ATLANTA -- As part of its new plan to address black women's wellness- and obesity-related health issues, Spelman College recently hosted "The Best Advice I Ever Got: Conversations with Wise Women."
Featured alongside health and fitness professionals was plus-size comic-turned-Oscar-winning actress Mo'Nique. The star told students how she for years owned the "sexy big-girl thing," sticking with it when industry experts warned she'd never make it in Hollywood.
The big-and-sexy trademark worked so well, Mo'Nique said, that when her husband asked her weight, she told him, "proudly, as sexy as I could, '262 pounds.' "
When her husband responded, "That's too much," Mo'Nique was dumbstruck. Until he added, "I want you for a lifetime."
No loved one had ever told her, "That's too much weight." Deeply moved, Mo'Nique reflected on all she secretly carried that was "too much": too much depression, too much anger, too much shifting the "poison" of her rage onto others. Her "best advice" to Spelman students: Shush the "fraudulent" inner voice that suggests you settle for less. "Will yourself to win."
Mo'Nique's revelation cuts to the core of an issue that consumes countless sisters like me -- and like Beverly Tatum, president of historically black, all-female Spelman. Tatum understands the pride that makes black women -- the nation's heaviest group -- report they're happier with their looks than other women.
But Tatum also knows that obesity can kill. More than half of Spelman's students have high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes or are obese. That's why Tatum redirected the college's annual $1 million intercollegiate sports budget -- programs serving about 80 students -- into a campuswide "fitness revolution" that benefits all 2,100.
Now she must convince students to redirect their focus from how they look to what matters more:
How does it feel, hefting 30, 70, 100-plus more pounds than your skeleton was designed to carry?
What's beautiful about being constantly tired, out of breath and worried that extra pounds are hurting your health?
Anyone who wonders why many African American women harbor a complex mix of pride, feistiness and shame regarding their bodies should look at our history.
Black women have a thing about ownership.
For two centuries, most African American women's bodies were literally owned by others; our choices in clothes, hairstyles and adornments were severely constricted. Long after slavery's end, our beauty -- a subject vital to women of every culture -- was disputed. Our skin, hair, noses and lips were decreed to be too dark, too nappy, too wide, too full, too . . . wrong. Not just by a pervasive culture that valued whiteness above all else, but by loved ones whose affection didn't always prevent them from judging us by those toxic standards.
But a funny thing happened to black women's self-acceptance in regards to our body-image: Most of us rejected the thinner's-a-winner Hollywood standard. After generations of being owned, sisters now own the my-body-rocks-whether-you-like-it-or-not mind-set.
Sure, some curves-celebrating sisters would secretly like to be thinner -- without mimicking the toothpicklike Taylor Swift-Angelina Jolie-Victoria Beckham archetype. But decades of dodging unwarranted criticism about their looks makes them loath to admit it.
And although this attitude holds health-related risks for overweight women, trust me, it's great seeing your ample rear the way many women view their large eyes, lips or breasts, as -- pun intended -- an asset (just ask Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, Christina Hendricks and countless men).
Black women's appreciation of their curves is hugely bolstered by many black men's frank admiration of "thick" women. In a recent Sports Illustrated article on offensive linemen -- illustrated with photos of eight massive black players -- a coach said such athletes' power comes from their "hips and ass -- that's where your biggest muscles are."
I couldn't help think, "And many sisters' biggest source of sex appeal to black men." But the focus, Tatum insists, should be less on what's attractive and more on what's life-extending.
Embracing your full hips and thighs needn't mean ignoring Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 40 percent of black women older than 20 have hypertension, or that black women are twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and are more likely to die from stroke, heart disease and other maladies linked to being overweight and not exercising enough.
"Thirty minutes a day of exercise will address many of those things," says Tatum, who attacks her treadmill's "hill burn" program daily. "Being sedentary is as damaging to health as being a smoker." A National Institutes of Health study that found that by age 17, most black girls reported no leisure time physical activity.
Life coach Lynn Johnson of Silver Spring, Md., a "legacy" Spelman grad whose forebears have attended the college for a century, cites overweight clients who learned from their mothers and grandmothers to "take care of everything for others while stuffing down their feelings."
Many such women "eat because they're holding in their emotions, overcompensating for feelings of worthlessness fostered by denigrating images or how they're treated in relationships," she says.
In the past year, Kennedy Center employee Monica Reeder has lost 120 pounds under a doctor-supervised diet. As a child, the District of Columbia native hid her shame for being physically abused by a family friend while she was acting as caretaker for her depressed single mother, who "went to work, came home and went right to bed," Reeder recalls. "I had dinner ready for her, delivered it to her bedroom, got the dishes afterward."
Her mother was "too shut down" to talk, so she became silent, too. "We learn when taking care of others not to express a need for anything," she explains. "Food was what I had."
Reeder hadn't been to a doctor in 20 years before visiting Sakiliba Mines, a Washington holistic physician -- and Spelman grad -- who's supervising her weight loss.
With 80 more pounds to lose before hitting her goal weight, she feels "very blessed" to have avoided high blood pressure, diabetes and any other chronic illness.
Reeder suspects that more than a few obese black women aren't as thrilled with their weight as they claim: "I don't know if everyone saying they love it really believes it. . . . I'm a lot healthier now; I'm moving a lot better. Weight takes a toll on your body."
The move to funnel Spelman's sports funding into the program, and into an $18 million state-of-the-art fitness facility, also boosted by a fundraiser last week at the Kalorama mansion of Washington social doyenne Esther Coopersmith, has been embraced by students and alumnae.
Even sports lovers such as sophomore Paige Carruthers, a high school sprinter in her home town of Boston, calls the plan "awesome . . . because when it comes to health, black women fall short."
Says alumna Johnson: "I'd rather see 100 percent of my little sisters learn to take care of their bodies than 4 percent involved in athletics that won't be part of their lives after they graduate."
High school soccer player Zenniah Davis learned about the initiative after applying to Spelman for the fall semester and supports it, thanks to her "firsthand experience" with family members' weight struggles. Yet the senior at Sandy Spring Friends School, in Sandy Spring, Md., stresses that body issues haunt most women, including "white, private-school girls I know who stick their fingers down their mouth after they eat, girls who are devastated to have any butt at all and others who ask, 'Why can't I have a [round] booty like you?'
"My black friends ask me, 'What happened to your butt?' Because I do sports, it doesn't jiggle." Zenniah sighs, frustrated. When it comes to women's body images, she says, "You can't win."
When frustration tempts Tatum, she recalls Spelman's history. Founded in 1881 in a church basement by two white, female Massachusetts visionaries whose 11 students had just been freed from slavery, its mission was simple: Educate ex-bondswomen who would in turn teach and inspire their children and their community.
The point wasn't just owning. It was sharing.
"So when people ask what would success look like, it's not how many collective pounds we lose, but about creating a culture of movement," she says. It's about getting black women and the people they love "to think about movement like they think about brushing their teeth: Something they do every day to ensure good health over a lifetime."
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Britt is a former Washington Post columnist and is the author of "Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving."