Obesity in children may be one of the toughest social issues facing America today. How does an applied social psychologist even begin to deal with such a sensitive and complex problem? One cultural group at a time, according to Dr. Katrina Bledsoe.
"The way someone is culturally socialized can actually enhance their health longevity," Dr. Bledsoe explains. "We usually think of certain cultural groups as being at risk for certain diseases, but there’s also a positive perspective to the way people are brought up. There are practices within a culture to preserve that culture, and these can be used to increase positive health outcomes. In many ethnic groups, ‘health’ and ‘obesity’ aren’t always considered mutually exclusive. Many of the kids we work with in Trenton consider weight as a part of the way you look, and don’t tie it to health. If someone can behave in a way that’s ‘healthy,’ even if they are obese, you have to offer them other reasons to pursue good health behavior. Focus on having a good family, on their spirituality, and so on—all cultures value these things, but each puts the emphasis in a different way."
Katrina’s interest in health began as an interest as a doctoral student at CGU. She began studying drug prevention programs, in particular those concerning adolescents of color, as part of a National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Training Grant. During her time at The College of New Jersey, this focus broadened into an interest in public health, and has resulted in her current work on both obesity and sexual health behavior.
"The Trenton Obesity Prevention Study, which we call ‘TOPS’, looks at reducing obesity in urban adolescents in Trenton, New Jersey. It’s rigorous social science, but it’s not ‘Ivory Tower’ in the negative sense. One of the most exciting things is that we see the people we’re working with up front. If we’re ‘number crunching,’ we are crunching numbers that we got directly from the people of Trenton. If I’m talking about Body Mass Index of Trenton High School students, it’s because I measured many of the kids myself. And if we start talking about a political situation, our team has talked with the local stakeholders in person. You have to meet people in this kind of work, so you see first-hand what kind of effect you have on their situation."
This work has propelled Bledsoe into other areas such as intervention and program development. "What we’re developing is a learning tool for students to become more involved in determining their own health. There is an education component and a physical education component too. In addition, we’re using innovative technologies such as Geographic Information Systems to get the community involved." She plans to continue the work as she transitions from The College of New Jersey to PRES Associates, a private research and evaluation group that grapples with the evaluation of social and education programs across the country.