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Black women are much more than negative media portrayals



Last week, a study came out stating that 78 percent of African-American women are overweight. I was shocked and appalled. I could not believe it. The articles were a little sketchy; there were blaring headlines and very little follow-up information. So, I tracked down the study and even pulled in my friend, an obesity specialist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. What I found was alarming — this study discussed all populations, even Asian communities. It basically stated that all Americans are going to be obese in thirty years if we do not change our eating habits. It also said 60 percent of black men are overweight — this according to Body Mass Index guidelines. So why is it that this study that discussed multiple populations resulted in the claim, "78 percent of African-American women are overweight?"

I believe this incident reflects public sentiment toward African-American woman -- that we are undesirable. It seems as if the media is not only perpetuating this way of thinking but is reveling in it. In the past two months, "studies" have been released stating that black women are the least likely to marry, are the fastest growing population of AIDS/HIV patients, will not have romantic partners even if we do not marry, are more likely to lead single-family homes -- and now we're the fattest women in the country. Enough is enough.

We get it, but do they get it? Black women are constantly barraged with negative images of themselves and negative information. Even when the information is positive, it is positioned negatively. More black women are going to college than at any other time in history. POSITIVE. After they graduate, they will be underemployed, or if they have successful careers, they will not have husbands or families. NEGATIVE. Single black women with college degrees will have income allowing them to own homes, save for retirement and live lives denied to their foremothers. POSITIVE. Since they won't have husbands, they will engage in risky sex with black men, become HIV-infected and die, if not from that then from obesity-related diseases. NEGATIVE. Black women really want to have relationships with black men. POSITIVE. Because most black women are less likely to date outside of their race, they will be without partners. NEGATIVE. For those of you who think I'm being overly sensitive, imagine if this was your publicly constructed image that was constantly circulated around the globe?

As Fannie Lou Hamer would say, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." This is ridiculous. The press is mutilating the images of black women, and few people are talking about it. How sad is it that a real discussion about the image of black women in music videos did not occur until after Don Imus put his foot in his mouth? Black women have been talking about this for decades. C. Delores Tucker anyone? Hell, Essence magazine had a "Take Back the Music" initiative for years prior to this, but little coverage was given to it. Only when some crabby old fart made inflammatory comments did people get angry -- or at least pretend to be. Clearly he said what many people are thinking: black women, regardless of their station in life, are "nappy-headed hoes."

Well, we are not that. We are much more than the stripped-down, ass-out images of us in the media. America's historical fascination with punishing black women for being the opposite of dominant ideals of beauty, behavior and gender are being invoked by the media. When do we get to stop being the whipping post for America's angst over who we are? Are black women above reproach? Hell no, but there has to be some balance. This schizophrenic coverage is not helpful. It is fucked-up and tiresome.

Don't make black women the poster girls for "fat" or "undesirable" people in a country where obesity is rampant. If you insist on doing it, at least give us one-tenth of the millions given to black male actors who portray and ridicule fat black women in film. We get it -- everyone hates us, including the media and even our own men. Do I believe this? Of course not, but this is what it looks like. Perception is often reality. Black women have had enough of your reality. My grandmother often says that if you do not intend to treat a person well, stay away from them. The media should heed this advice.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for

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