The well meaning researchers over at Boston University have been researching health issues pertaining to Black women’s bodies since the early 90s. Personally, I take issue with most research that specifically points out things regarding “more aggressive” forms of certain diseases without taking into consideration other social factors. According to BU’s Black Women’s Health Study website, they decided to begin their Black woman specific research for a number of reasons:

In the early 1990’s we knew that black women were more likely to develop many health problems, and to die of them, than white women. We also knew that most of the previous studies of women’s health had included only small numbers of black women or none at all. We felt that improving the health of black women required more knowledge of the causes of these health problems and also more knowledge about how women stayed healthy. More knowledge meant more research. We decided that we would do our best to take the lead in carrying out that research.

Recently, Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study has compiled research correlating obesity in Black women with childhood physical and sexual abuse. Yes, you read that right.

According to the above linked article, researchers used participants from the ongoing health studies dating back to 1985 and over 33,000 women responded. 58% of the respondents reported at least one incident of abuse in childhood and adolescence and 11% reported severe abuse.

While the report has yet to be published on BU’s BWHS website, the article on the research to me seems to be nothing more than shoddy generalizations. It would seem that the research may be pushing something more along the lines of:
physical/sexual abuse –> mental illness –> obesity

A major problem is that this has nothing to do with Black folks in particular. In fact, we know that race and ethnicity are trigger words in bad research in order to push certain agendas. Additionally, I’ve spent the better part of my career, working with victims and survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence.

The correlation seems to go as follows: the Black community is more likely to experience obesity as defined by Americanized (oft read: white) standards. This is a result of a number of things that we know and have identified: 1) access to real food – the ‘good’ grocery stores are on the ‘other’ side of town; 2) socioeconomic status – the good-for-you food is more expensive than junk-food, 3) education about food and nutrition, 3) traditional styles of cooking and eating behaviors, and a number of other reasons. We know that the world has been discussing Black women’s bodies for years.

We also know that Black women are sexually assaulted/abused at rates higher than in other communities. Studies indicate 60% of Black women are sexually assaulted before 18. Also, apparently, colored folks use corporal punishment in way higher percentages than non-colored folks; all though, I will say, most research on the matter pisses me off because it’s propaganda used to force Black folks away from spanking. (Yes, I know that spanking is not the same as “physical abuse” and no, I am not a proponent of spanking.)

Voila! Science.

Er..bunk science. In addition to this being simple, poor, over-generalized science, it’s just offensive and misleading. Further, taking into consideration the idea the most survivors of sexual abuse in the general population never speak out, and that often in the monolith known as the Black community there is the attitude that we’re all family and should protect each other and not speak out about such things…

Is there an accurate way to capture such a correlation, especially in comparison to survivors of other ethnicities?

I think it’s another “let’s focus on Black women’s bodies!” article. I’m gonna go on a limb and call bullshit on this one. Don’t believe the hype. However, if you want to view an interesting documentary on food and the issues surrounding obesity, you should check out HBO’s The Weight of the Nation for the free.

Interesting that this hit the headlines at a similar time as NPR’s tumblr linked a very overly general article in Clutch Mag on why some Black folks ignore negative research on spanking; again, not a fan of spanking but also not a fan of faulty correlations like: spanking –> mental illness in the Black community. The author, Kirsten West Savali, cites nationally recognized sources like the National Institutes of Health, but also sources that say violence is a function of poverty. Wild. No shade though.

  • Val

    If “they” didn’t do all of these negative studies on Black women how would “they” be able to keep reenforcing the notion the White women were the perfect women. That’s what all these studies are really about, comparing “good” to “bad”. The real problem occurs when Black women buy into these crap studies.

  • Francis L. Holland

    Let’s forget BU’s study for a moment, for the purposes of this comment. Experience tells me that a lot of Black people have been physically and sexually abused in their families and that one relatively socially acceptable way to cope with this abuse is overeating. There is also a theory that women overeat in the belief that it will make them less sexually attractive to men who might sexually abuse them.

    Overeating is one reaction to having suffered abuse. It sucks to hear this out of the mouths of condescending and likely uncaring white people, but that doesn’t change the fact of the matter. Whether child sexual and other physical abuse is the preeminent reason for obesity is another question whose answer could come from a more reputable source.

  • Whatever the deeper issues, the proximate cause is too much food and not enough exercise. All else is bunk. There is something going on in America in general and Black America in particular. We need to solve this. The way to do this is to eat less and exercise more. People vary in their metabolisms and food sensitivities but no one has a body that disobeys the laws of physics. If you consistently take in more calories than you need your body will store the difference as fat.

  • Prosey

    The sarcastic evil person in me wants to ask if the researchers watched “Precious” and had a lightbulb moment. *sigh* I haven’t gone to look at the actual research, but the serious question I have is…is there mention of just how much poverty contributes to all of the things the researchers noted as reasons for the actual study? And that people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty in the United States?

  • Livication


  • Livication

    Thank you for this. Fantastic comment and point that I didn’t even consider in the post.

  • Livication

    I’d like to read the actual study when it is made available, but for the reasons I’ve outline it has the potential to be highly misleading and I’m not buying it.

  • mkc

    Walk into any doctors office and ask what’s the biggest demographic factor in your life that will make you fat, you’ll probably only get one answer: poverty

    Black people make up a disproportionately large section of the urban poor, black women even more so than black men. Poor people are poor in everything: choices, access to food, education, nutrition, health care, and leadership and THIS is why we are fat (I’m mixed race; partly African American). I’m a doctor, I deal with the effects of poverty on a daily basis and obesity is just the beginning. That being said I feel like i do see more spousal/child abuse in the black community but abuse tends to congregate in times/areas of great stress; poverty and institutionalized discrimination combined with issues of drugs and alcoholism amongst the urban poor make for rampant child neglect and abuse and this can manifests in the adult years in obsessive over eating. Abuse also happens almost equally in affluent homes BUT in better neighborhoods there is better school intervention, police response, after care, and counseling so children can learn other out lets besides over eating to aid the healing process.

    So while there are correlations between poverty and obesity and this overlaps with correlations between being African American and being poor or obese correlations do not prove causation and this study is JUNK SCIENCE.