With their yoga pants, water bottles and natural hair tied tight, more than 300 women filed into the Hilton Harrisburg last month to see the Black Girl Health national online movement in action.
While holding meditation poses, announcing their fears into a smoky blue room and following the workout moves of an Olympic silver medalist, these women learned about personal health at BGH’s “Kickstart Your Health Women’s Wellness Expo.”
BGH, a Harrisburg-based digital publication, promotes health and wellness for women of color. Experts on beauty, fitness and medical health weigh in on their website and social media platforms.
“Black Girl Health is a woman who is in control of her life and her health,” said founder Porcha Johnson, who also is a reporter for WGAL News 8. “It’s a woman who feels good about where she is and where she’s going.”
Johnson created BGH as a platform to discuss the specific issues that affect African-American women.
“It’s very cultural,” Johnson said. “In our community, many of us have grown up on processed foods and ‘soul foods.’ We’re not educated on healthier food options. We need to increase our education and awareness.”
African-American women are prone to higher rates of health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, high blood pressure (hypertension) affects more than 45 percent of black women compared to 42 percent of black men, according to WebMD.
“Black women are living in disparities of disease,” said LaToya Burden, Black Girl Health’s project coordinator.
This became clear to Johnson when dealing with the health struggles that pushed her to create BGH.
Johnson’s mother suffered from three miscarriages before discovering she had fibroids, non-cancerous tumors. This condition prevented her from expanding their family.
“She probably had them years before, but they were out of control at that point [in her 30s],” Johnson said.
A few years later, when Johnson was in her early 20s, she found out she had the same condition. Seeing her mother struggle with fibroids encouraged Johnson to take preventative measures and early examinations, she said.
“But that’s just my own battle,” she said. “Everyone has their own.”
As she researched this condition, she discovered her experience is similar to many women of color.
“When I started to see other women my age getting hysterectomies, I thought, ‘There needs to be more awareness,’” Johnson said. “I wanted to create a platform for women, not just with fibroids, but for women who have heart disease, obesity or diabetes.”
Starting as a blog in May 2014, BGH now reaches more than 2,000 Facebook followers and hundreds more in-person with the annual “Kickstart Expo” event.
Sessions at this year’s event at the Hilton included local leaders and national champs.
Charisse Grayer and Sandra Johnson of “Zoombalicious,” a Harrisburg-based exercise group, excited the crowd with their hip-hop style workout moves. Olympic silver medalist Hyleas Fountain taught a strength class. Food and nutrition experts educated guests on healthful diets. Candice Johnson, a certified reiki practitioner, flew in from San Diego to teach meditation techniques to reduce stress. Other sessions covered sexual health, spiritual well-being and self-defense
“My favorite session was the pound class,” said guest LaShon Mcintosh. “You exercise with two drumsticks, and together they weigh about a pound. It was so much fun. I’m going to try to find more classes like that around me.”
Along with treats from vendors and sponsors, Kickstart ran free health screenings from Hamilton Health Center and Alder Health Services.
“We want them to be aware of their physical health and what’s inside,” Burden said. “Just because you look good doesn’t mean those numbers are good.”
And, she said, they chose to have their event in Harrisburg for a specific reason.
“Not Philadelphia, not D.C.,” Burden said. “Right here in Harrisburg, so people can see that there’s a population, there’s a demand here that matters.”
The event attracted women of many races, including those who live outside of the Harrisburg region. Even men participated.
“You show me a person not of color that does not have connection, care or concerns for some woman of color somewhere,” Burden said. “[We’re] inclusive in the sense that we want people to care about our health as much as they care about everyone else’s.”
For the finale, the Hilton’s ballroom transformed into a talk show studio for “BGH Live.” Johnson channeled her reporter skills and chatted with Women’s Health Magazine’s “The Next Fitness Star” Selena Watkins; the oldest competitive female bodybuilder, Ernestine Shepherd; 2016’s Miss USA Deshauna Barber; and social media star and natural hair guru, Temitope Adesina.
“[The Kickstart Expo] turnout and our followers speak volumes,” Johnson said. “People want to live a healthier lifestyle.”
For more information about Black Girl Health, visit blackgirlhealth.com.