causes of disease.

“Maintaining fitness is good and maintaining low weight is good,” Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute, told the newspaper. “But if you had to go off one, it looks like it’s more important to maintain your fitness than your leanness.”

“Even if weight contributes to health problems, attacking weight as the problem is not going to be a good way to do it,” Dr. Linda Bacon, a nutrition professor at City College of San Francisco and author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, told theGrio.

Bacon writes in her book that the Health At Every Size movement “acknowledges that good health can best be realized independent from consideration of size. It supports people – of all sizes – in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors.”

The movement believes that rather than focus on weight control, people should aim to improve their overall well-being.

“Let’s pay attention to the things that we know are important, that we know we can change,” Bacon told theGrio. “And let’s be open minded and see what happens with the weight.”

She suggests it’s more important to make sure communities have access to nutritious food and exercise opportunities because those factors are valuable regardless of its impact on weight.