News: Fat Black Women Have The Audacity To Think Highly Of Themselves

News: Fat Black Women Have The Audacity To Think Highly Of Themselves

Let me back track. The Washington Post, in their series about Black women that also apparently doubles as “Why You Should Thank Your Lucky Stars You’re White,” posted an article – ostensibly, by a Black woman – titled “Black women heavier and happier with their bodies than white women.”

I’m not going to quote the whole darn thing, like I usually do, because I’m sure you’ve probably already read it. That being said, I am going to highlight a few things that stuck out to me.

No one in this boot camp works out to be model thin. And nearly to a person, they reject any notion that they should, or that that standard is even cute. Or realistic. Or mentally healthy. That’s especially true of Gibson, 41, who has been a fitness instructor for 12 years, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at her.

This photo of Michelle appeared on the cover of The Washington Post with this story.

Like many black women, Gibson describes her 5-foot-4, size 14-plus physique as “thick,” and considers herself ultra-feminine — no matter what the mainstream culture has to say about it.

She’s one of the most full-figured women in the gym, but she’s in love with her body. And it’s a sentiment that syncs perfectly with a recent survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation that focused on African American women. The poll found that although black women are heavier than their white counterparts, they report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.

At this gym in Capitol Heights at the crack of dawn, and in myriad other places, that thinking has made black women happier with their bodies than white women in many ways. And in some ways, it’s put them on the slippery slope toward higher rates of obesity.

In the Post-Kaiser survey, 90 percent of black women say living a healthful lifestyle is very important to them, outranking religion, career, marriage and other priorities. Yet two-thirds report eating at fast-food restaurants at least once a week, and just more than half cook dinner at home on a regular basis.

For Cuff, being healthy doesn’t mean being a size 2: “That’s not what I grew up seeing. It wasn’t in my makeup. It’s not about trying to identify with somebody else.”

Even when celebrities such as Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson have touted dramatic weight loss in magazines and commercials, they have largely retained their curves. Among black women who want to lose weight, having model proportions is often not the goal.

For 10 years, Joseph Neil has worked with people of all races across the Washington area as a full-time trainer and certified nutritionist. Black women usually come to him with a body-mass index (a measurement of weight to height) of 29, while for white women it’s usually 22 or 23, he says. Anything over 25 is considered overweight.

He attributes the higher BMI among African American women to work demands, which he says lead to fast-food lifestyles, less exercise and fewer healthful eating options in majority-black places such as Prince George’s County.

Among Neil’s clients, white women “are self-conscious about the numbers. They say I want to weigh 110, 115, 120.” Black women, who always say they want to keep their curves, “give me sizes — 6, 8, 10, 12.”

“White women are not coming to a trainer saying I want to be a 12. Every white woman who wants to work out and train wants to be petite, petite, no curves, no hips, no butt, nothing, just toned,” he says.

In 2008, Heather Hausenblas, a University of Florida professor of exercise physiology, co-wrote a study looking at the role the media played in body image among white and black women. Both groups were exposed to the ideal tall, thin white woman’s physique, and their moods were compared before and after. White women felt badly about themselves after viewing the idealized physique; black women were unaffected.

Black women “are just not comparing themselves to these white models,” Hausenblas says. Caucasian women are internalizing the images; black women are not.

And it’s the internalizing that damages women’s self-esteem. Right after Adele won six Grammy awards, Vogue sparked an uproar by Photoshopping an image of the buxom British singer to make her appear thinner for the magazine’s March cover. It’s the kind of falsehood and manipulation that makes women and girls starve themselves, experts say.

New York-based writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis calls it the “one act of cultural violence that we didn’t endure” — the one way that black women “being ignored by the media and all things glamorous worked for us.”

Is that lack of pressure changing as young women — black and white — aspire to look like Tyra Banks, Halle Berry or Beyonce? Possibly. There is anecdotal evidence that the number of African Americans seeking treatment for long-hidden eating disorders is on the rise.

Meanwhile, for young black women, the hunger to be seen, to be part of the beauty conversation, has often meant accepting even demeaning portrayals, says Daphne Valerius, 30, who produced an award-winning documentary in 2007 called “Souls of Black Girls.”She points to the proliferation of images of gyrating, scantily clad black dancers and models in music videos, social media sites and elsewhere as particularly poisonous.

“I have cousins who are 13 and 14,” Valerius says. “That’s the image they are seeing of themselves in the media.”

Still, the range of what’s considered beautiful for African American women remains more elastic. Black women were excluded for so long, says Davis, “we got to judge ourselves.” And cultural supports sprang up to help.

There’s a lot going on, here. I mean, a lot.

To be honest, I’m a bit dumbfounded by the slant. I’m dumbfounded that we can look at studies that show overweight women of color view themselves better than thin white women, and think that the Black women are the anomaly. We don’t see it as peculiar that white women don’t think higher of themselves. We think there’s something wrong with fat women valuing themselves greater than society thinks they should. We think it’s okay for thin women, the ones usually rewarded and praised in society, to think so little of themselves. That doesn’t strike us as newsworthy or worthy of introspection.

In other words, if you’re fat and have the audacity to still think you’re worth something, society’s going to put you on a petri dish and nitpick you apart until you value yourself as little as they do. I mean, come on. You’re fat. Surely you can’t be all that.

That’s creepy to me. That’s also not where a healthy body image or a healthy journey stems from, either. Lots of people lose weight because they learned to hate their former selves, hate fat and, essentially, hate fat people. I don’t think longevity – in other words, maintenance of any weight loss that stems from that kind of hatred – can stem from that kind of place.

There are lots of misunderstandings – at least, from where I sit – about body image in this country. Even in my journey, I’ve struggled with the realities of going from one size to another, and the smaller I became, the more people tried to pile on to stop me. The more that I navigated spaces where non-Blacks were more prevalent, the more I was asked, “So… how much more do you have to lose?” As if to imply, “Clearly, you’re not finished losing weight, right?”

It’s hard for a Black woman who has to integrate these spaces to not feel some kind of judgment about her body, even if only implied. It is, conversely, very easy to write that judgment off as being merely cultural differences and go on about one’s merry way.

I feel like this article spurned a lot of different feelings in me, because so much of it is sooooo much more complicated than “Black women are fat but still feel good about themselves. What gives?” and I feel like this doesn’t do it any justice.

Our society has this weird way of implying that if you don’t look, behave or perform in a fashion that is pleasing to my eyes, you will be spotlighted, given the choice to comply, and either be welcomed back into the fold for complying or eternally ostracized for your non-compliance. Black women are constantly being called out for having bodies that are “unpleasing to the eye,” given the opportunity to change those bodies, and are then ostracized (read the comments of that article) for their non-compliance.

But then, something peculiar happens. Black women…are perfectly fine with that. Who wants to contribute to a society that tries to devalue them because their bodies won’t conform to someone else’s standards?

I support that.

Michelle Gibson, the woman who gave her story for the start of the article (and is, I assume, the woman in the photo standing tall and proud in her sports bra), mentions being overweight and still “would run circles around the average person.” I ain’t mad at her – I’ve talked repeatedly about one being able to be both “fit” and “fat” at the same time. I, also, am intrigued by her statement of, after trying Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem, that she “came to realize that she has to have some freedom to eat.” I don’t generally consider those companies “food” providers, so I honestly can’t call that “eating.” At 5’4″ and somewhere around 180lbs, and that active? I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that her comments left me wondering about her diet and what she calls “freedom to eat.”

Speaking of “freedom to eat,” it was great to see mention of the rise of African Americans receiving treatment for eating disorders. To me, it just underscored the reality that far too many of us are lacking the knowledge of how to make food work for us. On one end of the spectrum, we’re so eager for control that we’re trying to control an inanimate object like food but on the other end, using euphemisms like “I need freedom to eat” sounds more like letting food control you. (And no, that’s not to say that I think that’s what she’s doing, but the phrasing sounds annoyingly familiar.) We’re disconnected from our original understanding of food, and its affecting our ability to manage our bodies in safe and healthy fashions, regardless of whether that body is a size 6 or a 16.

I don’t know how to say this without it sounding much worse than it’s actually meant to be, but the reality of it all is that I can’t help but wonder if all of the Black women surveyed were being truthful about their levels of self-esteem… or if their understanding of self-esteem is the same as the surveyors’ understanding. Not to say that it is impossible for a Black woman who is overweight to have high self-esteem, and that be the end of it, but to say that I can’t see too many Black women being willing to admit, to a stranger, no less, that she has a lack of self esteem. It is socially acceptable for Black women to be virulently headstrong, suffer in silence and admit their shortcomings to no one. Could you imagine being surveyed about your weight, and being asked whether or not you had high self-esteem? Would you say you did, even if you didn’t, simply because you “know” that you’re not only a representation of yourself, but every other Black person – not just the women! – in America? Isn’t that the general understanding for Black women? That we put ourselves and our individual well being aside for the greater good, even if its against our best interests? The good ol’ Black Tax at work again.

Now that I think about it, the frustrating flaw in the survey – at least, to me – is that a woman should have low self-esteem simply because she is obese. The two shouldn’t be connected, and that’s not where healthy body image or a mentally healthy journey towards wellness springs from. You can love yourself and have high self-esteem without having the perfect body; but you can also love yourself, have high self-esteem and understand that there are some things that you want or need to change… and those things don’t make you “worth more” in the eyes of the person who matters most – yourself – because you were already worth all the Jacksons (Andrew or Michael… take your pick.) I don’t even think the interesting thing is the subjects of the survey, anymore. I’m more intrigued by the surveyors, now.

I can’t be the only person out here dumbfounded by this, can I? And don’t you worry – there’s far more that I found strange, but I’m not about that 2,500-word-article life… and I’m sure my readers aren’t, either. What do you think?

By | 2017-06-10T11:22:13+00:00 November 11th, 2014|The Op-Eds|28 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.


  1. Leshelle March 2, 2012 at 1:54 PM - Reply

    I haven’t read the original article, only what you put above, but the sentiments are very similar to a post that was taken down that said the black Women are the least attractive race. In that study, the highest percentage of black women felt they were more attractive than other races, compared to other races thinking the same.

    I do believe that the survey is combination of women who truly have high self esteem and women who say they have high self esteem. Speaking for myself, the period of times when my self esteem was the lowest had nothing to do with my weight. Being the thinnest I ever was didn’t make my self esteem go any higher either.

    I think its great that black women feel great about their bodies, but I also feel that it does keep black women from being as fit as possible. I remember a trainer at a gym I belong to who looked similar to the women in the post. Honestly she would be the last person I would ask to help me train. Yes you can be healthy and overweight, but if I’m at the gym, I want to be healthy and not overweight. If black women love their body when they are overweight they are less incline to change it. I originally lost weight because I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. If I was okay with that image I wouldn’t have bothered.

  2. Trace March 2, 2012 at 3:07 PM - Reply

    I think this article portrays us an interesting light. While I agree that we need to focus on being healthy I would argue that a healthy self-esteem is vital to surviving in a world where we are viewed as “less attractive” than woman of other races. I don’t know about you ladies but I have never had a problem maintaining a relationship regardless of my size. But then again I would never let a man’s opinion of me have any effect on how I view myself (unless he was confirming what I already know to be true and encouraging me in a positive way). I really feel that we are built differently than other races and should not focus on one “magic size or supermodel proportions” instead we should focus on being fit, eating healthy and maintaining balance. And if you choose to do it in bra top, hot pants or animal prints that is fine with me because a high self-esteem can be a motivating factor in achieving a healthier lifestyle. Stay fly lovelies!

  3. Tiffany March 2, 2012 at 4:28 PM - Reply

    Erika, I swear I don’t know how you do it, but somehow you manage to take all my jumbled thoughts and say them EXACTLY as I feel them and a hell of a lot better than I ever could. I read another blog that wrote about this article and basically it goes in on bashin black women for daring to have higher self-esteem based on their weight. But I know personally, having been in a 12 step program and in therapy and reading your blog that I an not the only black woman who suffers from an eating disorder, body image issues, and the like, so the high self-esteem issues always bothered me because I thought something was amiss about it. I am black woman, was raised by a black woman, and the majority of my friends are black women, we have self-esteem issues, some connected to our weight some not. I would not be surprised if many women lied in this survey or viewed self-esteem differently than the surveyors themselves.

    I’m just so damn tired of these surveys, blog posts, articles that attempt to address women and weight loss issues, but never get to the meat of the matter, which you speak about so eloquently on your blog. Thank you for being a voice for those of us who know and are trying to do better.

  4. Diandra March 3, 2012 at 7:09 AM - Reply

    And isn’t it weird that black women feeling good about themselves (or at least stating they do) despite their not TV/model-like weight is considered something worth examining? Honestly, I would have thought it applause-worthy for women to start by saying, “I think I am fabulous, and now I want to become more healthy on top!”

  5. GG March 3, 2012 at 12:57 PM - Reply

    I loved this response. I was hoping you would write about this. I’m also curious why all the articles about us these days.
    I wasn’t sure what you meant by this line “I can’t see too many Black women being willing to admit, to a stranger, no less, that she has a stranger.” <–was that last "stranger" supposed to be something else?

  6. charlese March 3, 2012 at 1:16 PM - Reply

    I agree, there is so much going on in that article it’s hard to know where to begin. I only wish that black women had the kind of self esteem the media likes to report on. If we did we would not suffer so much of what we suffer in such large numbers. People with high self esteem don’t normally tolerate so much abuse, do they? We wouldn’t be gluing other people’s hair to our heads keeping an entire industry afloat. And I don’t think anyone who feels good about themselves courts heart disease and diabetes when it’s within their power to do something about it. “I love me deeply and am grateful for the life God gave me… now let me check my blood sugar then we can head to Popeye’s…” Um, no.

  7. Truly March 3, 2012 at 7:39 PM - Reply

    This article seems to be pretty accurate to me. I’m a black woman and I used to have REALLY bad self-esteem issues about my weight, but it wasn’t from the media it was from a parent. I’ve NEVER spoken to a black woman who felt similarly about her body.

    In my experience there are a lot of black women (most I think) who don’t want to be overweight, but they sure as hell aren’t gonna put their love lives on hold or hate themselves or want to look like models, and they could never understand why I was that way.

    However, MOST white women have an obsession with weight that is even worse than mine, and society sees nothing wrong that. Most white women I know think Beyonce is fat, having curves is fat, or that being a size 8 is fat. That is where Michaela Angela Davis really gets it right. As low as my self esteem was, I still hadn’t internalized the media images. I admit I can still get hypnotized by thinspiration tumblers, but my personal idea of slim for me is more size 8-10 because I’m tall. I wouldn’t mind being smaller than that either, but I wouldn’t feel FAT at those sizes.

    I never felt like the images in magazines were remotely aimed at me, so they never bothered me or lingered in my mind as an ideal. By the time fashion magazines began using emaciated looking black girls, I was an adult.

    My neurosis with my weight has been crippling over the years, but the lack of media reinforcement is definitely an unseen blessing of being completely left out of the medias beauty standards. Also, it isn’t just black women who feel this way. Most Hispanic women don’t want to be size 0s either, and Asian women also seem to make their own rules for what they consider attractive, but their culture also tends toward valuing the petite rather than curvy women, but it’s not because of fashion magazines.

    • Caroline March 4, 2012 at 2:20 PM - Reply

      Love everyone’s comments! Very interesting article and analysis. I have put on a lot of weight (now wear a size 10 when I use to wear a size 4/6) and am killing myself to get it off – FAST. I notice a lot of my black girlfriends honestly don’t understand why the weight bothers me so much, but many of my white girlfriends do. Many of my sista friends say,”but you still look good” – which I seriously doubt since going from a size 4 to a size 10 means I put on THIRTY pounds. It’s not just aesthetics – I have also increased my risk of diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and heart attack. But they don’t seem to understand that and my sense of urgency to act quickly.

  8. Ms. Tracie G. :o) March 4, 2012 at 1:50 PM - Reply

    The black females (both women and girls) and self-esteem conversation has always been an interesting one to me, as for a long time I could never understand what the disconnect was between what researchers never could claim to find, and what I knew that myself and others like me were feeling all the time. The older I get, the more I begin to believe that our esteem issues have less to do with how we see ourselves, and way more to do with the emotional stress of accepting others lack of esteem for us. I mean, I will always love myself and love my body, for that is the nature of resilience against a society that has consistently tried to teach me to hate myself; that said though, it is that exact HATE that I believe fuels the bulk of our esteem issues. What I DON’T love–I mean, what literally has the power to depress me, if I let it–is the fact that regardless of what we do to myself in the way of makeup, weight loss, fake hair, fake eyes, etc., there are people in this world who have made the choice to not EVER love us the way we deserve, and who will consistently make the worst of assumptions about our character and personality, based SOLELY on their perceptions of our bodies. THAT’S what I think needs to start being studied; to date though, I don’t know if there’s even a construct name for it.

    • Ms. Tracie G. :o) March 4, 2012 at 1:53 PM - Reply

      Oh, and to add a little bit more onto what I was saying, that last bit is where I think our negative feelings come from; I mean, we can say all day that “I don’t need no man/no friends/no social support/ etc.”, but at the end f the day we are all human and humans, by nature, are social people, who thrive on being able to build community with others. That inability to genuinely connect with others based on their out-and-out wholesale rejection of us; the emotional effects of THAT are what I think is what really informs esteem for us, and should really be examined more closely.

  9. CurvyCEO March 4, 2012 at 2:36 PM - Reply

    I’m so glad you blogged about this! I was really dismayed by all the negative feedback in the comments section to this article (both on the Washington Post website and elsewhere on the internet). I was like, “Really? Why does MY high self-esteem bother YOU so much?” I do admit that I shared your question of whether the respondents were inflating their answers . . . it’s difficult for anyone to admit a low level of self-esteem to anyone . . . especially strangers. But black women, in particular, I think are socially conditioned to show NO signs of weakness – so it could be that the levels aren’t truthfully as high as reported. But, as you say, your body size should not be directly linked to your self-esteem . . . you are more than your dress size! Yes, I am obese. But you know what? I’m also smart, loving, funny, loyal and a host of other wonderful attributes. So, why shouldn’t I have high self-esteem?

  10. Melinda March 4, 2012 at 4:02 PM - Reply

    Whew! You’re right. There is so much going on here. My thoughts were all over the place. It is admirable that women (of whatever shape, size, age, color, etc.) have high self-esteem! This is what we want of all our girls and women. Every person on the planet should feel precious and valued simply due to the fact of their human existence. But, as you mentioned, one can have a healthy image of themselves and STILL see things they want to improve.

    What we do, how we move our bodies, what we consume, what we put on top of our heads & on our skin, what we say & think about our bodies matters. Period. Let no one stick their heads in the sand pretending otherwise. We should all stand up for safer/healthier foods, cleaner eating, healthier hair, safer products, and an active lifestyle.

    When the number of black people being diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease, etc. starts going down significantly, then we can say that it’s all good, we’re headed in the right direction. BUT, while black women still rank so high in diagnosis of obesity related illnesses, it’s hard to give hearty support for maintaining a weight that is significantly above the high end of most medically defined “acceptable” weight ranges.

    Physical health and weight cannot be addressed as a singular issue. Mental and emotional issues impact every area of a woman’s life. Just trying to be fit or trying to physically “fit in” is not enough. Our goal should be to recognize our innate goodness and wholeness…and to make improvements and adjustments according to what best serves our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit.

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