OK, so this is interesting and impressive. From the Bliss/B5 Media Group, it seems black women are leading the way to healthier body image and excel with high self esteem over the white female community…
A new survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that black women are both heavier and have higher self-esteem than white women in the United States. This isn’t the first time researchers have explored body type and body image differences between different races, ethnicities or cultures in America. But the degree of difference in the WaPo/Kaiser study is still startling:
Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.
Either white women’s self esteem is more tied to body size than that of their black counterparts, or bigger body types are accepted and idealized in black communities. Or both. Washington Post writer Lonnae O’Neal Parker says black women reject “the notion that all women must be culled into a single little-bitty aesthetic,” have been crafting their own definitions of beauty for generations and are “happier with their bodies than white women in many ways.”
This is good and bad. Good, because obviously we want all women to feel better about their bodies and not let body size define their self esteem. We want women to feel awesome and fit and sexy at a size two or a size 12. We want all of American culture to stop considering a woman’s size or shape or appearance such a strong indicator of her competence or worth. And black women’s body positivity is inspiring. Historically, self-esteem research on black girls and women has been the highest among all age groups.
Black women in this recent survey actually rated physical attractiveness more important than white women did (28% of black women said being physically attractive is “very important,” compared with 11% of white women). But physical attractiveness isn’t necessarily equated with being as thin as possible.
Princeton professor Imani Perry teaches interdisciplinary classes in African American studies and notes black women have conceptions of beauty that are “not just tied to the accident of how you look as a consequence of your genes.” They include style, grooming, how you present and carry yourself, and “how you put yourself together, which I think generally speaks to the fact that we have a much broader and deeper conception of beauty.”
Attractiveness based on style and grace instead of weight sounds awesome to me (though less focus on appearance in general would also be awesome). And a greater recognition that weight isn’t a proxy for health and fitness is also a good thing. In the Post-Kaiser survey, 90% of black women said living a healthful lifestyle is very important—outranking religion, career, marriage and other priorities. It’s important to remind ourselves as we discuss eating disorders this week that being skinny doesn’t necessarily mean in-shape or sick, and that being bigger doesn’t necessarily mean unfit or unhealthy.
It’s a difficult line for all of us, encouraging (and embracing!) body positivity while also recognizing the importance of being fit. Michelle Gibson, the woman profiled in Parker’s article, is a wonderful example of someone walking this line skillfully. The 41-year old size-14 fitness instructor says that instead of fixating on weight, she focuses on being fit and healthy.
“Do you,” Gibson says, “and be okay with me being me. I can never be mad at this thin person. I say, ‘You’re sexy, you’ve got it going on. But don’t think for one minute that I don’t feel the same about myself.’ ”
Which … awww. I love her. (And that’s exactly what Briana here keeps saying).
But while recognizing that a range of body types can be healthy and attractive is so so so good, the ugly side of body positivity is its potential to normalize unhealthy attitudes or behaviors. As the average American body weight continues to creep up, our collective assumptions about “normal” body weight also change. To some degree, that’s a good thing. But weight, diet and health can’t be completely delinked.
Black women have higher rates of obesity than white women (43% versus 25% in 2009). And though so many ranked fitness as important, two-thirds said they eat at fast-food restaurants at least once a week, and only half cook dinner at home regularly.
If anything, though, I think this points to the importance of emphasizing nutrition—and changing the way we all consume and think about food—in the so-called War on Obesity. Fat-shaming doesn’t work (and we’re glad, of course). Changing habits does. Meanwhile, recognizing that no matter how much someone works out or how healthfully they eat, they may never be a size 2 (or 4, or 10…)—and that’s okay, they can still be beautiful/healthy/confident—is also a step in the right direction, and black women seem to be leading the way.
This post was originally released on the Washington Post and again authored by Elizabeth Nolan Brown for Blisstree.com. You can find her on Twitter @enbrown.