Blunt as an anvil and blared like a siren, the message is clear: Black women’s collective well-being is in peril. Of course, none of this is news for Black women, who must endure the repeated headlines and, in many cases, live the reality that informs such stories in the first place.
It’s true that Black women have statistically higher rates of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer, but data is just one part of the puzzle. Systemic racism and its long-reaching effects underlie the shocking stats. Take hypertension, a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hypertension affects 39.9% of Black women compared to 25.6% of white women. The story that doesn’t often show up in the fine print? Black women experience higher levels of stress throughout their lifetimes—and stress is a major contributor to hypertension.
Stress is linked to a host of additional health issues, including obesity. A study published in the journal Obesity showed that people with chronically high levels of cortisol—also known as the stress hormone—weighed more and were more likely to have obesity. It’s no wonder, then, that Black adults have the highest rates of obesity compared to other ethnicities. CDC data shows that, in particular, 56.9% of Black women have obesity vs. 39.8% of white women.
Then there’s the issue of access: Black women have less of it, both to healthy, nutrient-rich foods (another factor in why their obesity rate is high) and to healthcare. When Black women do go to the doctor, they may not receive the same level of care as women of other ethnicities. In fact, Black patients are three times as likely to experience discrimination in a healthcare setting, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation survey. And that discrimination leads to worse health outcomes: A University of Virginia study found that half of the medical students who participated exhibited racial bias, resulting in less accurate (and less effective) treatments.
As with medical services, there historically haven’t been many structured options for Black women to experience wellness together. Health and fitness clubs, for example, are overwhelmingly white (per one study, 66% white and only 12% Black). Even when access is available, a psychological phenomenon called “the mere-exposure effect”—where people develop preferences for, and feel safer in, things and places they’re familiar with—negates it.
The nonstop hose of negative stats, the lack of nuance behind them, and the dry well of resources to help reverse them create a painful storm that actually causes more harm to Black women—dismantling their ability to control their own narratives. “From the community of color, we’re tired of being told the numbers—we’re tired of being told that we’re the sickest and that we’re at high risk for this and that,” says clinical psychologist Stephanie Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., senior manager of the multicultural program on WW’s science team. “What can we do about it? Where are the resources? Where are the policies that need to be put in place to get rid of some of these inequities?”
Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in New York, sees the frustration in her practice and encourages her patients to create their own wellness paths. “It is essential that rather than seeing ourselves as weak or pushing away the impact of [the myriad of environmental stressors Black women face], we recognize that our self-care and well-being strategies must be part of our daily lives,” says Horsham-Brathwaite, author of Better Daily Self-Care Habits. Self-care, she adds, can run the gamut from exercise to prayer, volunteerism to social activism.
Of course, self-care flourishes most when it sits within a support system. At WW, we’ve witnessed this firsthand: In June 2020, a month after George Floyd’s murder, WW launched the first Black Women’s Virtual Workshop, a Zoom that drew 100 members. That number grew by the hundreds, today populating six weekly Workshops filled with Black women of all ages and backgrounds (from San Francisco to New York to Huntsville, Alabama) who have found health breakthroughs—in large part due to each other. “It’s important for people to find a community where they feel safe, comfortable, seen, and respected, and where they can bring their full selves,” says Monika Pierce, director of diversity and inclusion and a Coach at WW. At these get-togethers, you can leave behind the Strong Black Woman and just bring the Black woman, says Pierce: “You can be you—with other people who understand it—and be vulnerable.”
While public health researchers agree it will take time to deconstruct the institutions and policies that perpetuate health inequities in the broadest sense, Black women are reclaiming agency over their own wellness. WW Workshops, groundbreaking start-ups, and grassroots advocacy organizations across the U.S. are empowering Black women with tools to direct their own health destinies, reinforcing that they aren’t simply statistics, that the headlines told about them can be rewritten.