Black Women, Our Bodies & Perceptions of Beauty: “White Girl Stuff”

Black Women, Our Bodies & Perceptions of Beauty: “White Girl Stuff”

You know, the Black female perception of beauty is a peculiar one to me. I know, I know that I say that in a way that implies that I’m on the outside looking in… but for this one, I think that I am. I literally feel like an outsider on this one, because there are contradicting philosophies that – while they tickle me a little… okay, a lot – I just cannot co-sign.

Anything to avoid the scale?

When my family left Cleveland, we moved to a predominately white city in central Indiana. Approximately 2% of the student population at my high school was Black. All of my dearest friends were white.

I remember going to lunch and always having a full plate on my tray, and at my table I’d see nothing but salads.. poorly made ones, at that. I’d see the single, solitary, lone bag of fries and a bottle of water. I saw girls chugging the diet soda, but nothing else in front of them. I rarely saw anyone with as much food on their plate as me, but then again… I was a size 18.

I suspect those girls were always told “you need to watch your figure,” but were never quite taught exactly what that meant. ‘Cause I know now, it certainly doesn’t mean “have a diet soda for lunch.”

Either way, “you need to watch your figure” was never a message I received. For me, it was genuinely harmful and catty statements something like “If you don’t quit eating all that crap, you’re going to be big as an elephant.” Well, seeing as how that “crap” was making me feel better about life (though it would be another ten years before I could understand why), and seeing as how hearing statements like that only made me miserable… you can imagine what being told “you’re going to be big as an elephant” did to a young girl who already thought she was “big as an elephant.” Not only did I not learn anything from the dialogue, but it ran me right back into a bowl of some-stuff-I-had-no-business-eating.

I bring this up to say that I am, interestingly enough, familiar with and can now recognize the philosophy of curtailing your eating and watching your figure at a young age because of those girls… even though I never embraced it myself (ironically enough.) Because those girls were white, I never really felt a need to adopt it for myself. To be fair, I never felt the need to dye my hair blond every month, either.

I get it. This healthy eating thing is hard. It requires a lot. But for some reason, eating healthy is often brushed off and regarded as a “white people thing.” You have no idea how often I hear “Um, naw – that’s white people food.” And I can’t help but think of really rude and snarky responses to this… because that kind of assertion often comes from the mouth of someone with a thin and bone straight haired weave on their head, or faux colored contacts, or someone fawning over “light” skin, or… whatever. I suppose that if I asserted that those were “white people things” as well, that would’ve ended the conversation. Quickly.

Using the excuse of “eating healthy is a white girl thing” makes me giggle that much more, because I think of those girls in high school who, apparently, didn’t know how to eat healthy, either. And sure, they were in high school… but one would think that if their mothers taught them enough for them to know to watch their figures, they would at least have shown them how to do so, as well. It also makes me laugh again because as 68% of America is overweight, 12% of America is Black and 60% of Black America is supposedly overweight. That means that 60% of 12% is roughly 8% of the overweight population. Black America contributes a whopping 8% to that overweight population… leaving about 60% unaccounted for. But “eating healthy” is a “white girl thing.”

Back to where I started, though. The Black female standard of beauty is so peculiar to me. For example… even the most unhealthy of us get “passes” because we have long (straight) hair, impeccable makeup, freshly finished nails and amazing shoes. We get a “pass” from our peers for being unhealthy if we have a fat booty. We don’t even call it “fat” anymore. We call it “phat.”

For some reason, we as women of color have allowed ourselves to embrace American culture’s (read: capitalist culture’s) materialism and Europe’s hair… but we’re doling out passes left and right when it comes to our bodies. What do I mean by “pass?” Simple. I mean ignoring and excusing the poor health of our loved ones because they’re “still pretty,” which should be an extremely insulting compliment, but ironically isn’t seen as such. I mean we allow ourselves to accept poor health because we can hide it by dressing to the nines or by having a mean shoe game.

So what keeps us from embracing an un-Black standard for figures, but embracing un-Black standards elsewhere? Questionably, everywhere else? That’s a question that, for every answer I can think up… still leads me to wonder why we don’t dole out passes for every other superficial concept we cling to and judge others by. For goodness sakes, we’re still judging people by the shade of their skin. If that’s not painfully European, I don’t know what is.

I was one of those girls with the perfect hair – spent every Saturday in the shop – perfect nails, perfect shoes, kept my clothing appropriate. Every girl should, no matter her size. But using those as justifications – “I don’t want to lose weight… I’m not trying to have to give up my wardrobe!”/”Why do I need to lose weight? I look good!” – to not pursue better health is more than likely what’s killing us.

I’m not even done… but there’s always tomorrow.

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By | 2017-06-10T11:26:06+00:00 March 27th, 2014|Standards of Black Beauty|50 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.

50 Comments

  1. Curvy Jones July 26, 2010 at 10:01 AM - Reply

    Feelin you today! Here is the thing.

    I feel pretty, among my Caucasian friends. Why? Because I’m different. I have clear, caramel skin, plump lips, deep brown eyes. Hair that will do… anything but just lay there. Shiny, silky, strong. I have a booty that won’t quit and cleavage my friends covet.

    Among my black friends…. I don’t know why I don’t feel cute. I always feel like a light in a lit room. I look just like them. Nothing different about me. And my friends are GORGEOUS. I always feel like I come in underneath them, because they have longer hair, lighter skin, moar bangin’ bodies.

    Thing is… I feel ‘fatter’ around my Caucasian friends and more normal around my black friends, even the thin ones because we have similar shapes. It seems like my Caucasian girlfriends, even the thin ones, worry CONSTANTLY about being fat. Always counting calories and exchanging something for something else and worrying about gaining 5lbs or losing 5lbs or maintaining 5lbs. I’m not saying my black friends DON’T worry about that… we just don’t obsess about being rail thin. And I feel more comfortable there… there’s got to be a bridge between ‘eating like a black girl’ and ‘caring about our health’ like a white one. Ya know?

    It doesn’t really make sense to me, in my head. It’s something I ponder a lot because my friendships span cultures and race. It’s often very hard for one group to understand my plight while another group completely commiserates.

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 8:58 AM - Reply

      I think there is always something to that “I’m the only ME in the room” thing… I mean, it makes sense. We all want to stand out, but its the lengths to which we go to achieve that which make the difference.

      I’d be lying if I said I felt fat around my white friends. It never crossed my mind once. In all the ways we related, we never related in that way. My culture didn’t put that kind of premium on our bodies like that. It’s funny because had I embraced that, I might not’ve had to do the fighting to lose weight that I did. Granted, I might’ve had a few health issues, but size? Probably not so much.

  2. Ty July 26, 2010 at 10:47 AM - Reply

    I’ll be honest. I’ve always envied how proud and confident black women were and always wished I could have that kind of confidence too. I got insulted like you as a kid too. I was really depressed and gained some weight and my dad used to tell me that I was going to be 300lbs and bedwritten. That was probably the nicest thing he’s said to me. But I do obsess over my weight and it’s weird, I see girls who I know are bigger than me but I think they’re so beautiful and have nice shapes. But when I see myself I see a disgusting filthy b—-. Sorry for the language.

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 9:03 AM - Reply

      I often question that pride and confidence in ANY women, because if you listen closely enough, you often can hear that they are placing their value in the wrong elements of themselves.

      I hate that ANY woman feels the way that you do about her body… but I hate even more that this is connected to the first part of your comment. So many of us get away with placing our value in our body parts, and it leaves those of us who don’t have those same bodies feeling like we have reason to feel disgusting and ashamed. That frustrates me and breaks my heart. 🙁

      I’d write more, but I think Thursday’s post says it better than I can.

  3. Norn July 26, 2010 at 11:29 AM - Reply

    You really are a great writer, and I love that you see the connections between politics, capitalist culture (that ACTIVELY ENCOURAGES POOR HEALTH & BODY IMAGE) & physical fitness!
    I assume you’ve got spirit in the mix, too!
    🙂

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 9:05 AM - Reply

      Thank you! It’s ironic because though I have an anti-capitalist attitude… I’m definitely self-employed. LOLOL

  4. Ladi Ohm July 26, 2010 at 11:47 AM - Reply

    This is right on time!!!! I just went out with a girl friend who warned me not to lose any more weight because “I’ll look like a white girl.” I’m still perplexed because I’ll still have my nose, lips, hair, butt, skin color, perspective, history, social context, parents (heck… everything about me besides my healthy eating and workout habits) that makes me black in the first place. Not to mention I started to lose weight after my family doctor went in on me about family health issues and the path I was headed for…

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 9:06 AM - Reply

      So you can’t help but wonder if that “friend” has your best interests at heart, if she was probably too ignorant/not-knowing to be advising anyone on anything, or if something else was influencing her statements toward you? Hmmm….

  5. Kirsten July 26, 2010 at 3:28 PM - Reply

    About five years ago, I made a decision to change my lifestyle, what I ate, how I ate, and so on. I decided to go super nutritious and strict. I began following the advice of a local, grassroots-type healer by the name of Queen Afua. I began fasting and eating live and raw foods. I completely shifted the types of foods I ate and my eating habits.

    The man I was seeing at the time would come to my house looking for food and tell me I had ‘white people food’ in and around my kitchen. He said it in such a way that I felt kind of embarrassed by it.
    It didn’t change what I did or how I did it, but it was something I never forgot. (Nevermind that he seemed to love the ‘Africa’ that was resting in the seat of my jeans — guess he was trying to prevent it from converting into a Europe!)

    I went on to work on a book about transforming the ‘soul-food diet’ into more healthy fare. The book was published independently, but I learned a few things about food and our (black-folx) relationship to it.

    Today, I find myself ‘flexing’ I don’t eat all of or none of anything. I decided to eat healthier ‘for me’. Which right now means, more ‘clean eating’ fewer processed foods, and more live/raw foods with my cooked foods.

    Plus I have added websites like this one to provide my mental/emotional re-up. It helps to know that I am not the only one thinking and feeling the way I do about weight and what is unique to us black girls.

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 9:14 AM - Reply

      It didn’t change what I did or how I did it, but it was something I never forgot. ”

      YESSSSSSSSS! There are women out there who will straight up give up all their hard work for a man, only to find how NOT worth it that man truly was. No person who loves you will question or stand in opposition to what you are trying to do to better yourself. Ever!

  6. tdixonspeaks July 26, 2010 at 9:46 PM - Reply

    I’m self-conscious when eating at work. Its like everyone (read: white girls, but now that I work in an all-woman office) is on dietary autotune. Breakfast: yogurt/fruit, lunch: salad and water, snack: pretzels, half a bag of M&Ms. I never see dinner but I’d be hongry by 6pm!

    I’m all for watching your diet, and I love a good salad too. Everytime I pick up a salad or a diet soda, I get a “watching your diet?” comment. Damn, can’t a size 20 have some veggies and curb some sugar?

    It still makes me weary, especially when the conversation veers into “omg I ate soooo much today,” when its typically what I’d eat in an average day.

    When I worked in finance (mostly men), I could get Taco Bell and never flinch. Of course, that’s worst case scenario, but at least I could talk about a bacon cheeseburger without looks of horror and thoughts of “omg you’re going to eat THAT?”

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 9:22 AM - Reply

      Don’t be weary about that “I ate so much today” line, because that’s just how it happens. People who weigh less… eat less. If they ate more, they would have to eat more to maintain that weight. That’s just how the body works (unfortunately.)

      I think women are generally nitpicky in close-knit environments like that if they were bred to always be competitive… comments like that are like, psychological warfare. I just wrote about this today – there’s some kind of “benefit” to telling people that you don’t “diet” (in the American sense) or workout to achieve your stunning figure… and part of that is “giggling” at people who might, by their definition, struggle with being skinny (because, let’s face it, that’s what those types of chicks take pride in – being skinny) by making snide remarks about their diet.

      As if “dieting” is the only reason why someone would enjoy a salad. Idiots.

      I am going to give you a look of horror and type out loud, “OMG A BACON CHEESEBURGER?! GROSS!” Not because I’m a girl, though. #teamantibacon

    • LBC June 8, 2011 at 10:46 AM - Reply

      I have to say that few things were as bad for my eating habits as working or living in all-female environments. The only actual diet I ever tried was when I was in college . . . living with a female (of course) roommate. Results? I learned I can’t do low-carb. I was ready to mug my own grandmother for a bowl of oatmeal.

      I thank my lucky stars that I now work in in a more mixed, both in terms of gender and race, setting where nobody gives a naked rat’s patootie what I eat.

      Hey, Kirsten–where can we get this healthy soul food book??

  7. Sarah July 26, 2010 at 9:58 PM - Reply

    Thinking of some of the original vegetarians and vegans: the Rastafarian folks…

    Also thinking of not just so-called “white people food,” but also so-called “white people fitness activities,” like swimming, or kayaking (which I so very much love to do), or anything involving the great outdoors (hiking, camping, etc.). Still an existing issue of history with and access to those places, but those places/things/activities belong to Black folks as much as non-Black.

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 9:37 AM - Reply

      THIS TOO! When I tell people that I go kayaking or hiking… I get “Um, that’s white people stuff. You don’t ever see Black people doing that.” and it only makes me sad because it’s like, “I’m willing to bet that has way more to do with exposure and means than race.”

      And co-sign on the vegetarians and vegans notion… it only reminds me of a comment I saw on another site.. when whites partake in these activities, their actions have a holy light shone upon them “they’re doing it to save the environment” but when Blacks do it, it’s “they probably can’t afford anything else.” It’s stupid and frustrating.

  8. Rita July 26, 2010 at 11:24 PM - Reply

    I never faced this school of thought more then when I started becoming knowledgeable about healthy living and began wanting to share the things I was learning with friends and family. Literally every other person said I was “acting white” or “looking like a white girl” because I began to eat better and add more activity to my life like running and yoga so the weight was literally falling off. Mind you these same people referred to me as a “nappy head” when I went natural not recognizing that it was the first step in the journey of taking care of me. And I started to realize that when discussing hair, health, fitness and nutrition with my loved ones I have to literally curve the conversation to the person I’m discussing the subject with. For instance, I can talk fitness candidly with the men in my life like my diabetic father who always encouraged activity. Talk to my white friends about health then I have to invetibally discuss the quest for “thinness” and with my black female friends, weight is discussed but only superficially and they’re more willing to discuss quick weight loss schemess/diets versus eating properly. Its saddening not to be able to fully share with them but I take comfort in being an example and at least opening up their world view.

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 9:45 AM - Reply

      See, in a family setting… I feel like they’re just trying to give themselves a good reason to not embrace what you’re doing, especially when its obvious that its better for you. I cringe at that language, because its still considered “acting white” to not speak in “Ebonics.”

      So… I’m sayin’. Just let them watch how your decisions better your health, and they’ll start coming to you one by one asking for help. Shoutout to “being the change you wish to see in your world.” 🙂

  9. Kirsten July 27, 2010 at 9:57 AM - Reply

    I’m just re-reading all your comments.

    It just let’s me see how deep the weight loss thing can be…It seems that not only do we have to watch our calories, we also must take in the perceptions of our friends and family and seems like culture when it comes to wanting to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

    It is beginning to strike me as odd, that more of us will proudly display on our own bodies other things ‘borrowed’ from white folks, but give flack to those closest to us when it comes to what we put in our mouths.

    To eat healthier, for some, means eating like white folks. The minute you put down the pork-fried-rice and chicken wings for some fresh greens and hummus, folks act like you’ve lost your natural mind!

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 10:09 AM - Reply

      That’s EXACTLY what I find so frustrating. That we’re so choosy with what we decide to identify as “white people stuff” and that the least harmful of these, we shun people for enjoying? Really?

      It IS the culture, because the culture is beginning to embrace unhealthy living as a way of life, and diseases like diabetes as a “typical end.” Um, naw. That needs work. Like, today.

      • Alix March 15, 2012 at 2:12 AM - Reply

        I totally agree with you. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 11 and an on-again off-again vegan. And yes, I have had the “white people” food comment and others that eluded to it. How rude is that? How are you gonna go up in someone’s fridge and start dissing their food? lol

        The community needs to stop limiting itself with the whole “black people don’t do this” or “That’s what white folks do.” Like if you’re black then you’re not allowed to like skiing, listening to opera, or playing soccer. Sadly, when I was in high school it was “acting white” to behave in class and get good grades. I’ll never understand this attitude some black folks have. I truly believe we unwittingly reenforce stereotypes and negative views on our race by assigning healthy or otherwise “good” behavior with whiteness.

        If we started eating more of this “White food” then we wouldn’t be the most unhealthy group of people in the country.

  10. Kirsten July 27, 2010 at 10:22 AM - Reply

    I’m telling you lady, you got something here. The fact that you would put it out there this way…seems revolutionary – to me.

    I mean, I’ve been hearing about black women and our weight, but it seemed like more of a ‘point and complain’ kind of thing. Never have I seen anyone address this particular point. It’s not just that we are slovenly and love friend food — we really have a kind of “conditioning” to reject what could be more beneficial to us. There is a book I read recently called Brainwashed, and he talked about the ‘myth of black inferiority’. How deep does the feeling of inferiority get when it comes to what we put in our mouths to nourish our bodies and minds — we are what we eat…and look at the conditions of our communities, they certainly do reflect the results of what we consume…

    I’m taking it deep, but I really just got it so I feel like I’m having an “AHA” moment here.

    • Erika July 27, 2010 at 10:51 AM - Reply

      That feeling of inferiority traces back to what our ancestors subsisted on.. so inferior, they were to eat the parts of the harvest that “Massa” didn’t want. Oh yes, girl. It gets rough. And gross. And sad… especially because we tend to do it to ourselves.

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