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Obesity Health Warnings Ignore Racial, Cultural Diversity

April 27, 2006 -- When our doctors tell us to lose weight, what we hear may not be a health message.

It's particularly true for black patients, a study from Yale University School of Nursing shows.

The study shows that when doctors talk about a patient's weight, they are talking about body size. But what patients hear is that the doctor has different ideas than they do about things like attractiveness, sexual desirability, body image, strength or goodness, self-esteem, and social acceptability.

Yale doctoral student Maryanne Davidson, MSN, RN, CPNP, and Kathleen A. Knafl, PhD, now at Oregon Health & Science University, report the findings in the May issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

"There is such a disconnect between what we health care providers mean when we talk about obesity and overweight, and what those concepts mean to different people," Davidson tells WebMD. "We say, 'Your health is affected by the size of your body.' But patients don't necessarily connect those terms to the belief that their health is affected."

Blacks, Whites See Size Differently

Davidson and Knafl analyzed 20 papers from 18 different studies on patients' concepts of obesity and analyzed each study.

"I looked at what these researchers found when patients talked to them about obesity and overweight," Davidson says. "I looked at the differences and similarities between the groups and what that might mean for us as health care providers."

The studies consistently showed that larger body sizes are more socially acceptable -- and more desirable -- to black women and men than to white women and men.

"Black men find black women at a larger body size to be attractive, and black women feel attractive at a larger body size," Davidson says. "White women talked about feeling unattractive at a larger body size, and they did not find it socially acceptable."

The finding does not surprise Sheila P. Davis, PhD, professor of nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Davis studies overweight children and their families.

"It seems as if for black women -- and I am a black woman -- obesity doesn't carry the same negative associations as it does for white women, Davis tells WebMD.

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