A friend, leader, father, artist, son, and grandfather, Willie Middlebrook, passed away this weekend after health complications following the onset of a stroke some time ago. As we mourn the loss of our friend and celebrate the peace of his homecoming, I can’t help but reflect on health and mortality.
Today in a fitness group I’m part of, a dear friend shared Black Women and Fat, an article written by Alice Randall on Cinco de Mayo, making me think of another dear friend who’s a wellness practitioner, mother, wife, and slim and healthy black woman. I read the article, thoughts swirling in agreement, disagreement and concern.
In the article, Randall writes: “FOUR out of five black women are seriously overweight. One out of four middle-aged black women has diabetes. With $174 billion a year spent on diabetes-related illness in America and obesity quickly overtaking smoking as a cause of cancer deaths, it is past time to try something new.”
I can’t oversimplify this.
No study covers every single case, and broad-based research is well-funded because that investment is tied in to economic gain.
How often is food policy set according to CDC statistics and what kind of influence is wielded by pharmaceutical companies and multinational corporations with profit attached to said policies ?
The article continues: “What we need is a body-culture revolution in black America. Why? Because too many experts who are involved in the discussion of obesity don’t understand something crucial about black women and fat: many black women are fat because we want to be.”
There are exceptions to every rule but it’s a dangerous generalization to say anyone is fat because they want to be. The article seems to be intentionally blurry about clinical obesity and size. Curvy, proportionate, and feminine are very different ideals than rotund, obese, and unhealthy. This ideal isn’t limited to one culture: The Venus di Milo, and Marilyn Monroe are some of the world’s most celebrated icons of feminine beauty.
I agree completely that we do need a body-culture revolution, but we are remiss if we limit it to one race or culture. The question of American health has to be tied into the question of capitalism and greed if we want to talk about why American citizens are the fattest people on the planet.
Further supporting the idea that culture and obesity are linked, Randall writes: “The black poet Lucille Clifton’s 1987 poem “Homage to My Hips” begins with the boast, ‘These hips are big hips.’ She establishes big black hips as something a woman would want to have and a man would desire.”
The female form has long been used as a symbol of fruitfulness, of political power and human strength in art and literature ranging from holy texts to sculpture. Limiting the discussion to one race, one gender, one body type, one sexuality, blurs the real issue.
Weight and health isn’t about attractiveness to men, sex, or culture. It’s about self-love, which comes from the highest love of all. Greed, gluttony, sickness and hate can’t survive in a world fueled by it, and improving spiritual health is way more effective than buying a treadmill.
Indeed, the metaphor in Clifton’s poem is about these larger issues of freedom, and power, not about the body or lust. Even the structure of the poem is open and free, underscoring the idea of breaking constraints, of being unbound, released. Clifton’s poem goes on:
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved
In another well-known poem about the power of femininity, Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou weaves the grace and beauty of the female form around the language of spiritual confidence, power, love and joy, simultaneously asking and answering the question of what true beauty is.
The poem begins with a brilliant juxtaposition of physical and spiritual, showing that life is what makes a woman beautiful, not appearance.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
The last stanza of the poem drives home her point, that the power of womanhood is the light of God shining within.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Randall’s article consistently underscores the need for a health revolution: “WE have to change. Black women especially.”
Again, I agree. We do need to change, beginning with embracing the best version of ourselves and being intentional about changing the dialogue about race, humanity and spirituality. Every article, study, newscast, conversation and movie we have that talks about black people being sick, fat, lazy, stupid, broke, angry, ugly, or apathetic contributes to a false narrative.
While it’s important to acknowledge where work needs to be done, and to celebrate when we begin that difficult work, it’s important to make sure we don’t perpetuate that false narrative.
Often, it’s our silence that empowers lies. Our voices have to be used to communicate truth, our power to light the way.
Black people are the origin of humanity, life. Our history proves we are incredibly resilient, talented, brilliant, beautiful, athletic people overflowing with love for God and for mankind.
Black people, women, are not alone in that: That is the history of humankind.
How can we honor and celebrate humanity as a reflection of the divine by condemning ourselves with anything other than the truth of our divinity, our phenomenal-ness?
Shouldn’t a physical revolution be ignited by a spiritual one?