THE good news: For the most part big beautiful Black women are self-confident, content with their lives and are not on a destructive mission to transform themselves into living Barbie dolls. The bad news: Obesity experts say that too many Black women are caring themselves to death. The National Center for Health Statistics' reports that more than one-half (54.3 percent) of Americans are obese, with Black women comprising the most overweight segment of the U.S. population, followed by Hispanic women. Rubbing salt into the wounds of overweight Black women is the latest University of Pennsylvania Medical Center study that indicates that Black women have "a biological disadvantage" that makes it more difficult to lose the extra weight. Researchers have found that even at rest, overweight Black women burn nearly 100 fewer calories daily than their overweight White peers. Dr. Otelio Randall, director of the General Clinical Research Center at Howard University, disputes the assumption that Black women are biologically disadvantaged when compared to Whites. He says some people are just simply more active than others. "There are some people who are very active, or hyperkinetic, and they constantly burn calories, even if they are not playing tennis," Dr. Randall says. "People who sit watching television and who do nothing will burn very few calories, whereas the hyperkinetic people are sitting but are constantly moving and burning energy. Some people just burn a lot of calories and it has nothing to do with being Black or White." Although obesity contributes to heart disease, certain forms of cancer, hypertension, high blood pressure and diabetes, Black women (like those,in other ethnic groups) are continuing to pack on the pounds, says Chicago obesity specialist Soundrea Hickman, M.D., founder of the Association for Improving and Maintaining Black Health. In 1998, the average clothes size for Black women was 18; today it is a size 20," Dr. Hickman asserts. "I think the mistake that is happening is this `full-figured woman' title--she's no longer considered obese, she's just full-figured--it's a death sentence for the Black woman. I'd like to choke the person who came up with that title because it's killing us, and I'm sick and tired of going to funerals of Black women in their 50s." The question remains, in a society bursting with fat-free foods, exercise videos and health clubs, why are so many Black women steadily gaining weight? Some experts believe that Black women don't view their weight problem as a health problem. "I really believe that weight is a health issue, and if Black women don't see it as a health issue, then we need to educate them," says Shiriki Kumanyika, a University of Pennsylvania nutritional epidemiologist and an expert on race and obesity. "The long-term effects of weight on health for many heavy people are harmful, and it creates problems; once you get them, you can't turn back the clock." Strengthening the belief that obesity is not a major health issue is a recent study conducted by the American Cancer Society (ACS) that has caused confusion and outrage among some obesity specialists. The ACS study indicates that overweight Black women were not more likely to suffer premature deaths when compared to their normal-weight peers. And while health and nutritional experts are scratching their heads in disbelief, many fat-acceptance organizations are touting the ACS' findings as the scientific validation of obesity that they've been searching for. But Dr. Kumanyika warns that although the study was "well-done, people should not ignore a pertinent fact--excess fat is fatal. "To use the ACS study to say that Black women don't have to worry about weight would be a huge disservice," Dr. Kumanyika asserts. "Death was the outcome of that study, not disease, and the study's death rate included all kinds of things that people die from; some are obesity-related, some are not. Obesity contributes to health problems in a variety of ways, and you may not be able to sort it out as a specific factor because other things are in the equation as well." What's interesting about today's heftier Black women is that contrary to popular belief, many are not just sitting in front of the tube and letting themselves go. They dress to impress, love to exercise, have prominent jobs and lead active social lives. At 6 feet tall, and wearing a size 26, Omaha native Davina Brown says she loves her body, works out often and is not at all swayed by the skinny women she sees on television and in the movies. "I don't idealize or relate to those media images of European-American women who are very unrealistic and actually look as if they could use a good hamburger," says Brown, a customer service manager. "Those women are not real; they are only characters, and I don't relate to them." Many larger women--with healthy egos, healthy role models and the support of obesity groups--consider themselves to be physically fit, and they get regular exercise to feel good rather than to transform themselves into the elusive size 6. And ironically, most consider themselves to be in better shape than their thinner counterparts.