Discrimination study analyzes link between racism and weight gain in black women

Graduate Research Assistant Kristal Brown is conducting Her Squared, a study on young black women coping mechanisms for racism in relation to weight. Photo by Jon Mirador

Eduardo Acevedo, Contributing Writer

Chronic stress affects a person’s health in myriad ways, and one of the results can be weight gain. That’s why a VCU researcher is conducting a study to analyze how black women cope with stress caused by racial discrimination and how it affects eating habits and obesity. 

Her Squared is a study conducted by Kristal Brown, a graduate research assistant at VCU, who is attempting to understand how young black women experience racism and what their coping mechanisms are. 

“The goal of Her Squared is not to end racism, but to highlight the experiences black women are having, and to be able to teach them ways to cope in ways that are not passive,” Brown said.

According to the study’s recruitment website, participants will be asked to attend a data collection session at the Center for Lifestyle Intervention & Research lab. There, they will measure the participants’ height, weight, blood pressure, waist and body composition.

In the second part of the study, participants will use their cell phones to answer survey questions over a 14-day period about racism, eating behaviors and how they deal with these experiences. 

Kristal Brown, graduate research assistant at VCU and coordinator of Her Squared. Photo by Jon Mirador

According to the U.S. Office of Minority Health, 4 in 5 African American women are overweight or obese. Brown hopes this study will find new causes of weight gain and why it can be so hard for some black women to lose weight.

“When we do seek out help, we just don’t do as well in weight loss programs,” Brown said. “Let’s start looking at some other factors that can be underlying, particularly stress and racism as a stressor.”

According to a study by the Department of Psychology at Yale University, overweight women produce more cortisol hormone than overweight women with a lower waist-to-hip ratio, or WHR. They found that the women with higher WHR had “poorer coping skills and differences in mood reactivity.”

Your body responds to stressors by releasing the “fight-or-flight” hormone, cortisol. 

“What was once supposed to be a protective factor by your cortisol levels going up and your body going into fight or flight is no longer a protective factor,” Brown said, “it’s detrimental to your health.” 

Jessica Johnson, a freshman mass communications major, says she sees racism as something she has to go through and can’t escape. She says she ignored the fact that racial discrimination still exists until she experienced it firsthand.

“Racism sometimes makes you feel like you’re unlucky to be your color, to be you,” Johnson said. “Most times this person doesn’t know anything about you, from what you have been through or gone through to get to this point in your life.”

As a Kenyan immigrant, Sally Lango faced discrimination that she says had to do more with nationality than race. Her fear of being the “the dumb African girl that doesn’t know anything” caused her to feel left out and left behind in conversations and activities as a kid. 

The political science major said she felt more self-conscious and vulnerable about being black because it was the first time she had been exposed to so many people who didn’t look like her. 

“Constantly being overlooked and put in positions because of things out of your control can cause a lot of stress which can trigger eating disorders in anyone, let alone when those factors are stacked,” Lango said.

For more information on Her Squared, visit the study’s website at hersquaredrva.com.

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