The “stress of being a black woman in a white man’s world” is
harming the health of African-American women, said Dr. James
Jackson, who directs the University of Michigan’s Institute for
lead healthier lives in Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa, Fla.,
and Orlando, and throughout Maryland and the greater
Washington, D.C., area.
Each “Sister Circle” consists of 23 middle-aged women who
meet once a week — often in a church basement or community
center — to support one another and share strategies for
managing stress and taking better care of their health. Trained
group leaders, usually women from the community who have
graduated from past circles, facilitate discussions on a variety
of topics. Visiting experts also lead discussions on stress
management, nutrition and physical activity. But one of the
toughest lessons is convincing the participants, most of whom
are Christian, that it’s OK to take care of themselves, Porter
“As Christian women, we’re taught that taking care of our
own health is selfish,” Porter said.
The circles are changing behaviors, Gaston says. One
participant, for example, told her grandson that she would
begin eating healthier. Later, the grandson removed a bag of
Cheetos from her shopping cart and told the check-out clerk,
“My nana isn’t buying any of this because she is going to live to
see my grandchildren,” Gaston recalled.
Creating supportive groups of women is also at the heart of
“Sisters Together: Move More, Eat Better,” a national program
that also brings together small groups of African-American
women to brainstorm ways to improve their health, said Leslie
Curtis of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and
Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. The
program identified a surprising barrier to exercise: hair. African
American women, the group participants said, sometimes
avoid exercising in order not to undo expensive hairstyles. To
Former Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Marilyn Gaston (pictured
here) collaborated with clinical psychologist Dr. Gayle Porter to
create “Prime Time Sister Circles,” a 12-week program that’s
helped more than 2,000 women lead healthier lives.
address that barrier, Curtis and her colleagues reached out to
hairstylists and developed a brochure with tips for maintaining
African-American hair while leading an active lifestyle.
Promoting healthy eating and physical activity in culturally
sensitive ways has also been key to the success of “Challenge,”
an obesity-prevention program developed by Maureen Black,
PhD, a psychologist and professor in the department of
pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The first Challenge program, conducted in the homes of urban
teens using college-age mentors, reduced the excessive weight
gain that often occurs in adolescence. The second Challenge
program, based in Baltimore middle schools, has enlisted the
“cool,” older students to lead the way.
“We recruited the popular eighth-grade girls to promote a
healthier school environment, through healthy snack posters,
physical activities such as jump rope sessions on the lawn, and
culminating in a Health Fair,” Black said.
At the suggestion of the students, the researchers also
invited a rapper from west Baltimore to perform a song about
healthy eating. The study is in progress, but it looks like the
school’s culture has changed, Black said.
“This intervention was at the community level, but it’s going
to take interventions at all levels to beat the obesity epidemic,”
That includes fighting for policy changes that encourage
healthy eating and exercise, Johnson said. “Psychologists also need
to advocate for policies that increase access to affordable, healthy
foods and recreation and that deal with the myriad environmental
stressors that affect black women and girls,” Grills added.
“My dream is ... we can work together and do something
serious about this problem,” Johnson said. n