Shani K. Collins: Redefining the Word “Thick” and Not Allowing it to be an Excuse for Obesity

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By Shani K. Collins

            How do black women make the distinction between being ‘thick’ and being overweight?  In the South, and perhaps other areas of the country, the word ‘thick’ is commonly used to describe African-American women who were curvaceous and shapely.  It is a term that suggests a woman is physically good-looking, well-proportioned and healthy—not skinny.  In the black community, we celebrate our thick lips and hips, curly-kinky hair, diverse skin tones, full faces and robust body types.  Indeed, we should celebrate all aspects of ourselves because we are beautiful people.  Although we proudly celebrate our heritage, our ethnic identities, and embrace our culture and roots, we must remain conscious of our responsibility to tell ourselves the truth–especially as it relates to our health.

Being shapely and curvaceous may be a good thing in the black community, but when black women conceal weight issues under the guise of ‘thickness’, they deny the truth about themselves.  While loving all aspects of oneself is important, it is more important for black women to love themselves the right way–by being physically healthy.  Health statistics indicate that African-Americans have the highest rates of obesity in the United States (CDC, 2013).  In general, African-Americans are disproportionately affected by obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.  Specifically, black women are most likely to die from heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes (CDC, 2013).  In lieu of the health trends that indicate black women are most likely to die from obesity-related illnesses, isn’t it time for the black community to redefinethickness’ and reevaluate some of its traditional notions about health?

Many black women are physically shapely in certain areas; therefore, our definition of what is unhealthy or obese may differ from other ethnic groups’ definition.  Because we live in society that often devaluates and denigrates black women’s bodies, the black community has formed protective boundaries around its women.  Often times, instead of saying a black woman is overweight and dealing with the causes and implications of being physically unhealthy, our community uses protective terms of endearment such as ‘pleasantly plump’, ‘thick’, ‘full-figured’, and even ‘fine’ to qualify a weight.  Those protective boundaries are important and have helped to support black women’s self-esteem and allowed them to celebrate their unique God-given bodies.  On the other hand, those same protective boundaries have led to the casual dismissal of beautiful, black female bodies that are overweight, unhealthy and negatively affected by preventable diseases.  In other words, in the black community, we do acknowledge that an obesity problem may exist, but to cope with it, we consciously call it another name and/or dismiss the issue entirely.  This does not serve our community well.

Unfortunately, black women may sometimes shy away from discussions about health and weight management.  We conveniently sweep such taboo topics under the rug and busy ourselves with work, family, church, and community obligations.  Often, it is not until a black woman has a “wake-up call” or a near death health-related experience that she recognizes the need to make a lifestyle change.  Sadly, the negative cycle of dismissing weight issues and calling them another name perpetuates through generations.  The perpetuation of negative behavior and thinking about health is seen among young black girls who are struggling with food addiction, who have weight management issues, and who have self-esteem challenges.  Realistically, if a black mother has not dealt with her own weight issues, or if she chooses to ignore her own health concerns, how will she teach her daughter to be healthy?

The issue I raise is not about the terms ‘thick,’ ‘full-figured’, ‘pleasantly-plump’, ‘fine’, or any other term of endearment that is used to qualify weight in the black community.  Instead, the real issue is about addressing a taboo topic: black women who struggle with weight management issues.  The real issue is about black women learning to embrace the truth about themselves—even when it is hard to face.  Black women are so valuable to this earth and to the black community.  We cannot afford to continue to lose our most precious jewels to preventable illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

As a black woman born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, I have had candid conversations with myself about my own weight challenges.  As a busy doctoral student, I noticed that I was living an unhealthy lifestyle and gaining weight as a result of a poor diet and lack of exercise. I decided to make a change and become more conscious about my health.  Today, I am healthier and remain committed to living a lifestyle that will allow me to live free of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure.  I want the same for my grandmother, mother, aunts, sister, cousins and niece.  I want the same for all black women across the world.

In essence, redefining thickness does not mean black women should reject their culture or ethnic identities, deny the beauty of their robust bodies, or avoid using terms of endearment that have been used within our community for centuries.  However, redefining thickness does mean that we hold ourselves accountable to being physically healthy.  We can do so by consciously visiting the doctor, having recommended health screenings, and evaluating our weight, blood pressure, cholesterol level and food choices to ensure that we are truly physically healthy and not living in denial.  We must do so for ourselves and we must do so for the generation of young black girls who look up to us, who love us, and who seek our guidance, wisdom and direction for their own lives.

Shani K. Collins is a freelance writer, a college instructor, a health advocate, and a social work doctoral degree candidate at the University of Alabama.  You may visit her at www.shanicollins.com

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34 Comments

  1. While I agree with the health issue, I don't agree that weight means unhealthy. Often diet has the most bearing on health issues. Unfortunately, many of us do not eat healthy. We have transformed traditional "soul food" which was mostly a diet of vegetables seasoned with small amounts of meet into a diet centered around fried or barbecued meat. When I was growing up we had meat as a main dish on Sundays. The rest of the week we had "boiled dinners," peas, beans, cabbage, or greens grown in a garden on our small ranch in Texas. The women in my family were all large, but active physically and ate healthy foods. Instead telling my grandmother who was about 5'2", to lose a lot of weight to control her blood pressue, her doctor told to keep her weight below 200 lbs. She maintained her weight at around 190 and lived to be 86 when she died after losing most of her weight due to dementia and refusals to eat. Her older sister who had Alzheimer's also lived into her mid to late 80s and died from near starvation because of refusals to eat. I had twin aunts who were the largest and tallest women in the family. One was told by her doctor she needed to lose 100 pounds and she did. She was extremely thin but the weight loss was a shock to her body and she died in her sleep of a heart attack a few months before her 76th birthday. Her twin sister who said she could not live without her died 12 days later. My mother was large most of her life and started losing weight as she got older. She is still over 200 pounds and considered obese by today's standards but is physically healthy at the age of 83 after having a massive stroke after my brother was murdered three years ago and that went undetected until she was hospitalized after a fall last fall. She is physically healthy according to her doctors suffering from arthritis and few other physical health issues. I lost sixty pounds due to eating less and now am making changes in mg diet to eat more vegetables and fruits in an effort to go back to the healthy diet I had as a child in Texas. That diet served me well then and I know it will maintain my health so I can have a ling life like my elders. To avoid the dementia and Alzheimer's that caused the deaths of two of them I am a doctoral student at nearly 62. I've kept off the weight I've lost for two years and am still obese by today's standards. But despite arthritis, I know I'm healthier because of my dietary changes which also resulted in the weight loss. However, I have no intention of losing lots of weight that I'd have to starve to keep off and, by the way, I don't use the term "thick" to describe my size. Where I come from we call it "fat and fine."

  2. "Thick" actually means Blacks have STRONGER Bones than ALL other races, so those strong bones can carry more weight much better than all other races. Those same bones will make us sink faster in water BUT Blacks do better in SPACE & BOXING than Whites because our higher density bone deteriorates slower than Whites who age extremely much faster than Blacks in general and definitely more in Space. But if Blacks aren't as physically active in & outdoors or eating just as healthy as White are in general then that weight isn't going to be our friend in the end no matter how well we can carry it thanks to our great bone THICK density ,, bottomline. http://depts.washington.edu/bonebio/bonAbout/race.html

  3. Burn off more calories than you consume. It’s really simple. Eat less, exercise more. You don’t have to join a gym. Get off the porch and walk, clean up the trash in your neighborhood (I do that in mine, so do our neighbors), walk instead of drive to locations within a mile or two from your home.

  4. That’s a very well written article. It’s important the message we send to our children by being overweight and eating too much food and not exercising.

  5. there is a difference being thick and curvaceous due to being athletic, and think and curvaceous due to being simply obese… it is one thing to say that you love yourself, but if you say that while living an unhealthy lifestyle, while wearing nearly another person worth of weight, then you add on the health risk to your delusional form of love.
    Although we should not play into what the national culture push upon us as to what is attractive, which is that anorexic look for women, or for what hip hop culture has for our women, which is the overly curvaceous body, that big arse or heavy breast, which some people literally go to great lengths as to plastic surgery or poison type injections… we need to love our women for simply being who they are.

  6. Thick does not mean fat over the years the meaning of thick has changed drastically. Thick is a flat stomach and small waist and thick where it counts. Now everybody says they are thick.

  7. As usual people take every or any fad or trend to the extremes & beyond .. Just like those two lil paw tattoos have changed into prison or freak show fashions.. Curvaceous used to mean Vivica Fox or Lisa Raye type bodies with small waist and nice hips., But the extremist. took it to “booty shots and 250lb women wearing thongs.. Hence the phase “Stick. To the Recipes “….

  8. Who really gives a hell what people call it. If you want to call yourself thick then by all means do so. However, if your doctor tells you, you're at risk for heart disease, you have diabetes, highblood pressure then you have a problem. Bottom line, go to the doctor for a health screening, determine what you need to do to fix it and DO IT!

  9. While I see what you’re getting at, I see you’ve failed to mention that there are MORE black women who are adapting healthier lifestyles, such as eating healthier and being more physically active.

    In my area of the country, black women have been entering running groups, completing marathons, and doing weight loss challenges.

    I’m involved in several groups for black women who are losing weight and spreading the word about being healthier overall. Check out Facebook, and you’ll see a lot of them. They have been my inspiration and I have released 60 lbs, and i feel and look awesome!

    Wish one of you black writers would write about that.

  10. As a “person” who has never been “skinny” or “small
    in her life, I have to say “trying to eat” right and some type of exercise, consistently is the key. If you are 52′ or 53′ and weight 200 and over in pounds…YOU ARE TOO BIG! The thing is, you don’t have to look like “movie star” who has probably had everything “done” to themselves, but be realistic when you are too big. If you are wearing size 24 and up, you can stand to lose a few pounds. People get offended and make too many excuses. You know when you are too BIG….that’s why folks get offended when it’s presented to them.

  11. This was a well written article because it appears it was written out of a concern for health issues as opposed to superficial issues unlike the article written a few months back by some other woman on this network. It's sad but most people who discuss the weight of other people are never really concerned with the health of that person but the look of that person. I thought this article did a fairly good job of focusing on the issue.

  12. Shereen Hart on

    Thick never meant obese. It was always used to refer to women like Michelle Obama, big-boned and fine, physically fit. Obesity kills, "thickness" is healthy, so twisting its meaning doesn't help matters. People who are obese are not "thick," they are overweight and probably in need of surgical intervention.

  13. Love this article —but not sure weight is totally about food or high blood pressure is also about stress –but there is nothing like self control and moderation , we should live by both when it comes to our diet—-Thanks for focusing on what’s a REAL problem for Black folk.

  14. Christine Diggs on

    Lifestyle changes are necessary. Maintaining good health is not only about eating good food and exercise. It is important to get enough sleep and drink lots of water. I think Black women's schedules are maxed out. Working all week, come Saturday wasting hours at a hair salon, and Sunday sitting at church for hours. When does a Black woman with a family really have time to take care of herself? Maintaining good health is not easy to do in this kind of situation.

  15. I went to the Hampton Jazz Fest this past weekend, and saw way too many women who think that they are “thick”, but who are actually quite obese. I was not a good look.

  16. I love the comprehensive approach to this article since it explores the root cause of why obesity has morphed into terms of endearment in our community, such as "thick." However, we simply cannot ignore the facts: We are dying from largely preventing diseases. I've also noticed people make snide remarks when someone makes a lifestyle change and loses weight, such as "damn, girl, you look sick." Bottom line: It's time to take control of our lives because excuses are killing us.

  17. Peter D. Slaughter on

    Glad to hear this from a black woman.
    Because if a black man brings it many women will get offended.
    Many might say why don’t she mind her own business and worrying about her own weight.
    I can say I have seen way to many women who need to be really concerned about their health and not how good they look being thick.
    A vast % of the men who are like this basically are letting the food industtry control us in this area.
    Until folks revolutionize their diet or eating habits we wil see the same results of people being sick and leaving this earth to soon because of food related sickness.

  18. As a man who loves women in all hues I have to strongly agree with the article. with the woman of color being the main, if not sole breadwinner in the family they don’t have a sounding board that they can interact with to let them know when they are getting out of shape. Or, even worse, the women feel that because they are the main breadwinner that they are allowed to get obese. As a culture and as a community we have to, both men and women keep ourselves in shape for our children future.

  19. So much truth to this. Brown women, don't be offended and try to defend yourselves with various excuses, or the origin of "thick". There are too many brown women who have come to believe that its ok to be FAT, and out of denial, disguise it as "THICK". There's nothing THICK, sexy, or healthy about a sloppy, nasty gut, or hot dog rolls on your neck and sides. Some of yall need to comprehend the difference. Also, this article should address "pregnant" brown men too.

  20. Formerly known as God on

    Food stamps are killing our people, whenever you have that much access to food, you are in for trouble. As far as the word thick goes, I think black men plays a part in that. Ladies men say they like thick girls for one reason, it’s because most bigger girls have lower self esteem and are willing to give it up quicker. Last time I checked not to many men that has something going for them selves checking for over weight women ( thick)

  21. Oneplus one on

    A great piece of writing!

    I never understood the attraction to Thick! (each to there own)

    Fortunately my preference is in women who are some what thinner,and healthy, not so thick, I have plenty of options.

    It’s wonderful to have so many ladies to choose from thick, thin, somewhere in between, paper bag, black, yellow, or is she a sister!

    Know one else have what we have, black ladie do what makes you happy and healthy.

  22. "In the black community, we celebrate our thick lips and hips, curly-kinky hair, diverse skin tones, full faces and robust body types. "
    I would like to think that the author knows this is NOT TRUE. It is where we are trying to get and hopefully will get there VERY soon. IMHO this is a very complex issue but I think it centers on the issue of self-esteem. I just don't think a woman who really loves herself and wants to be loved by others/men would allow herself to get obese. I really don't think so. A casual observation of your environment will show that men don't look at obese women. There's a difference between voluptuous curvaceous women and the obese woman. However, there are other factors like access to healthy foods/markets, etc that do play a part in the obesity issue.

  23. Beautifully honest piece…Thank you for providing another straight forward rationale for “sisters” to be healthier for themselves and their famalies.

  24. If these women of your wonderful family led to dementia, alzheimer's, and you have arthritis, there is definitely a nutrition and physical issue. I do not know all you eat or how you eat but there are ways you cook your food such as frying, cooked oils which all turn rancid except the tolerant coconut oil, vegetable or not this type of cooking is degenerative to the body, also pans, aluminum and teflon cookware has been linked to a host of medical problems. ceramic and cast iron are the best. Low heat cooking. Lots and lots of fresh raw vegetables and water rich fruits. Organic always to reduce exposure to barium, lead, petroleum, and a host of other chemicals that are laden on conventional produce. Highly acidic food wreck havok causing inflammation responses such as arthritis including coffee, meat, dairy(cheese, milk, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt) Keeping an alkaline environment full of oxygen rich raw greens will reduce inflammation and increase a body that can keep homeostasis in mind and body for many years. Eat all the raw greens and fruit you want and see how thick you become. Extra fat=waste that your body cannot process and packs away in tissue. Unrecognizable due to processed foods chips, soda, especially diet soda!, sugar, browned baked goods containing acrilymide a known carcinogen in french fries too, packaged foods, MSG. These can make a thick girl just big, and hide under the guise of these protective titles to help self esteem. Truly love yourself and feed yourself right. Exercise everyday for at least 30 minutes. And let go of negativity. We are always on a diet according to the definition. What we eat is our diet. We have great power to choose that food which bring us closer to dis-ease, death, and degeneration or fit, sexy, life with a clean receiving temple!

  25. Deidra White on

    I call it whatever the fuck I want to call it….. I am an obese black woman but you couldn't tell looking at me, but I refer to myself as THICK, PLUMP, AND FLUFFY. So if anyone has a problem with what us black woman refer to ourselves as, go fuck yourself and get a life because we can care less about what you refer to yourself as.

  26. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD on

    As an African American female physician in practice for over 30 years as well as having over 13 years experience as a certified nutritionist and personal trainer I would like to emphasize that obesity is a number…a BMI greater than 30 and a body composition in women greater than 40% fat per scale weight. Polite euphemisms like thick and big may make you feel better but do not mitigate the damaging health, social and psychological effects of being dangerously overweight. Burn it off!

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