Nicole Ari Parker: Hope for Black Women and Obesity


By now you may have heard about the
British study that found black teenage girls don’t benefit from exercise as much as white teenage girls do.

Researchers in the UK monitored the eating and exercise habits of 1,148 girls (roughly half were black and the other white), and calculated the Body Mass Index and body fat of each girl. The study showed that 85 percent of the 12 year old white girls who were more active were less likely to be obese than those who were not, while only 15 percent of the active black preteens were less likely to be obese than their counterparts — exercise, in other words, doesn’t seem to help black girls from gaining weight.

After the jump: One person who wants to do something about black women and the exercise divide.

According to data from the Office of Minority Health black women have the highest rates of obesity compared to every other group in the U.S., with 4 out of 5 black women being overweight. Add to that black women are more likely to have diabetes and are at greater risk for heart disease.

Looking at all of these statistics it’s fairly easy to make the leap that if you are currently an overweight black 14-year old female you are pretty much guaranteed to become, and remain, an overweight adult.

You’ve probably heard the usual objections to those hard numbers:

— BMI doesn’t effectively account for body composition!

— Body image is more important than a number on a scale!

— Or my personal favorite from novelist Alice Randall: black women want to be fat!

Last summer surgeon general Dr. Regina M Benjamin angered many people when she said, “Oftentimes you get women saying, ‘I can’t exercise today because I don’t want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet. When you’re starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons.”

Though Dr. Benjamin said her comments could apply to women of any ethnic background, she made it clear she was mostly speaking to black women who she believes are the most likely to skip out on exercise in an effort to preserve their ‘do.

“Being an African-American woman myself, I have to go through those same trials and tribulations when I exercise, so I started to realize that this is probably a barrier for many women,” Benjamin later said in an effort to explain her previous comments.

Although Benjamin angered many, she does have a point — and one that actress Nicole Ari Parker is trying to address.

Parker, who is currently on Broadway as iconic southern belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, recently launched a line of hair wraps aptly titled Save Your Do. The hair wrap performs double duties as both a sweatband and protecting your
hairstyle — and the idea is to encourage women to work out even when they care about their hair.

What do you think black women should make of these statistics? Should they listen to them?

The whole study sounds completely ridiculous to me! I don’t know why anyone would even publish something like that, as if we [black women] are somehow genetically deficient and cannot benefit from exercise. If that’s true than why are so many black athletes taking over sports? And if an athlete isn’t the picture of health then I don’t know what is. So then what should we do? Tell our teenagers that exercise is not for them and just continue to be overweight and at risk for diabetes? No, it’s ridiculous.

Tell us a little about Save Your Do.

Save Your Do really started as a beauty product, because it’s about being cute. I
would sit around with all of my girlfriends, who are in their thirties, and we would ask each other why were we all twenty pounds overweight despite being “active.” We all kind of realized that our hair was holding us back from exercise, we wanted to do cardio but we also wanted to be cute. After the surgeon general came out last year basically saying what me and all my girlfriends were saying I realized this was a big thing, and that black women were really not exercising to the point that we were at the top of every statistic and at the highest rates for diabetes.

What kind of response have you gotten to Save Your Do?

It’s been really positive and so many women have said, ‘I’m glad you’ve found a way that I can still be cute and rock my hairstyle but exercise,’ and that means a lot to me because I really care about those women. The woman who works all day, takes care of her kids and likes to spend $95 on a nice hairstyle and she doesn’t want to mess that up. Despite what people say that woman is trying, but she needs options.

What are some of the things you do to stay healthy?

I’m not a gym rat but I do try to do a little something every day, which is something my husband [actor Boris Kodjoe] taught me. Now that I’m on Broadway I do my full workouts three days a week, and then every other day I’ll just do cardio.

Has exercise always been a part of your lifestyle?

No. I really got serious about exercise last year when I saw an old picture of myself from a summer cookout. I was 20 pounds heavier and had back fat, at that point I thought, ‘That is not me.’ It’s really easy to put on 20 pounds because it doesn’t just go to one place, it spreads itself lovingly all over you.

What would you say to other black women out there who might be discouraged by some of these statistics?

Don’t listen to it. You know the truth and you know your body. It didn’t take five minutes to get unhealthy so it isn’t going to take five minutes to get healthy. You have to do a little bit every day and your body will respond to that kind of love. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody and we need to stop bullying ourselves and take our time. I truly believe that physical health is one of the last things we need to conquer as a people in order to be completely free. We’ve gone through civil rights and other injustices but we are still struggling with our health, and being healthy is true freedom.

Catch Parker in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway through July 22nd, or at