When I was a slightly younger woman, I worked a miserable office job for pennies. Much of my days were consumed by morning and evening commutes to and from said hellhole.
The same faces and the same places sped by me each day. But few of them had as much of an effect on me as a young black woman who appeared to be in her early twenties and frequented the same bus route as me.
I’d be lying if I said it was her face that affected me. Her face was forgettable; she could have been any of the other young black women I encountered on that evening commute back to the southside of Chicago each night.
No, it wasn’t her face. It was the way she slowly waddled up to the bus, hoisted herself onto the vehicle, and took her seat, huffing and puffing from the simple effort. It was the two seats she commanded once she had finally taken her seat. It was the struggle to get herself off of the bus when it finally reached the railroad crossing near her destination.
These things made me uncomfortable. They were only, however, symptomatic of the thing which really bothered me:
Her morbid obesity.
As I watched that nameless woman grapple with the reality of navigating an expansive world in a body bogged down by so much weight, I could not help but wonder how our lives—the lives of so many African-American women (over 44% of us to be exact)—had come to this.
Black Feminism and Self-Care
I know what some of you are thinking:
“This blog is about black feminism. This isn’t the place to have this conversation.”
“Christina is a fat-shaming piece of trash. If she really supported black women, she’d support body positivity for us rather than tearing us down.”
“This conversation unfairly puts the burden of obesity on black women. Black women aren’t the only ones who struggle with obesity. What about the 26.9% of American white women who are obese?”
And you know what? Your apprehension is merited. This blog is dedicated to black feminism, so I understand why some of you don’t expect to come here and be reminded of what you already know about your own bodies.
I’m also well aware of the fact that everyone gives us hell about our bodies as black women. As activist and swirler Christelyn Karazin points out, even black men, the people we most expect to support us in times of need, don’t all want us to do better.
Many lob disgusting insults at us. They take every opportunity to remind us of the fact that we struggle with our weight and that we’ll never be Becky or Sarah or Katie (who, ironically enough, also have a problem with obesity according to the CDC).
Never mind the fact that we also struggle with the dead weight many of these men leave on our doorsteps. Fatherless children. Higher rates of domestic abuse. Broken communities.
These constant reminders and disavowals are painful. But this pain doesn’t give us the right to ignore what has become our reality:
We are losing ourselves to obesity. And it’s time to take our bodies back.
Abandoning Fat Acceptance as An Ideal
If you’re not familiar with the fat acceptance movement, let’s just say that it’s a “social movement” which focuses on changing damaging cultural perceptions and treatment of fat people. Though the movement’s mission seems admirable, some of its core elements are damaging.
Especially to black women.
Its adherence to key Health At Every Size (HAES) principles, for example, attempts to write off the negative consequences of carrying huge amounts of excess weight.
Can you carry extra weight and not NOT develop diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses? Definitely.
But do your chances of developing these illnesses greatly increase as a result of those extra pounds you’re packing? Absolutely, and we’d be foolish not to acknowledge this fact.
Furthermore, a few fat activists practically encourage women to develop unhealthy relationships with food. These activists push the idea that we should eat whatever we want whenever we want. They and their followers mistake these relationships as healthy because frequently indulging in your favorite comfort foods is supposedly a slap in the face to the patriarchy and its policing of women’s bodies.
To be fair, society does heavily police women’s bodies. These activists, however, fail to realize that indulgence has its drawbacks. You will eventually have to give up something—sometimes too much—to spend every waking hour enjoying your favorite foods.
Your health. Your mobility. Your fertility. Your love life. Your life. Something.
Sounds empowering, right?
Munching on some kale or eating one less slice of pizza is certainly heartbreaking, this coming from someone who loves pizza. That said, I’m not here for the infantilization of black women; we don’t need fat activists, many of whom are white women, to baby us and tell us that being overweight or obese isn’t detrimental to us.
We don’t need them to hold our hands and spout platitudes such as, “Everyone is beautiful.” And even if we truly believed that everyone was beautiful? Guess what? Being beautiful doesn’t make you healthy.
No Body Positivity for Black Women
Black women’s health aside, there’s also something to be said about the fact that the fat acceptance movement has not yielded any real results for non-white women. To be blunt, fat white women are the only ones who stand to gain anything by you, a black woman, “accepting” your fat as an important part of your identity.
Just think about it. Many men, given the choice between a healthy-sized white woman and a healthy-sized black woman, would choose the fairer skinned of the two.
White women are the standard in the western world. Their silky, straight hair is often deemed more appealing than our kinky or coily hair, their fair skin glorified at every turn.
In other words, white women have access to a larger pool of partners than we do under normal circumstances.
But when a morbidly obese white woman has to compete with a healthy-sized black woman? Her silky hair and fair skin suddenly become less significant. John or Brian or Steve will seriously consider choosing a black woman over her.
As it turns out, not even her whiteness can save her from the consequences of her morbid obesity.
She can accept her fat, but this she cannot accept. She has never accepted it. This same jealousy is what led her to embrace the Tignon Law and several other sumptuary laws which prevented non-white women from competing with white women for potential mates centuries ago.
So she must convince you that you too can be as “liberated” as she. The two of you can preach fat positivity together and fly your feminist flag while she gets to maintain her status as a relatively desirable woman. After all, when you’re both obese, her whiteness can still elevate her.
Am I claiming that fat white women knowingly and maliciously hatched the scheme of fat acceptance to preserve their status as the most desirable women in the western world? Not exactly.
But I am saying that, on some level, these women realize what will become of them if they’re left to battle obesity alone while women of color flourish and win.
And black women should want to win here. The fat acceptance movement comes from a place of privilege, of which we have little in contrast to our white counterparts. Our lack of privilege means that we have to be “better” than them to have access to the same pool of men they have access to. Period.
Yep. I definitely just channeled Scandal there. Sue me.
In any case, these are just facts, ladies. There are things in this world we can’t control, our skin color being one of those. So when there are things that we can control (i.e. our weight)? We should make every effort to control them.
Championing a Healthy Black Aesthetic
So let’s make a new New Year’s resolution right now. Let’s start disassociating obesity with black womanhood.
The two are not interconnected, nor should we be led to believe they are. The only things that await us if we accept obesity as a positive part of our experience are diabetes, various cancers, and a lot of loneliness.
And, face it, there’s nothing positive about feeling trapped in your own sickly body for a lifetime because of something as changeable as the number on the scale.
Black women already bear burdens which are rooted in centuries’ worth of oppression of black bodies, something every black woman who has ever been told that her features are “ugly” should know well. I refuse to think that we should let ourselves bear the burdens of white women who are on a crusade to keep themselves in the beds of white men.
What’s your take on black women’s involvement in the fat acceptance movement? Yay or nay? Drop a comment below to chime in!