Race, Obesity, and the Puzzle of Gender Specificity

Mary A Burke, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston
Frank Heiland, Florida State University

Obesity rates, average weights, and median weights all differ significantly between African-American and white women, even after controlling for differences in income, education, age, geographic location, and several other factors. These differences have persisted without much alteration since the early 1970s, despite substantial increases in obesity rates among both groups. This paper considers a number of explanations for these disparities focusing, variously, on economic factors, physiological factors, and sociocultural factors. Drawing on numerous data sources pertaining to adult American women and men spanning three decades, we argue that explanations based on either economic or physiological factors are inadequate. We present evidence that differences in physical ideals between whites and African-Americans, together with lower stigmatization of overweight among black women, contribute to the differences between white and black women.

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Presented in Session 6: Race/Ethnic Differences in Adult Health and Mortality