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Slim Down Sister: The African-American Woman's Guide to Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss

by Roniece Weaver, Fabiola Gaines, and Angela Ebron

Chapter 1
A New Attitude

Do you have control of your life? Many black women would automatically say "Yes." Their finances are in order, they're doing well on the job, their marriages are solid and their kids are healthy, or they're happily single. Things are moving along just fine. They've really "got it together."

Well, we're not talking about your finances, your job, or your relationships. We're talking about your life-literally. Think about it this way: Being in control of your life means having the power to ensure that you live as well as possible. Not materially, but physically. So are you in control?

If you weigh more than is healthy, the answer is no. Why? Because the health risks associated with excess weight, namely heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and certain cancers, can kill you. And a sister who truly has control of her life would never put herself in that position.

It's easy to understand why so many of us are lax about something so serious. Weight isn't a big issue in the black community. We don't view excess pounds as negatively as white folks do, perhaps because we see it all around us. Far too many of us are overweight. When you see yourself reflected in this many other women every day, what you see becomes the norm. It doesn't bother you or surprise you. You accept it.
Folks in our communities are less apt to belittle a full-figured sister, especially if she knows how to hook up her look. Even though we're bombarded with media images of waif-thin models and actresses, when we go home it's a whole different world. Yes, we have super-skinny sisters in our neighborhoods, too. But many of the rest of us are heavy. Think about your own family. How many of your female relatives are full-figured? It's no wonder we tend to put less emphasis on size than white women do.

Some experts have criticized the standard method for determining fatness-by body mass measurement-as flawed because it doesn't take African-Americans' larger frames and heavier bones into account. But we can simply look around us to see that overweight is a very real problem, especially for black women. Whether obese, moderately overweight, or merely 20 pounds too heavy, the point is that those extra pounds snatch the reins of control right out of your hands.

Girl, You Look Good

Another reason we take less of a hard view of overweight is our strong sense of self. Sisters are known for it. We have no problem patting ourselves on the back. You know the saying: You better blow your own horn because no one else is going to do it for you. Well, black women take that motto to heart. Perhaps it stems from our matriarchal background, or maybe it's due to the societal battles we face today. Whatever the catalyst, black women have developed a deeply rooted self-esteem that shapes our ideas about beauty.

In the black community, weight is no match for style because we don't adhere to the same "ideal" images as whites. As Maya Angelou reminds us, "the span of my hips ... the swing in my waist ... the ride of my breasts" are to be appreciated. And we do. We walk with a purposeful stride, a smile on our lips. We know we look good. Brothers know it too. If you're "working it," you're bound to hear a few appreciative remarks, no matter your size. To us, attractive and overweight aren't mutually exclusive. For many white women, however, excess weight is intolerable. A 1992 study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, that compared body images and body-size perceptions among black and white women found that white women were more dissatisfied with their figures and more inclined to view excess weight as a negative. A University of South Carolina study yielded similar results: African-American women indicated less of a desire to be a smaller size than did Caucasian women. It seems black women are much more at ease with their figures, whether size 10, 16, or 22.
Our love of self starts early. Black teenage girls are happier with their bodies than white girls of the same age, according to research at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Seventy percent of African-American girls reported satisfaction with their current weight, while a whopping 90 percent of Caucasian girls viewed their bodies negatively. What's interesting is that black girls are typically heavier than white girls, according to a study from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

So what does all of this say about sisters? Does it mean we just don't care how fat we are? Not at all. It simply means we don't beat ourselves up for being full-figured. We focus on the positive, hooking up our outfits to flaunt our curves, not hide them.

Of course, we know when we've reached our weight threshold. The problem is, we tend to base it on aesthetics rather than health. As long as we can dress well, feel confident about our appearance when we step out the door, and elicit a positive reaction from others, we're good to go. It's only when those things falter that we start to worry.

So you say to yourself, "I've got to do something about my weight," and resolve to start a diet. But you know what? That approach to weight loss is bound to fail because you're doing it for the wrong reason. What's to keep you committed when you shed a few pounds and are able to fit back into those outfits? Not a thing. Oh, you'll look good because you're a sister who knows how to "work it," and you carry your weight well. But when those pounds start creeping on again-and they will-you're back to square one. It's a vicious cycle that can only be stopped one way. A new attitude.

It's not about looking good, it's about feeling good. Remember, you're taking control of you life.

A Change for the Better

Changing a lifelong way of thinking won't be easy. But it is possible. The first step is to take personal inventory and be honest with yourself. Really think about how well you feel from day to day. Are you often tired? Does mild exertion-say, climbing a flight of stairs-leave you winded? How well do you sleep? Do you ever feel pain in your joints?

Do you have any respiratory problems? How's your blood pressure?

By shifting the focus away from your appearance and onto your well-being, you'll start to see the true relationship between weight and health. Once you make that connection, you'll be in a better position to slim down for good.

True weight-loss success comes when you resolve to make an investment in your health. Concentrate on the years you'll add to your life. Then think about the quality of those years. Wouldn't you rather lead a high-quality life that's full of energy and stamina, that's not plagued by illness and disease?

You're nodding your head, but a part of you is afraid you'll have to make drastic changes in order to get there-changes you're not sure you can sustain. Adopting a healthy way of thinking doesn't mean adopting a stringent, food-phobic attitude. You only have to look at white American culture to see where that leads. White women are more prone than sisters to eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, because many of them slip into a body dysmorphia trap. Their body image becomes so distorted that they binge and purge, or avoid food altogether.

Don't be fooled, though. Black women aren't immune to eating disorders. If we continue to focus on the aesthetic issues surrounding weight rather than the health issues, we run the risk of developing a distorted body image as well. We'll simply move from one extreme to the other. That's why it's so crucial for sisters to let go of the "How do I look?" mentality and get with a "How do I feel?" frame of mind.

The goal isn't to lose weight at any cost, by any means. The goal is to develop a healthy relationship with food while improving the poor nutrition and exercise habits that cause far too many of us to become overweight.

It's Time to Get Real

Let's face it. No matter how fine a woman is, if she's overweight, society holds her in lower regard. Why else would an organization like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance exist? Fatness is the last bastion for out-and-out discrimination. Yet many sisters simply don't recognize it. In her 1993 study of weight-related attitudes and behaviors of black women, Shiriki Kumanyika, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois, asked obese sisters if being overweight had ever caused them difficulty in getting a job. Almost every single one of them (an astounding 96 percent) said "not to my knowledge," although the reality is probably very different.

The hard truth is that fatness can be a drawback, and not just in the workplace. Take a look at any magazine, movie, television show, or music video. Odds are, the beautiful woman peering back at you, like Halle, Whitney, or Vanessa, wears a size 6, not a 16. Thin is definitely in.

Even our most famous and beautiful sisters aren't immune to the power of judgment. Take Janet Jackson. Her whole demeanor changed once she toned up. Do you remember her ever showing so much skin when she was plump? Even Oprah, who's waged a public battle of the bulge for years, seems to emit a stronger sense of self now that she's slimmed down. Sisters like Janet and Oprah, who live their lives in the public eye, can't help but understand the standard by which we are all judged. Right or wrong, thin and average-weight people, men and women alike, view overweight people differently. They're seen as having no self-control, no willpower.

For heavy sisters, weight prejudice may be overshadowed by the harsher sting of race and gender discrimination. We know when that happens. There's no doubt in our minds. Because weight is less of an issue in our community, it doesn't always spring to mind as a cause when we lose ground. We rarely think, "Hmmm. I wonder if I didn't get that job because of my size."

What black women need to realize is that the size of our bodies is as much a factor in how we're viewed and treated as our sex or race. That said, why not resolve to take the weight factor out of the equation?

Take Care of You: Body, Mind, and Soul

We know you have a lot going on: work, family, friends. You lead a demanding life that leaves precious little time for self. When you do have a few moments alone-your own time-you probably want to do a bit of inner work. Soothing your spirit, calming your mind. You deserve that TLC. Your body craves it. What you may not realize is that pampering encompasses far more than a long soak in a hot bath, or 15 minutes of quiet meditation.

The true definition of "pamper" is "to treat with extreme care and attention." What better way to take care of yourself than with good, high-quality foods and enjoyable physical activity. Being healthy is the best kind of pampering possible. Think about how good you'll feel after a tasty, nutritious meal that leaves you satisfied and energetic, rather than bloated and sluggish. Working up a sweat is a great rejuvenator as well. Exercise releases feel-good brain chemicals, like endorphins, which give you a sense of well-being. See how it all adds up?

No one expects you to change your lifestyle overnight. And make no mistake, that's what committing to get fit is: a lifestyle change. Once you take that first step, it's not going to be for a few weeks or a few months. No girlfriend, when you truly resolve to better your health, it's for the rest of your life. Adopting healthier eating habits and adhering to a fitness program is an ongoing process that becomes easier and easier, especially once you begin to feel the benefits: more energy, better stamina, less illness, greater strength. The pounds will dissolve too, but trust us, you'll be feeling so well that sleekness becomes secondary. Experts say it takes twenty-one days to form a habit. Pass that three-week mark and you're well on your way. So get on it, girl. It's time to take control-of your way of thinking, of your weight, of your health. It's time to take control of your life.

Sister to Sister Dorothy Robinson, a forty-two-year-old education training specialist from Waterford, Michigan Current weight: 145 pounds Amount lost: 15 pounds. About five years ago I was at my heaviest, 160 pounds. I felt sluggish. I didn't have a lot of energy. The thing is, I used to be very active, but at that time I was doing a lot of traveling and eating out-eating just about everything-and I wasn't exercising on a regular basis. Then I got sick. I think it came from being run-down. That's when I really started putting on the pounds.

When you're younger, you might put on a few pounds and think, "Oh, I can get this off." But as you get older, especially if you're not engaged in some kind of physical activity, it's easier to put the weight on and much harder to take it off.

Even though I realized it would be more difficult to lose the weight I was gaining, I didn't do anything about it until I had a reality check. I'd always worn my clothes a bit loose, but during this time five years ago, I noticed that they were getting a little tighter and tighter. You know what I told myself? "I'm going to have to buy more expensive clothes because these are shrinking." Can you believe it? Anyway, back to my reality check. I'd gone to visit family for the holidays and my nine-year-old cousin said, "Something's different about Dot. She's fat!" That's when it dawned on me that my clothes weren't getting smaller, I was getting bigger.

That night I went home and threw out all my junk food-especially my two favorites, potato chips and cookies. I decided to start baking my meats and stocking up on vegetables and fruit. I really concentrated on creating dishes that were healthy, and I set up a little routine for myself: When I went to the market on the weekend I'd load up on all the fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and other ingredients I needed, then I'd prepare prepackaged meals. For instance, I made homemade soups and froze them. That way everything was done and I didn't have to make so much of an effort later on. I figured it was the best way for me to develop good eating habits.

In the past, when I'd put on weight, I'd drink a Slim Fast or one of those protein drinks. I'd have two of those and one meal each day. Yeah, I lost weight, but it would never stay off. As soon as I put food in my mouth, I'd gain even more.

I'll tell you about another reality check that opened my eyes to what I needed to do. I used to be a runner. One day, back when I was at my heaviest, I went outside to run and I couldn't even run at a slow pace for a minute. I was getting too tired. That threw me because I have a military background and I was used to being in very good physical condition. I used to be able to go for five or six miles, no problem. When I realized that I couldn't run without stopping to catch my breath, I knew I was way off track.

So in addition to changing the way I ate, I also started walking for exercise. Then I slowly started running. I built myself back up. Now I work out four to five times a week, running, walking, and weight training.

It took me three to four weeks to start eating completely healthy. I had gotten so into the junk food that if I saw someone with a bag of chips or candy, I'd literally start to shake. It was like my body was going through some type of withdrawal. I really was an addict with junk food. It had become such a part of life. Sugar-free gum helped a lot. When I had the desire to eat junk food, I'd chew gum instead. That helped take the edge off.

I also began breaking up my meals throughout the day, and I still do. I have a mini meal every two to three hours so I never get hungry. All in all, it took me about four months to lose the weight and I've maintained my current weight since 1994.
You want to hear something funny? I saw my little cousin recently-the one who made that "fat" comment. Of course, she's older now. Anyway, she saw me and said, "Dot, you look so small!" and asked how I did it. I told her that I had to learn one very important thing: It's a lifestyle.

I love to eat and I don't like the concept of deprivation. I knew I had to do one of two things: either be heavy and have low energy or exercise and eat right. Eating right was the hardest part for me. Since I'd been bingeing so much, it was difficult for me to adopt a healthy way of eating. That's why it has to be a lifestyle change instead of a quick fix. It's easier to do if you know you can eat the treats you love now and then. Not every day, but once in a while.

Don't get me wrong. You do have to get real about food. I came up in a family that ate lots of fatty foods, lots of greasy foods. Nowadays, when I fix cabbage I steam it, and my family thinks that's just the nastiest thing in the world. I love fried chicken, but I know I can't eat it every day. It's about learning how to cook old favorites in new ways.

Not too long ago, I went to a relative's house for dinner and the biggest part of the meal was meat and potatoes. I asked her, "Where are the vegetables?" And she said, "We've got French fries."

Just last Christmas, my family was all together for the holidays. My sister's a wonderful cook and she had all the greens made the traditional way. So I told her I was going to get some lettuce and tomatoes and make myself a salad. She just looked at me and said, "We have vegetables, Dorothy."

I love greens and all that stuff; I do come from a Southern background, after all. I'm not saying I'm going to give that up, but I have to manage my new lifestyle, which means preparing my foods differently. Now, I may not pull that fix-my-own-salad-stuff in my mother's house, or try to tell her how to make her food. Come on, you know I can't go home and say something like, "Honey, there's too much grease up in here" to my mother. But I can ask her to go walking with me. And I can talk to her about health and fitness-which I do.

For any sister trying to lose weight, it's so important to love yourself for who you are, whether you're a size 10 or 20. A lot of times we have this distorted reality of what size we should be. A healthy mind-set is one that says whether you're a size 8, 10, 12, or 22, you're going to love your body. Take care of you. Go get your nails done, keep your feet done, buy a beautiful outfit, eat well, if you can't run then walk. You know what I'm saying? Be good to yourself regardless of how much you want to lose.

Once you do that, then try to look at health and fitness as a lifestyle, not a cure-all for getting into a size 6. It should simply be about wanting to be healthy and feeling good. When I first started losing weight, I was in that mirror every day and on that scale every day. If the numbers went up a little bit I'd get so depressed. What I learned to do is look at the whole picture and not so much at my size or my pounds. Think about the positives you achieve each day: I drank six glasses of water today. I exercised today. I ate vegetables with my lunch and dinner today. And so on.

Know that your weight can fluctuate. If the scale was my only criteria, I probably would have gone out and shot myself. But I made myself stay off the scale and I used a tape measure instead. I put red stars on my calendar to indicate that I'd done my workout for the day. After a while I stopped worrying about it.

You need to eliminate what I call the all-or-nothing attitude. That's when you think, "Oh God, I ate a piece of chocolate cake. That's it. It's over." And then you start eating everything in the world. Or if you didn't have an opportunity to work out and you think, "I may as well not do anything." Instead, resolve to work out tomorrow, even if you just go outside and walk for 20 minutes.

We defeat ourselves sometimes by having an unrealistic mind-set. We put too much pressure on ourselves. I used to do that. But because I've given myself permission to do or not do, it has helped me maintain a healthy lifestyle. I don't get freaked out. This summer I picked up a few pounds because of all the cookouts. But it didn't keep me from doing my thing. I still walked and worked out. Bottom line: Don't beat yourself up over every little thing and don't compare yourself to other people.

Most important, sisters need to support each other. There's a black woman at my gym who's very heavy and I admire her so much. I saw her today and she was doing the weights. I nodded at her and spoke. When I left, I went over to her and said, "You have a good workout." We sisters have to give each other encouragement. I guess I'm just from the old school that way.

Reprinted from Slim Down Sister : The African-American Woman's Guide to Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss by Roniece Weaver, M.S., R.D., L.D., Fabiola Gaines, R.D., L.D., and Angela Ebron by permission of E. P. Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Roniece Weaver, M.S., R.D., L.D., Fabiola Gaines, R.D., L.D., and Angela Ebron. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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