The teen years have always been brutal. However, in today’s constantly connected world, it is even harder. To be a young, Black teenage girl is to take some of the universal angst common at that age, and to top it with a heaping dose of gendered race-related issues.
Virtually no girl, regardless of racial background, socio-economic status or geographic location escapes body image concerns. In my research, we gathered a group of Black girls, all of whom are classified by medical professionals as obese, to talk about how they feel about themselves, their bodies, and their health.
The conventional approach is that if you are overweight, it is because you eat too much and move too little. We found these reasons do not fully explain why Black girls have a higher incidence of obesity than their White female counterparts (Latinx boys have the highest rates). Intervening when and where we can is important because half of teenage girls that are classified as obese are at risk of continuing this trajectory to be diagnosed as extremely obese by age 30. As is increasingly recognized, physical and mental health are often linked. Research has also shown that overweight teenagers have a 60% greater risk of being diagnosed with anxiety or depression and are at greater risk for feeling worthless. Another potential negative consequence is that they are three times more likely to experience bullying and teasing.
This is a big deal.
It is also a complicated issue. Traditional health approaches that have focused on weight loss through diet and exercise are not working, and do not address the unique problems facing Black girls and women.
Discovering how this particular group of girls feel about their weight, body image, and overall health can help frame conversations you have with the Black girls in your life. Based on my research with Black girls, here are some things to consider:
- Black girls may consider weight and body size to be separate from health. To a certain extent, they are correct. You can meet standard weight guidelines AND be very unhealthy. There are many ways to define and think about one’s health status, including mental health. It is also important to note that there is a correlation between being overweight and diagnoses such as diabetes and hypertension.
- Black teenage girls believed diseases are inevitable regardless of eating and exercise habits. Many of the girls I interviewed were aware of the varying medical conditions faced by the Black women in their families (e.g., diabetes). Because of this, they thought that poor health was an inevitable family outcome. Although genes may play a part in our health, they do not dictate all outcomes. Believing that their health was predetermined, led to feelings of hopelessness, which decreased the motivation for some girls to make changes to improve health, mental well-being and lifestyle.
- Being skinny is not the goal for some Black girls. While some adolescent girls may idealize a Westernized body ideal (e.g., waifish appearance), Black adolescent girls that I interviewed noted that their standard of beauty emphasizes a much different body type; one that includes full hips, behinds, and breasts.
Teens need help identifying what is healthy. Although adolescents are increasingly more independent, they still depend on the adults in their lives to model healthy habits. The girls were really good at identifying unhealthy foods (chips, soda, fried foods), but less so at describing things that may promote a healthy lifestyle such as, ideas for healthy meals, ways to manage and cope with stress, and the importance of daily physical activity.
What can we do to help?
- Model healthy behaviors, including ways to manage stressors and having an active lifestyle.
- Seek out healthy, low cost options for meals (like here).
- Talk about the health history of your family. Gather accurate information and demonstrate the importance of knowing your medical history in order to inform conversations with medical professionals.
- Prioritize mental health. Check in with your Black adolescent girl. Ask if they need someone to talk to, and whom they may be comfortable speaking (e.g., a counselor or trusted adult friend or family member). Many mental health professionals offer free, short initial consultations. Seek a mental health provider to determine if it would be appropriate to make an appointment.
The teen years are a vulnerable and crucial time for girls. The habits they practice now are harder to break as they get older— for better or for worse. When Black women educate themselves, and engage in health promoting practices, they are better able to model behaviors that help Black girls become their best selves.
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