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When Racism’s Heavy Toll Contributes to Weight Problems

Microaggressions and injustice can weigh us down emotionally, making it more difficult to shed pounds. A health coach and therapist helps us lighten the load and heal our bodies.

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Salini Perera
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Meet a sister I’ll call Janelle.* She’s dealing with a lot, like the rest of us. The first day of school for her three children, ages 8-14, was no ordinary first day. It meant taking off from her high-level position with a major corporation, just in case something wonky happened with the Wi-Fi, which is now the family’s lifeline to remote school and work. Add to that suddenly being approached by coworkers expecting her to be the voice for all Black people, compounded by the pressure to be on as many as 12 Zoom calls per day, and some days feel impossible. That old adage of having to be twice as good? It’s multiplied by 10 when you’re a Black woman trying to show your value in a white workplace. Energy to exercise? She’s not feeling it so much these days. Time to prepare healthy meals? It seems like she barely has time to breathe.

The stress has time, though, and it's taking a serious toll on her health, physically and psychologically. She’s carrying extra weight, taking high blood pressure medication, teetering on the brink of prediabetes and noting with alarm how much of her once long, thick black hair ends up on the floor each day. “The daily microaggressions and being ‘the only,’ which sometimes feels lonely, were already issues,” explained Janelle, who asked to not be identified by her real name to protect her privacy, on the phone from New Jersey while fielding questions from her kids and her husband at the same time. “Then George Floyd died and the world woke up. Now, all of a sudden, they want to unpack our lives. But I feel like, this is my life, this is my truth, and I don't feel like talking to you about it. All that can be stressful.”

“Racism as a stressor… shows up mentally and emotionally as being irritable, exhausted, overwhelmed, unfocused, anxious and depressed. These are circumstances that can contribute to binge eating and obesity.”

She’s not alone. A report on the Boston University Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), to which I contributed, explained that, “well into the new millennium, women are still primary caretakers of children and elders (and that’s particularly true in the Black community). We still shoulder more than our share of the housework. We still don’t get paid as much as men. At the same time, we’re encouraged to lean into our careers so we can push our way to the top.” Add to it all the stress of living while Black.

Researchers are taking a closer look at racism as a stressor that is so pervasive we may not know it when we experience it. It shows up mentally and emotionally as being irritable, exhausted, overwhelmed, unfocused, anxious and depressed. These are circumstances that can contribute to binge eating and obesity.

This is your body on racism

Physically, when under stress, the brain releases the fight-or-flight hormones norepinephrine, adrenaline and cortisol to mobilize your mind and body into action. Muscles tense, the heart pounds, breathing quickens, pupils dilate and blood sugar surges, providing a jolt of energy. That surge may help you swerve to avoid oncoming traffic, for instance. But when you are constantly bombarded with stressful events — and your body is on constant alert — the wear and tear can leave you vulnerable to fatigue, lowered immune function and increased abdominal, or visceral, fat, which produces toxins that increase your chances of heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. This chronic inflammatory state can also contribute to cancers and other health problems.

For relief, we may befriend sugary, salty, processed foods that bring us comfort. But while these foods may make us feel good in the moment, we know they aren’t our friends and in fact can do us harm. This isn’t about body-shaming or suggesting that only a certain body mass index (BMI) is healthy. In fact, according to the BWHS, most of the 38,000-plus sisters who were surveyed said they loved their bodies. But many among us would also acknowledge that they’re carrying extra weight that could be a problem.

“Don’t try to push through it alone — every woman needs a self-care squad.” 

Choosing to thrive in spite of it all

It’s important to be aware of the environmental and societal factors and stressors that affect your body and the decisions you make that affect your health. You may not be able to stamp out systemic racism or address every microaggression at work, and you may not be able to send the kids to school or even out of the house to play these days. But here’s the good news: You have the power to make choices that help support your health without upending your life.

Here are seven ways to get started:

Get moving. According to the BWHS, “walking in 10-minute increments three times each day has the same benefit as a brisk 30-minute walk.” Try first walking at a moderate pace for 10 minutes, then walking briskly for 10 minutes and finally walking at a moderate pace for 10 minutes. Pressed for time? See if high-intensity interval training is for you.

Breathe. Deep, rhythmic, mindful breathing can stimulate a relaxation response in your body, a state of deep rest that instantly decreases your heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing and muscle tension, according to the American Institute of Stress (AIS). One deep breathing technique from the AIS is the quieting response, a powerful combination of visualization and deep breathing known to stop acute stress in as little as six seconds. 

Want to see how it works? Try it now:

•    Smile inwardly with your eyes and mouth and release the tension in your shoulders, where most people hold their muscle tension.
•    Imagine holes in the soles of your feet. As you breathe in, visualize hot air flowing in through these holes, moving slowly up your legs, through your abdomen and filling your lungs. Relax your muscles sequentially as the hot air moves through your body.
•    When you exhale, reverse the process so you envision hot air flowing out the same holes in your feet. Repeat whenever you need a dose of calm.

Create and strengthen boundaries. When we push ourselves beyond our capacity, we are merely coping instead of being conscious. That tendency to cope with and push through the chronic stress has a name, Sojourner Syndrome, thanks to anthropologist Leith Mullings. “We coined the term to express the combined effects and joint influence of race, class and gender in structuring risk for African American women,” Mullings wrote in her study for the American Anthropological Association. To prevent yourself from falling to the Sojourner Syndrome, create healthy boundaries where you say “no” when you need to, and you don’t feel guilty about it.

Take a break from your newsfeed. You want to stay up-to-date, especially with the racial justice movement, COVID developments and presidential election. But watching viral videos of violence against Black people can cause stress, depression and other symptoms of trauma, such as mentally replaying events again and again. It’s important to remain aware, but to also recognize when the news cycle may contribute to your sense of being overwhelmed or alarmed. Be conscious of how you consume media. Give yourself a fixed time to get updates. Disable news alerts on your devices. Balance a stream of negative news by reading or watching something that lifts your mood.

Eat — but eat well! Fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with grains and/or legumes and a quarter with protein. Eat more whole, unprocessed and unpackaged foods. Avoid added salt and sugar and processed or cured meats. A poor diet contributes to the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Swap out fruit for sweets or crispy veggies for crunchy, salty snacks. Cultivating a habit of eating quality foods will help sustain you as you age.

Seek emotional support. Whether it's a professional therapist, your best girlfriends, your partner or pastor or all of the above, make sure you have spaces where you can explore your worries and fears, as well as your hopes and dreams without judgment. Don’t try to push through it alone — every woman needs a self-care squad. 

If you’re carrying extra weight, know that this is not a personal failure. There may be many contributing factors. The good news is, you have more power than you think to take back control of your health and your life.

*Name changed for privacy.