CFC Review of “Black Women & Fat”, Alice Randall’s NYTimes Op-ed

A recent NYT opinion piece[1] by Alice Randall, a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, has caused a flurry of discussion about just why black women are fat. The op-ed appeared in last Sunday’s NYTimes and since then a storm of critical blog posts and response articles have come out discussing it[2][3]. Given how much the discussion of race & health is near and dear to my heart, I had to add my two cents to the fold.

An Unclear Thesis
First, I want to just come out and say that I found this piece to be meandering on the issue it claims to address. (Part of this problem may stem from the fact that the piece has two titles serving slightly different goals: “Why Are Black Women Fat” (explanation) and “Black Women and Fat” (discussion)). The piece starts out by painting a bleak picture: 4 out of 5 black women are “seriously overweight” (whatever that means) and $174 billion is spent each year to treat diabetes-related illnesses. This led me to believe that the piece, though an opinion, was going to do a deep-dive in its discussion of obesity/diabetes and address some complex structural health issues.

But then Randall changes course. She makes the claim that culturally, black fat isn’t the same as white fat. She argues that black fat is about so many other things; it’s about preserving the “sugar down below”. It’s about political protest against white norms. It’s about aspiring to black male preferences. It’s about a song called “Skinny Legs and All”.

Then Randall changes course again, reining herself in and admitting that black people need “to do better” because we are in fact facing a serious health issue. To illustrate this, she talks about her own efforts to change her diet and eating habits (she now walks 8-miles a week and her family eats egg whites & cucumbers for dinner). Randall concludes by saying she hopes to pass down these new habits to her 24-year old daughter so her daughter won’t face these health issues.

When I finished the article, I found myself wondering: “So that’s it? What exactly was the point of that?” I read it again and waited for clarity. Still, I had no clue what exactly Randall was trying to say. Does she think that black fat is a good thing? She seems to suggest that it’s not something that should change- black women shouldn’t be forced to meet “thin affluent” people’s health ideals. But then why is she eating salad and walking 8-miles each week? Does she think a black woman should stay at 200lbs if that’s what her husband wants? What exactly is Randall’s point of view?

It is because I couldn’t discern a clear opinion from Randall’s opinion piece that I think op-eds like Randall’s truly do a disservice to black women and the larger health community. Why? Because they squander an opportunity to truly address a serious issue on a national stage. Instead, articles/op-eds like Randall’s (unintentionally?) turn black women into an irrational and incoherent foil for the rest of American society to collectively shake its head at.

My Problem with Articles/Op-eds Like Randall’s
Part of my problem with Randall’s op-ed stems from the fact that the piece relies on highly generalized and overly-academic arguments to “explain” black female obesity. So black women are “seriously overweight” and over 200lbs because it’s what black men want? Based on what evidence? We’re “seriously overweight” because we’re protesting white aesthetics? Again, I ask based on what studies/evidence? Randall references a book by Andrea Elizabeth Shaw to support this point, but gives nothing more. [4]  And interestingly, none of Randall’s explanations for black women being “seriously overweight” have anything to do with black women independent of the desires of some dominant group- black men and whites.

Anyway, I suppose anything is possible. Maybe part of the reason black women are “seriously overweight” is political and/or cultural. But what about the more direct and obvious explanations? Like poverty. Like lack of access to healthy foods. Like emotional eating in the face of depression, lack of resources and family support. Like mistrust of doctors and the medical profession based on a history of mistreatment/lack of information. The list goes on and on. Any number of these explanations would have been helpful to add to the dialogue, but Randall chooses to ignore the glaring structural issues around race & obesity and instead focuses on a narrow, academic and highly personalized meta-narrative. This would be fine if that title of the piece were “Why I, Alice Randall, Am Fat” or “A Black Woman and Her Fat” but that’s not what this piece purports to be.

And Now The Really Troubling Part
And then we get to, for me, what is the most troubling part of op-eds/articles like Alice Randall’s. To explain this I have to reference a really great book called “The Miner’s Canary“, by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres[5]. In the book, the authors describe the use of canaries by miners who worked in underground coal mines in the early twentieth century. Because the nervous system of canaries were more sensitive to toxins in the air, miners would use these birds as an early warning system that a mine was becoming dangerous[6]. Guinier and Torres argued that in many ways African-Americans function as “canaries” in the “mines” of American society- giving early warning signs of dangers that will eventually affect everyone.

And so I come to what I think is the most dangerous part of articles/op-eds that single out black women when it comes to obesity: articles like these are obstacles to right-sizing the obesity/diabetes epidemic. Articles like these cast obesity and diabetes as a problem that plagues some “other”-black women, poor people, uneducated people- not an issue that touches everyone and needs to be addressed by everyone.

Well, guess what? Not everyone who is diabetic is overweight! Not every black woman is struggling to stay over 200lbs! And there are white women, Latino men, Asian children, etc. who struggle with their weight and diabetes everyday. While these issues may affect the black community disproportionately, obesity/diabetes isn’t a black (woman) problem. It’s a people problem. And it’s only getting worse.

Here’s hoping that someday the NYTimes yields the floor to an op-ed piece on obesity that speaks to all people- one that is sensitive to race, but not trapped by it. For a problem this big we need solutions, not scapegoats.



About ChicFitChef

My "deserted island" checklist: a BCBG dress, a healthy & diabetic-friendly meal and a few workout DVDs. ;-)
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10 Responses to CFC Review of “Black Women & Fat”, Alice Randall’s NYTimes Op-ed

  1. Heatheresq says:

    I thought the article was interesting if not just a woefully short teaser to her longer more in depth treatment of the subject in other works. The short, almost flippant shrift Randall pays to this serious issue is probably what is angering so many. I don’t, however, disagree with her desire to reach a black audience. She is a part of the community and probably has motivations for seeing her family, friends, and peers do better. If you look at minority-oriented publications/celebrities or color/any media representation you find far more body diversity than whites. While I think this can be healthy, I think, and Randall, though probably a little too succinctly states that acceptance of and delight in a few more curves has moved the outer boundaries beyond what is medically appropriate.

    • ChicFitChef says:

      I think the problem here is also that Randall conflates SO many things. Assuming we’re using CDC body mass index standards, obese is not the same as overweight. A 200lb woman (assuming her weight is more heavily composed of fat than muscle) would likely be obese- not overweight (or even “seriously overweight”- whatever that means). So there’s a difference between saying that black people enjoy seeing different body shapes and types (which I think it is healthy) and saying that black men want a woman whose at least 200lbs/obese. I understand that everyone has their preferences, but the latter point just seems out of touch.

  2. THANK YOU for this. I had so many issues with her piece, and you have done a great job of examining these problems and raising some that I had not considered. Another thing to keep in mind is that “Black people” in this country should not be viewed as a monolothic group. When the author wandered down the path of saying that Black women are fat as a protest against slavery, I found this to be an incredibly weak and bewildering argument because, first, many of the images that we have of female slaves fit the heavyset “mammy” stereotype” (which seems to be the opposite of the author’s argument), and, second, even if this theory holds some truth, wouldn’t it only apply to American Black people? Much of the Black population of this country is of more recent West Indian and African descent, and I have never heard anyone in these communities discuss their weight in relation to the American Black slave experience. In fact, although all Black people in this country suffer from the consequences of American slavery, there are some pretty big differences in the effect that this has on American Black people versus West Indian/African Black people–not surprising given that these groups’ respective cultural heritages are quite different. The fact that the author didn’t mention this at all in her piece makes me think that she was not very thoughtful–she just looked at her immediate experience and generalized it to the whole of Black women in the United States. Poorly done.

  3. CNK says:

    You should post this as a reply on the NYT page. Or even send it in to them. You did a really nice job breaking down the problems with Randall’s piece–thanks for taking the time to write this!

  4. Thanks for bringing the article to our attention and for the interesting response. I also thought Randall’s op-ed was bad. And not just bad, but awful and irresponsible. Here’s why:
    I guess one good thing about it is that she got us all talking about the issue…

  5. IW says:

    The NYT is my favorite paper, but they do this sometimes. They write these pointless, misleading articles about black people. Your post actually reminded me of an article I read a while back about “blipsters” or black hipsters ( When I finished I had the same reaction, thinking “what was the point of this article?” All I can say is, sigh.

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