African American Childhood Obesity: the skinny on fat

This blog is featured in HBCU Lifestyles: http://hbculifestyle.com/contributor-how-you-can-help-african-american-youth-fight-obesity/

Being the fat kid will never be cool.

America is a skinny nation and an ad hoc committee on “acceptable appearance” has deemed that fat ain’t where it’s at and skinny is in. Media influences applaud the weight loss efforts of the rich and famous as their guant faces and emaciated bodies are flaunted on red-carpets. The recent exception was Gabrielle Sedibe whose round features earned her the lead role in the film, “Precious.” Personally, I remember her character’s story, not the actresses weight, but many others don’t share my reflections because  bone-thin is considered socially appropriate, beautiful to some, and the cultural standard that’s adverse to being obese.

For African American children, this prejudicial outlook is a double whammy as they already suffer so many identity ills in their adolescence that fosters bullying, teasing, ostracizing, and low self-esteem. None of the latter are conducive to a population of healthy adults and more important, the affects of obesity in an African American’s childhood is a tremendous threat to physical health and can ultimately lead to morbidity.

Click link to read:   “Obesity, Appearance, and Psychosocial Adaptation in African American Children.”


Experts refer to childhood obesity as an epidemic, and the dictionary defines epidemic as, “the rapid spread or increase in the occurrence of something, (such as disease.)

“Approximately 22 million children under 5 years of age are overweight across the world. In the United States, the number of overweight children and adolescents has doubled in the last two to three decades…” (source: Childhood Obesity: the Health Issue”  http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v9/n11s/full/oby2001125a.html

Scholarly articles and scientific research aside, my cultural insights are my best authoritative source. I am an African American woman raised by a woman who can sho ‘nuf cook and I am a parent who can do the same. My family is of southern origin and there are nutrition negatives that are embedded and welcome obesity like a warm pan of corn bread hot out the oven. An African American child may not want to be obese, but nobody says No to hot corn bread or mac n’ cheese swimming in a pool of butter or collards or cakes or cobblers. What’s a potentially obese child to do? Just say no? I don’t think so.

African Americans are also less critical of childhood obesity. A chubby child in our community is considered: “well fed and healthy.” An obese child is given a genetics pass: “Antoine’s mama is big-boned, and so was his grandma.” My grandmother would marvel at the immense baby fat of her great-grands and say, “Oh that’s a fine, fine baby right there.” For the African American, fat may not be where it’s at, but fat (and phat) is historically what’s us.”

African American children grow up with “good food” serving as a central part of family life. I’ve blogged it before, and again digress: on Fridays we fry fish, and on Sunday (after church) we all-day soul food indulge, and it’s customary and expected to follow it all by doing what? Sleep. Can the church say EXERCISE? Amen ~

The obese African American child is a product of his/her environment and cultural environments are a direct result of historical experience. Slaves were given the hog’s leavin’ and days off from “the field” were enjoyed by gathering for a meal. Once freed, African American slaves were initially granted 40 acres and a mule, but as a people we continue to statistically enslave ourselves. We lead the unemployed and poverty populous, receive welfare and food stamp assistance in high numbers, and have more difficulty maintaining healthy family structures which leaves more African American children as latch key statistics. Childhood obesity is cyclic and epidemics are generally birthed by an inability to break or control cycles.

From “The HillTop”  The Student Voice of Howard University

“African American girls lead the country in childhood obesity”


Multicolored, nutritious meals may appear reserved for television families for African American children, and an after school snack is often whatever is served during extended day and/or tutoring programs. Mother is rarely waiting at home in a apron baking hot cookies or preparing peanut butter and jelly on wheat served with a side of celery sticks and a box of raisins. Junk food is often the only time-friendly food for a single parent, and let’s face it, we live in a society that commercially ropes our children in for the kill. Childhood obesity may potentially lead to disease and mortality, but television media gives each African American child a Prime Time pistol and a round of  :30 second commercial bullets.

In defense of the African American obese child, I understand they have become an epidemic’s target, but encourage the public to realize how difficult it is for an obese child (or anyone) to win a statistical race when they don’t leave the starting block with the same training or at the same time as their racial counterparts. African American children, despite the education and financial demographics of their parents, simply grow-up different and are indoctrinated with a unique set of social constructs, the least of which is food and nutrition. In support of health care professionals nationwide, they are correct. A future population of African American adults is at risk of being plagued by preventable diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease due to the epidemic of childhood obesity.

The good news (and thank you for taking the hype-hike with me) is that good nutrition can be taught, learned, and culturally embraced. Illness, specifically cancer, inspired me to change my diet and cooking patterns, and I was just lucky to raise a ballet dancing daughter whose metabolism welcomed the word, “thin.”

Be not deceived. In her youth, my daughter ate more Ramen noodles, pop tarts, and sugar-coated cereal than the law allows (I now bow my head in maternal shame.) The favorite breakfast I still prepare for her includes salmon croquettes and homemade biscuits. The former is fried in vegetable oil, and the latter is mixed, kneaded, and baked with Crisco shortening and mellowed with Land O’ Lakes butter. My African American child has plenty of good reasons to be obese, but I am thankful she is not.

The fight against childhood obesity in the African American family starts at home. My collard greens are now cooked sans smoked meat, but rather stir fried in olive oil, garlic, and jalapenos and then reduced with broth and balsamic vinegar. My daughter begs me to prepare greens as a side and additionally loves steamed asparagus and black bean salsa. Who knew? A child’s palette can be reversed and trained and cornbread can be delicious using wheat-based flour or meal.

School lunch brought from home stopped being cool when the Fat Albert lunch box became distinct, but there remains some rather “Hip” replacements as observed by my Walmart snooping eyes. I invite you to consider the following in helping ward off childhood obesity:

  1.  Encourage your child to be physically active.
  2. Discuss preparing and packing lunch this school year.
  3. Survey nutritious, after school snacks.
  4. Allow your children to compose the grocery shopping list.
  5. Extend meal preparation to include the entire family and use RECIPES. This not only advances literacy, but also educates, promotes family interaction, and fosters fun.

African American children faced with obesity are not the new bulls-eye waiting to be universally struck by statistical arrows. They don’t deserve it. Obese children are simply a faction of a family and an integral part of every community whose emotional needs must be identified and addressed.

The next time you see a politically incorrect “fat kid,” don’t concentrate on their obvious obesity. instead, give them a high-five and compliment them on what a great smile they have or the glean in their eye. At the end of the day, acceptable appearance is in the eye of the beholder. We are all a “healthy work in progress!”

2 comments on “African American Childhood Obesity: the skinny on fat

  1. Reblogged this on Peace In, Joy Out and commented:
    Excellent article on many of the challenges our children face when it comes to obesity. Although focused on African American children, as a former trainer I have seen these exact same challenges faced by many families. I love the closing paragraph….”The next time you see a politically incorrect “fat kid”…….give them a high-five. 🙂


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