Annette John-Hall: Extra pounds: Esteem is OK, but watch the health

I am 5-foot-9 and wear a size 16. I don't remember ever weighing 135 pounds, the low-end weight the government considers ideal for my height.

Heck, I didn't even know the scale went that low.

See, I'm what a lot of people would call thick. Full-figured. I'm the "Sista Big Bone" whom soul man Anthony Hamilton croons about:

Sista big bone / Can a brotha walk you home / Look like a plate of neck bones / I'd like to keep your body warm.

Like most women, I'd love to drop a few pounds. But like plenty of African American women, I'm not trying to lose my neck-bone factor either.

The reason I bring this up is because a recent published survey assessing the quality of life for African American women has sparked plenty of provocative discussion.

Among other things, research revealed that black women, more than their white counterparts, celebrate their bodies. Interestingly, obese black women had higher levels of self-esteem than thin to average-size white women (66 percent to 41 percent).

I'm not surprised. Not too many of my girlfriends would vote Sista All Bones Angelina Jolie the most beautiful woman in the world, which she won in a recent poll.

All Jolie had to do was thrust her pencil leg out from her size-sub-0 Altelier Versace gown at the Academy Awards and faster than you could say "food, please," 30,000 people were following #angie'srightleg on Twitter.

But African American women have gotten their sexy back by rejecting conventional standards of beauty and defining it for themselves.

Still, I have to admit some aspects of how we see ourselves are troubling.

Not that I'm hating. Our healthy view of ourselves would be a beautiful thing - if we weren't so unhealthy ourselves.

 

'Fat and fine'

The idea of being "fat and fine" includes important variables that warrant a more nuanced discussion, Philadelphia-based health journalist Hilary Beard says.

Beard and coauthor Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, CEO of the Black Women's Health Imperative, address many of those issues in their new book, Health First! The Black Women's Wellness Guide.

Yes, says Beard, black women tend to be bigger-boned, with more muscle mass, than white women. But they also tend to be more overweight, leading to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers - you know, all of the conditions that African Americans contract in disproportionate numbers.

Doctors would have us believe that losing weight is as simple as burning more calories than we take in.

But sitting around scarfing down a three-piece from Popeye's isn't the only way we gain weight.

For a lot of women, "our calories-out mechanism is broken," Beard says. "We have hormonal problems. Thyroid problems. All of these obseogenic chemicals in the environment, which throws our blood sugar out of balance. Sometimes it has nothing to do with what we eat."

But often it does. Among African American girls, obesity is the new normal.

Research shows that 97 percent of black girls born this year are projected to be overweight or obese by 2035.

"That means that by the time they finish college, they have no chance of being healthy," Beard says. "We can't accept this. There are other ways to love ourselves."

Good health requires more than going to the doctor. It means making conscious daily choices, like avoiding fast-food joints and processed foods, and cooking your own meals whenever you can.

"If you can find a picture of your grandmother or your great-grandmother when they were young, that's a good weight to shoot for," Beard suggests, "because they were probably eating from a garden rather than out of a box."

Or better yet, we can just look at Michelle Obama, who has raised national awareness about childhood obesity through her "Let's Move!" campaign. She's the ideal healthy role model.

"People criticize Michelle Obama because they say her abs aren't flat and she's got a big butt," Beard says. "But she's a healthy size."

Still, it hasn't stopped some haters from calling the first lady "fat."

They must be delusional. All I see is the kind of Sista Big Bone we should want to be.


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.