University researcher links obesity to individual effects of discrimination

Tuesday, April 3, 2018 - 8:04pm

In Research Assistant Professor Margaret Hicken’s lab at the University of Michigan, the word vigilance takes on a new meaning —  as in, the stress associated with carrying the burden of one’s race whenever one walks out the door. Through her research and findings, Hicken said she has associated this vigilance with unhealthy habits that could be contributing to obesity among marginalized communities.

“Vigilance is a lay word; it’s just part of our regular vocabulary,” Hicken said. “But the way I use it that it’s the anticipatory stress or the worry-related stress about structural and cultural racism. So it's not about discrimination or about one person being mean to another person. I’m talking about the stereotypes that we hold of marginalized groups, and then the actions that we take as a society to marginalize different racial groups.”

She further emphasized how marginalized groups must take extra care in the way they present themselves to the public due to societal stigmas —  a repetitive cycle of actions which weighs heavily upon the individual forced to practice such vigilance. 

“That burden of not being seen as an individual but being just seen as a member of your race — I argue that that results in people of those marginalized groups, like Black Americans, having to be careful about what they say, be careful about how they dress and appear, and take care of where they go and how they socialize, and just kind of prepare themselves on a daily basis for things that might or might not happen,” she said. “And that’s what I call vigilance.”

Hicken said she studied the effects this type of vigilance can have on individuals and has found, particularly for Black women, this vigilance can lead to unhealthy eating habits and associated weight gain.

“I had been reading things on how obesity, especially the kind that is really related to poor health which is the kind around your waistline, the ‘apple shape,’ can be related to stress,” Hicken said. “So not only can chronic stress change your metabolism so you start to deposit fat around your organs, but then also that stress can result in eating behaviors, because what we call comfort foods that are high end in fat or sugar can release these chemicals in our brains that make us feel better. ”

Hicken said she focused her study on women because women are much more prone to weight gain and obesity based on stress according to her own research. She found that while white women also have to deal with discrimination rooted in sexism, they do not encounter forms of vigilance compounded by race and identity. 

“Discrimination might be important for Black women, but if we start to really account for vigilance, then that becomes what is important,” Hicken said. “On the other hand, for white women vigilance does not matter, it’s not related to health at all, and really it’s about discrimination, and the difference between these two is that vigilance is about the burden of your race, and discrimination is about this person was mean to me, or this person treated me unfairly in my day to day life, and that’s really the difference.”

Lindsey Burnside, a research associate at the Institute for Social Research, has been working with Hicken since she was undergraduate at the University.

“Individual effects of discrimination happen to everyone all the time,” Burnside said. “So someone could say something really bad to me, but if they don’t have any power to back it up then it doesn’t mean very much, whereas if someone that has power over me, then it has a lot more impact on my body and how I cope with the individual act, and then also what that means chronically, long term.”

Burnside said that while it is hard to think of ways we can fix the institutional racism that causes vigilance, it is still very important to confirm that this vigilance exists and that we must do something about it.

“It is meaningful to understand,” Burnside said. “And it is empowering as you are going through your life to be able to understand that there are reasons for the things that are happening to you, in ways that better equip individuals to actually cope, when you’re like, ‘No, this is not just me, no I am not being gaslighted about what’s happening to me.’ It helps to really understand why these things happen, and that you’re not alone in it, and that having coping responses is absolutely natural.”

Public Health Graduate student Alexis Stanton said she found the research she conducted with Hicken to be incredibly important, especially coming from a public health background.

“I think that in my work with Dr. Hicken, I’ve been able to think more deeply about the way that cultures and systems are often foundationally racist in many ways, and how that can perpetuate health inequities in marginalized communities,” Stanton said. “I think it’s really important work, and as someone who's coming from public health I think we often think about issues like discrimination on a very interpersonal level, but I think that studying vigilance we think instead about the way culture and society perpetuates racist views an ideologies, and how that can really impact people’s health and well-being.”

Hicken stressed this phenomenon was the fault of society rather than any individual, and that it was something that needed to change.

“Once you start really understanding the systematic continuous unfair treatment of Black Americans throughout our history up until today, it’s astonishing, and heartbreaking, and my goal is to really start documenting that it’s not just coincidence, or it’s not just poor health behaviors,” Hicken said. “This is not about something that Black Americans are doing, this is about something that society is doing to Black Americans, and to other racialized groups as well.”