Friday, May 29, 2009

Acting White: Obesity Disparity Between Black and White Women

A Boston University research team conducted a study that, as reported in the Boston Globe (here), suggests a link between racism and heightened obesity in black women. What? The lead researcher, epidemiologist and BU Assistant Professor Yvette Cozier, was quoted in that article as concluding from the study that ‘racism is real and has real effects”. OK, Yvette, you have my attention.

The only problem is that the study, as published in the Annals of Epidemiology (abstract here), was about perceived racism, and made no attempt to assess the impact of actual racism on obesity factors in black women. So it seems Dr. Cozier pulled the old bait-and-switch in the Globe to get the public to bite on non-existent scientific proof of racism as a cause of obesity.

James Taranto, of the Wall Street Journal, had the following observations. "To begin with, nothing in the study addresses the hypothesis that "racism is real," unless one defines racism solely as a phenomenon within the mind of the putative victim. The study purports to measure the prevalence of perceived racism. It does not test the accuracy of its subjects' perceptions."

Continuing on, Taranto says, "Cozier's assertion that what she baselessly calls racism "has real effects" is equally unwarranted. The study shows a correlation between what it characterizes as "perceived racism" before 1997 and weight gain in the ensuing eight years; it does not establish that the former caused the latter. To our mind it seems much more plausible to posit that the tendency to see oneself as a victim of racism (or to be perturbed by perceived slights, whether racially motivated or not) and the tendency to gain weight arise from a common cause, which one might describe as an attitude of powerlessness or a lack of self-confidence."

I have another idea about the disparity. In their own words, as related to exercise, Black women must exert more time, effort and/or expense on their hair compared to white women. This disparity is real, rather than perceived, and has Black women exercise less and weigh more. I also agree with Taranto that the more powerless one feels the greater the susceptibility to external influence, including the ones extolling the pleasures of fattening foods. So it is reasonable that if black women exercise less (on average) than white women, and eat more, their weight results might differ. Fancy that piece of logic!

Dr. Cozier’s promotional spin on the results of her study, in the Globe, contributes to the perception of racism beyond the (unmeasured) reality, and does a tremendous disservice to the university and her co-researchers, the journal that published her work, and the public that is mislead by her sloppy portrayal of the science. When she comes up for tenure at a later date, she will no doubt be surprised if she fails to promote, but this probability is now greater, as one would expect, after serving us this academic slight-of-hand (assuming the tenure committee notices or cares).

James C. Collier

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16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some people, the author of the article, will do anything to get attention.

How in the world is it "racism" when the actual issues causing obesity are under one's own control?

Even if "perceived racism" perception is under the person's control and many blacks make it a common practice to think they are a victim of racism for various reasons most of which are self serving like not "acting white".

Now they can blame whites for being overweight too?

Another intellectual proving they are not as smart as they think they are and that common sense and book sense sometimes never meet.

Who we are and who we choose to be are the biggest factors in anything we do Mr. lead researcher
Get your head out of the books and wake UP.

Tyrone said...

Sure racism is real and has real effects. However, perceived racism has far greater effect on the psyche than actual racism. Actual racism you can fight against, you can become angry about, you can expose it. Perceived racism is a different beast altogether, far more powerful and much harder to overcome because it involves changing yourself rather than punishing someone for their evil deeds.

I would like to see the methodology used in this. Eight questions seems inadequate for tracking two variables over 8 years, particularly when we are talking about opinion research - which is exactly what this is. Factual data tells its own story.

According to the CDC Mexican Americans are far more obese than African Americans. Factors they found that contribute to obesity:

1: African American women of all ages report participating in less regular exercise than white women.

2: Cultural factors related to dietary choices, physical activity, and acceptance of excess weight among African Americans and other racial-ethnic groups, appear to play a role in interfering with weight loss efforts.

3: Minority women with low income appear to have the greatest likelihood of being overweight.
Among Mexican American women, age 20 to 74, the rate of overweight is about 13 percent higher for women living below the poverty line versus above the poverty line.

I wonder if Dr. Cozier controlled for these aspects when doing her research?

To Anonymous: I don't think blacks are blaming whites for their obesity, but I do think the researcher is trying to imply that - perhaps to secure more funding for further research. According to the study I linked to, there is more acceptance of obesity in minority cultures than in 'white' culture - hence, no blame.

GoldenAh said...

Black women must spend more effort on their hair? Meh. That's a personal choice, if health mattered more than hair it wouldn't be a concern. Our hair isn't complicated, some of us have decided that it is.

Does anyone really think low income minority women can afford to join a health club based on available time and money? I don't see what racism has with women (esp. as single Mothers) doing nearly all the work in their households.

Moreover, there has to be a correlation with childbirth as well. I've read that physicians say 40lbs is normal weight gain for a pregnancy!

There is also the street harassment factors: it's not easy walking the gauntlet of punks that line some street corners. You think a bunch of sistas are going to take up running (early morning or late night) in a high crime area?

Black women and obesity are just ahead of the social indicator curve. The same thing was indicated with out of wedlock births. White women (and others) always follow a decade or so later.

From what I've seen waddling around, everybody is getting too big. Isn't obesity something the UN says the world is now threatened with?

Anonymous said...

When she comes up for tenure at a later date, she will no doubt be surprised if she fails to promote, but this probability is now greater, as one would expect, after serving us this academic slight-of-hand (assuming the tenure committee notices or cares).I'm not in academia, but I think you're making a lot of unwarranted assumptions in thinking a scientifically poor study would significantly raise the likelihood of her failing to be promoted....

Sigh, if bad science kept people from being promoted, where would the women's studies department be?

Dennis Mangan said...

An issue that may effect blacks and obesity is vitamin D. Some recent research has found an inverse correlation between vitamin D levels and obesity. See this for instance: http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2009/05/28/more-evidence-links-vitamin-d-with-body-weight/

Anonymous said...

ah, pull away from the table and stop eating foods from the center aisle of the grocery store!

Poor Black Women find money for hair dos, weaves and nails. But dont invest in healthy eating habits and lifestyles. This has nothing to do with racism.

Monique, blame her obseity on child molestation, at least Oprah Winfrey and Star Jones, admit that they like to eat! Thats why they are fat.

Bell Hooks, Donna Richardson said black women dont want to work out, because they are afraid it will mess up there hair!

lincolnperry said...

@GoldenAh
Black women must spend more effort on their hair? Meh. That's a personal choice, if health mattered more than hair it wouldn't be a concern. Our hair isn't complicated, some of us have decided that it is.

Does anyone really think low income minority women can afford to join a health club based on available time and money? I don't see what racism has with women (esp. as single Mothers) doing nearly all the work in their households.

Moreover, there has to be a correlation with childbirth as well. I've read that physicians say 40lbs is normal weight gain for a pregnancy!

There is also the street harassment factors: it's not easy walking the gauntlet of punks that line some street corners. You think a bunch of sistas are going to take up running (early morning or late night) in a high crime area?

Black women and obesity are just ahead of the social indicator curve. The same thing was indicated with out of wedlock births. White women (and others) always follow a decade or so later.

From what I've seen waddling around, everybody is getting too big. Isn't obesity something the UN says the world is now threatened with?

Wouldn't you said this is more of a cultural phemon with sistas?

GoldenAh said...

Cultural phenom? Perhaps. I know someone who was teased for losing weight (she was just trying to get down to a reasonable size), and some guys wanted her to stay big. I understand where some women are coming from in not wanting to "sweat out" a pricey hairstyle.

But being big is a problem with a lot of Americans. Isn't there a show called the "Biggest Loser"?

I mean, look at Rush Limbaugh, he's a very rich white man, and he can't push himself away from the table. He's grotesquely fat. Didn't Tim Russert pass away from being too big?

Individually, black women have to deal with their weight management issues. I don't see racism playing a role here, although sexism might. Dr. Cozier seems unaware that sexism affects black women too. How strange.

Anonymous said...

Does said researcher even realize it is more socially acceptable for black women to be overweight and that in itself is a factor in obesity?

We see plenty of high profile overweight black women television celebrities and singers but offhand I don't recall hardly a single white women in those examples.

If we care to talk racism how about it be discussed why it's ok for black women to be overweight and a "star" of some kind but it's an unspoken "no-no" for a white woman to step into that place as she will be immediately frowned upon and talked about.

Anonymous said...

There's a good explanation for the spending on hairdos - it's not just because black women are extra superficial or anything like that. The long hair of "weaves" has a similar tradition in Africa. Hair quality is a very good sign of health, and men use it as a proxy for "good genes". The extensions of the hair are a sign that the hair is not so brittle that it can't be grown long.

lincolnperry said...

I read studies that say in corporate culture, its acceptable for black women in managerial postions to be overweight, yet there white counterparts arent fat!

I would only argue racism in the acceptance of the mammie image of black women in authority, we still see these images in media today!

bbgcmac said...

Black women and weight - much more complicated than what one may think at first glance. many many factors are at play.

Anonymous said...

Like so many things, differences in obesity rates between black and white women probably have a variety of factors, such as those mentioned here. But not mentioned here is a report I recall seeing online a year or more ago that, per my recollection, described a comparative study that found that black women either had a higher concentration of some particular chemical, or else a lower concentration of some chemical, that was related to the way the body responds to lack of food.

The effect of this particular chemical difference was, essentially, that black women's bodies would, on average, experience greater hunger pangs than white women, such that, all other things being equal, the black women would need relatively more will-power than white women to stick to a diet, etc.

Whether this study has been replicated elsewhere I don't know; per my recall, it dealt only with women and not with men, and didn't include samples from other races. But it does strike me that, evolutionarily speaking, there may have been factors in the African environment different from those in colder climes, such that stronger hunger pangs might have some evolutionary advantage there.

To what degree this may be part of the explanation, I don't know. I suspect that societal/environmental issues play a role, but it may well be that there are biological factors as well.

Anonymous said...

Folks shouldn't be browbeaten for not cutting a slim physique, unless, of course, they're in a profession or job that requirements them to conform to a height-weight standard of some sort. The military would perhaps be the best example of this.

Those exceptions aside, I say that if a person is happy with the way they are, then the choice is theirs. We could all benefit, however, from the wisdom that demonstrates the health risks associated with carrying more weight than our frames were designed to carry. And that weight differential will obviously vary from person to person.

I suspect that if we all appreciated the health risks (i.e. hypertension, heart disease, joint problems, and so on) involved with the additional pounds, we might view our weight in a different light and try to make what adjustments are in our power to make in order to trim down some.

banana-boy said...

FDA & Dept. of Agriculture and Republican hardliners need to take accountability for the US Health Crisis.

As long ago as 1987 - I noticed the terrible low-quality food items/choices on grocery store shelves - especially in SE/DC - spreading out into Prince Georges County and wrote about it then have have continued to do so until the present...

This comprised of:

"Wonder Bread" and many of their subsequent products with catchy additives.
Aspartame/Ascafame and Splenda artificial sweeteners.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
22g - 32g Sugar content in "Pure" Fruit Juices usually consisting of 10%-15%-25% of actual fruit juices - the rest mostly sugar water.

Taking all of the aforementioned into account - along with a host of other "hidden" additives - are some of the prime causes for the growing "Obesity" problem facing poorer/low-income disenfranchised areas of the US of A!!!

Not only do we have an obesity problem, but we have growing issues with heart-related problems and diabetes. The whole quality of life is being challenged ... rapidly eroding through no fault of their own - unless you myopic types see hard-working low-income folk to being a burden ... an eyesore on the panoramic view of America ...

And yet, in most grocery stores of the same companies - located in upper North West or Montgomery County - the selection of food stuff is far superior - as well as being cheaper for quality. It's an actual fact that one has to spend a lot more money just to eat correctly. That in itself is criminal!!!

Contemplating all of this - not-withstanding the fact the health insurance demagogues and their slimy Congresspeople doing the bidding of greedy lobbyists - they are ruthlessly laying more and more pressure upon those who can ill-afford decent health coverage - forcing them to sacrifice other much needed necessities by scraping the bottom of the barrel to keep their meagre health insurance active - however more expensive it may be or however diminishing it may be in coverage ...

With all this so obvious to anyone with half a brain - we still have those Republican dim-wits doing all they can to prevent/curtail/circumvent Pres. Barack Obama's long overdue Health Care over-hall - seeking to do naught but provide a decent and affordable health coverage for all ...

I'm sorry - if you don't believe this to be racism at it's most devious insidious bent then you must be living on another planet ...

Anonymous said...

It is if anything about not being informed. A few months ago I typed "low glycemic foods" into google and became very informed about what I should eat.

Now 20 pounds lighter with normal blood pressure, sugar levels, and cholesterol levels I can verify the information.

A person has to care enough about themselves to one, find out, two make the needed changes.

Anyone can do that, black or white.

If a person is a "victim" they made themselves one.

To make it racial is yet again another attempt to blame self destructive actions on anyone else but themselves.

BTW bananas should be avoided as they spike blood sugar levels.