April 30, 2012 | Health and Well-Being

Woman of the Week: Alice Randall

By Anna Louie Sussman

The Nashville-based novelist, songwriter and Vanderbilt University writer-in-residence Alice Randall always thought of herself as a fine role model for her daughter, Caroline Randall Williams. There were always lots of books in the house; Caroline played basketball and soccer after school, didn’t drink soda and was permitted a hot dogs an annual basis, on the Fourth of July. But when Alice toured southern colleges with her second novel, Rebel Yell, Ms. Randall found herself at Tuskegee University one night staring at a sea of overweight young women. Worse, at 50 years old, she weighed more than 225 pounds.

That’s when she knew she had to address the complex, delicate issue of what she calls “big black women,” and her own situation as a big black woman. Her research led her to a few shocking statistics: nearly 80% of black women are overweight or obese, and 25% of black women aged 55 or older has diabetes, according to the Black Women’s Health Imperative. Her personal diet journey led her to dozens of pearls of weight-loss wisdom, which she strung together in her new book, Ada’s Rules: A Sexy, Skinny Novel. Part romance novel, part weight-loss guide, part manifesto for living, it has the potential to launch what she calls “a body culture revolution” in black America. She spoke to Women in the World Foundation about her own experience with weight loss, how she came to see it as a public health issue, and how to enlist in “Ada’s Army.”

You had your own personal journey with weight loss. Tell me about when and how you realized this was a public health issue, and how that led to this book.

I started off life as a skinny little girl in Detroit, and when I was little, I prayed for fat thighs. Black women are functioning in an environment where largeness is prized.  My own grandmother was well over 250 pounds, and she was affectionately called “big as three houses.” But my daughter is a fit person, so when I say I’ve waged a battle with weight and won, the main part of that claim is that I’ve turned around food culture and fitness culture in my own family, by standing beside the soccer field and the basketball court with my daughter, and helping her be a fit person.

One of my goals was to be the last fat black woman in my family. So on the most intimate level, it’s a journey not just in my own lifetime, but a journey across generations. I think that’s a journey a lot of American families have to make, and particularly that many black families have to make. First, I redefined the goal. It was not to get small, in order to conform to majority standards. It was to get under 200 pounds, by losing 10% of my body weight. Being under 200 pounds reduces the chances of diabetes by 50%. I immersed myself in reading and researching the science. I didn’t use any personal trainers, and I didn’t do anything I didn’t think a poor woman couldn’t do. It’s walking eight miles a week, sleeping eight hours a night, and drinking eight glasses of water a day. Almost anyone who doesn’t have a young child can do those things.

What made you want to write about that journey in a romance novel, Ada’s Rules?

When I was on book tour in 2009 with Rebel Yell, I remember going to Tuskegee University in Alabama, the fattest state in the nation. Now, in college, I weighed 118 on a heavy day, and I was looking out in the audience at girls who were over 200 pounds. Not every girl, but too, too, too many girls.

I had thought of myself as a role model, of intellectual achievement, of intellectual rigor, and creativity, but when they looked up at me and saw me weighing more than 225 pounds, I realized that I was a bad role model. I had never in my life thought of myself as a bad role model. I had worked all my life to be a good role model, particularly for African-American girls.

How did you get yourself under 200? What was that experience like?

In my own family, my father, who was a basketball star in high school, took the basketball away from me, and said “It’s not for you.” He wanted me to be this purely intellectual woman, who did not do sports. He wanted me to sit with a book and read and think, and not work with my body. But he did not anticipate what the health outcomes of that would be.

I had never made an exercise culture for myself. I exercised every now and then, but there was no ongoing, daily commitment. Now, I plan to do it every single day, so even if I miss a day every now and then, I know I’m planning to do it the next day. It is very hard to find the time, but I make time by doubling up activities. I’ve been known to have student meetings on my treadmill. Or I let my bedroom get a little messy.

Tell me about launching “Ada’s Army,” the movement you are starting to help women, families and communities become healthier and more in touch with their bodies.

I launched Ada’s Army in January of this year. I had started talking to women before that, about issues like when I was going to yoga class, taking my big brown body into that class, I felt isolated. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to be doing yoga with other women of my body size?  So I organized a yoga class, and called it “Yoga for Us,” and we have women in it who are up to 300 pounds.

We need a new approach. We have not incorporating people with the problem in the discussion about how you solve the problem. With autism, you have children who grew up with it and their families talking about what worked for them. But when it comes to black women’s bodies, we only want doctors from talk shows at the table.

In this way, it’s modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, in that people who’ve been in the belly of the beast share what worked for them to get out of it. Even if they’re only two days out of it, or one hour out of it, what worked for them?

Because every hour out of the belly of the beast is a huge accomplishment. Those women on the Ada’s Army site are real people. They were Zumba-ing around my dining room. It’s also a book club model, and I encourage women to meet regularly and use the book as a starting point for discussions about what they wish for.

So Ada’s Army is for women who want to fall in love with the body they have, while also changing it for the better. It is multicultural, but it is oriented right now on the troubles black women are facing with their health, and giving them assistance and support.

You thank a number of policymakers or legislators in your afterword. What recognition is there at the state or federal level and what is being done about it on a mass scale?

This is our country, this is our health, and this is our future, but we’re taking this problem into our own hands. One thing I like about the 8-8-8 formula is that it doesn’t cost any money. We don’t need any help from Washington. Except for the “Let’s Move” campaign by First Lady Michelle Obama, Washington has not been successful in treating this problem. We need to support people who are working with their own doctors, because we have a lot of science and facts, and we know that different things work for individual people in their individual lives. There is no blanket prescription. So while I would like Washington to listen and be informed, they need to get out of our way. It has to happen one body at a time.

And we need to get on the side of all these Adas these isolated areas, like the deltas, like Appalachia, down here in the Stroke Belt, because they need our support to change. Their health affects every other thing. The ability of schoolchildren in the Mississippi delta is directly related to the number of women on dialysis in Memphis. There’s one pie, and if we can get some of the cost of chronic preventable disease off the ledger, we will have some money for some of the progressive reform for the education and health services we need.

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.