By Margaret Mitchell, President and CEO of YWCA Greater Cleveland, Just so there is no confusion: I am going to share a bit of my journey to a healthier lifestyle and the intersection of health disparities on race and gender. But don’t be confused – YWCA Greater Cleveland is not in, what we call, the “swim and gym business.” There is NO pool in our building and we don’t have physical recreation centers all around the area. That would be the YM and of course we are the YWCA (it’s the W the makes the difference; it’s #YWeAct). Our mission is eliminating racism and empowering women (check out our programs here).
While we are not in the Fitness Business, health disparities are real and health disparities lines are drawn by race and gender. And for the record, health disparities are gaps in the quality of health and health care that mirror differences in socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic background, and education level. These disparities may stem from many factors, including accessibility of health care, increased risk of disease from occupational exposure, and increased risk of disease from underlying genetic, ethnic, or familial factors. As an example, according to the The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Infants born to black women are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to die than those born to women of other races/ethnicities and American Indian and Alaska Native infants die from SIDS at nearly 2.5 times the rate of white infants.
- Cancer is the second leading cause of death for most racial and ethnic minorities. African American men are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than whites and Hispanic women are more than 1.5 times as likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
- African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives are twice as likely to have diabetes as white individuals; diabetes rates among Hispanics are 1.5 times higher than those for whites.
So here’s the intersection of my story. According to the American Psychological Association and the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi), the obesity epidemic has affected all Americans, but it has hit African-American women the hardest—that would be ME.
Cynthia Ogden, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “Almost 60 percent of black women are obese, compared with 32 percent of white women and 41 percent of Hispanic women. The trend is decreasing black women’s life expectancy and increasing their chances of developing a host of diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and arthritis, Johnson noted. These are all ailments I’ve seen in my family.
I’ve never liked the word obesity even though a few years ago at my peak I weighed 258 pounds. Would I have wanted you to know that then? H*ll no! I barely l knew it myself. Big Boned is what I thought to myself. I still look good, I insisted every morning in the mirror. And the truth—my truth? Numbers don’t lie and my outcomes for my future were bleak.
The data also show a curious trend, Ogden said. White and Hispanic women with higher socioeconomic status and more education seem somewhat protected from rising obesity rates, but that doesn’t hold true for black women. “It’s not just the low-income African-American population that’s experiencing this problem,” Ogden said.
Three years ago I had a Scarlet O’Hara moment –you know, all alone with only God as my witness, and I vowed I would change, could change and was willing to do what it took to sustain change. I began walking with a friend; three years later we are still walking and along the path, I improved my eating and lost close to 90 pounds. Now, before you think I went all Extreme Weight Loss on you, the truth is I’ve done the 90 pounds over 36 months. That’s less than 3lbs a month and snails move faster than that, but sustaining change was the key factor. At 258 pounds, I flunked out. Now I take those past failures and focus on fitness (yes, I’m hooked on fitness), I stay away from fast foods and fried foods (my mother is from North Carolina and I thought Crisco was a food group) and the hardest one (yes even harder than my mother’s buttermilk twice fried chicken) is FREE foods. You know free food – the dozen of donuts that appear in the office on a daily basis, appetizers at evening events—you know… free food.
But back to race, gender and health disparities, here’s why it matters…”The issues facing the African-American community are immense, but if we don’t have our health, not much else matters,” said ABPsi President Cheryl Grills, PhD.
You could substitute Hispanic or Native American for African American but Amen Sister, I could not agree more. We need our health and it bears repeating. If we don’t have our health, not much else matters.
We can eliminate disparities.
Disparities are being attacked by all sides. Policymakers are responding to these issues by introducing legislation aimed at eliminating health disparities. Ohio has introduced SB 131, which requires certain health care professionals to complete instruction in cultural competency. Requires state boards adopt rules that establish requirements around cultural competency.
I was Statistically Scared Straight and I also built a circle of support and that has been key to sustained change. Empowering women to lead healthier lives is precisely the goal of “Prime Time Sister Circles,” a 12-week program developed by former Assistant Surgeon General Marilyn Gaston, MD, and clinical psychologist Gayle Porter, PhD. So far, their program has helped more than 2,000 women lead healthier lives in Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa, Fla., and Orlando, and throughout Maryland and the greater Washington, D.C., area. I led a similar circle this summer at my church along with experts who lead discussions on nutrition, physical activity and the cost of doing nothing.
Our past history does not have to be our destiny. Join me. Be the change. Advocate and Act. It’s YWEAct.
Are you making changes to live a healthier life ? Share your journey with us in the commments.