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Race, Gender, and Obesity: How the Social Environment Constrains or Enables Physical Activity

Faculty associate Rashawn Ray investigates the social and environmental changes needed in order to remove neighborhood barriers to regular physical exercise

Dr. Rashawn Ray’s current research explores the connections between race, gender, obesity, and physical activity. He focuses specifically on body image and physical activity among African American women. A large majority of African American women are overweight or obese and are therefore at a much higher risk of developing preventable health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Physical activity is key to preventing these conditions, but social and environmental factors often prevent women from engaging in regular exercise, even when they know it is necessary to maintain good health. Dr. Ray’s goal is to demonstrate the ways that the social environment and other characteristics of the neighborhood constrain or enable residents’ levels of physical activity.

The racial composition of the neighborhood shapes physical activity differently for different groups. In mostly white, affluent neighborhoods with safe streets and low crime rates, physical activity is higher for all race and gender groups except black men. Black men in mostly white neighborhoods tend to exercise less because of the tendency for passersby to criminalize their presence based on the color of their skin. When they do exercise, they make conscious decisions about how to mark themselves as nonthreatening in order to “fit in” (varsity T-shirts, extreme friendliness, etc).

In mostly black neighborhoods, black men feel less conspicuous and are therefore comfortable exercising more often. But black women actually exercise less. Worries about safety and sexualization often prevent women from engaging in exercise in public areas where they can be observed by men. Most low-income neighborhoods lack “women-only” exercise facilities. In addition, mothers (especially single mothers) have little time for exercise because their lives are structured around the needs of their children. 

Many black women embrace the concept of genetic determinism, meaning that they assume that their body weight is pre-determined by biology. Also, black women are more likely than women of other racial groups to underestimate the size of their own bodies. If they estimate their weight to be “normal” or genetically pre-determined, they may not see a need to exercise. Compounding the problem, doctors are less likely to discuss body weight issues with black female patients because they, too, have come to assume that black women are either naturally larger or that they care less about taking care of their bodies.

Dr. Ray received a seed grant through the Maryland Population Research Center that gave him access to a restricted adolescent body image data set, and he is using this data set to create a new method of measuring body image. He is hopeful that improved methods will lead to a better understanding of how body image works and can be used in the future to help prevent obesity.

Dr. Ray is currently writing a book to spread awareness of the obesity problem and correct negative public assumptions about black women and their relationships with their bodies. Dr. Ray believes it is possible to make simple changes that can have a far-reaching positive effect on the health of black women.

First, healthcare providers need more education about how to address obesity problems, especially among racial minorities. Medical schools need to offer classes in minority health and cultural competence. If physicians are better equipped to have conversations about obesity with their patients, they can help them find realistic ways to exercise and lose weight that can work within the bounds of their everyday lives. Dr. Ray believes that results could be achieved with something as simple as a script that doctors could read from in order to start this all-important conversation.

Second, black communities can take grassroots action by spreading the word about obesity and physical activity through community gathering places such as churches, hair salons, and barbershops. Trusted local businesses and organizations can organize regular walking groups or aerobics classes.

Third, more gyms and fitness centers should offer childcare so that busy moms can exercise knowing that their children are safe.

Fourth, healthcare policymakers need to make obesity prevention a priority on the national agenda. For example, Dr. Ray’s research was instrumental in a recent bill to allow physicians to bill insurance companies for obesity counseling.  

See Dr. Ray's bio