Body style preference of African American females impacting their health

Posted: 02nd May 2014


Jennifer Cole, MPH ‘14

A group of researchers led by Dr. Heather Kitzman-Ulrich, assistant professor of Behavioral and Community Health at UNT Health Science Center (UNTHSC), has discovered that the preference of African American women toward a larger, curvier body type may be a significant barrier to maintaining healthy weight, a key factor in helping prevent chronic illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The measures of what medical standards consider as normal, overweight and obese, the new research finds, may not be as relevant to African American women’s interpretations of their size classifications, meaning that a “one size fits all” approach to weight loss may not work for this group.

As part of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Reducing Obesity in African American Women through Lifestyle Enhancement,” six focus groups were conducted to explore the influence that body image and appearance have on these women’s motivation to lose weight. Key findings show a disconnection between body size and health status, suggesting that body mass index (BMI) standards may not be relevant to African American women.

UNTHSC School of Public Health graduate student Jennifer Cole (MPH ’14, Behavioral and Community Health), one of the researchers, recently shared a first look at the study’s findings in a presentation to the Texas Public Health Association’s 2014 Annual Education Conference, winning one of two first place awards for Outstanding Research Paper Presentation.

In her discussion of “Is Skinny Healthy: Focus Group Findings among African American Women Regarding Barriers to Weight Loss,” Cole highlighted the cultural and social norms regarding weight, health and body image among African American women and explained how the research data was used to develop the Better Me Within program, a faith-based weight loss intervention for women in South Dallas.

She noted that more research is needed among this population and that programs should consider linking weight to chronic health conditions as a motivational factor, while retaining cultural body satisfaction.

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