The NYTimes Offers Reasons “Why Black Women Are Fat”

The NYTimes Offers Reasons “Why Black Women Are Fat”

…for crying out loud… good grief.

I had lots of thoughts about this op-ed, simply because I struggle with the reality that so much of women’s body issues are tied up in dating and mating, not their own health. I’m not downing those who have made that decision – that’s not my place – I just wonder if those women truly wind up getting what they originally wanted in the end.

I’ll explain that later. For now, on to the article.

I had to chop this up into bits and pieces. It’s so hard to read, that every time I go to paste a new paragraph, I feel like sticking my virtual finger out and saying “B-b-but…” because it misses so much of the point.

Maybe I’ve been writing about this stuff for too long.

At any rate… the article starts out with a photo of Josephine Baker, with the caption “Josephine Baker embodied a curvier form of the ideal Black woman.” This highlights a huge problem with a lot of Black women as it is, today: we don’t understand sizes, our bodies or “curvy” because “curvy,” like “thick,” has been misappropriated so many times that it no longer has any meaningful definition.

“Curvy” simply means that you have curves. Josephine Baker – and, by correlation, Marilyn Monroe – does not have the same kind of curves that many Black women (hell, women period) refer to when the say “curves” today. Josephine’s waist isn’t any larger than a 28; her hips, no larger than 40 inches. Not by a long shot. She might be curvy, but she was small. Petite women and smaller women are also afforded the ability to be curvy. Maybe if we embraced and accepted that idea, we’d stop clinging to the notion that “curves” can only accompany a larger frame. It simply isn’t true, and I’m annoyed by the author’s attempt to use Baker’s photo to imply such.

FOUR out of five black women are seriously overweight. One out of four middle-aged black women has diabetes. With $174 billion a year spent on diabetes-related illness in America and obesity quickly overtaking smoking as a cause of cancer deaths, it is past time to try something new.

Surely, we don’t believe that all $174 billion of that is spent on the Black community, right? I mean, we’re what – 13% of the population? With approximately 60% of the entire Black population suffering from at least being overweight, we’re maybe 7% of the entire population. Do we really think $174 billion is being spent on us?

All I’m sayin’ is that this isn’t a necessary guilt trip. We know the numbers are bad. But taking it to this comparison… there’s a reason it hasn’t been done before.

What we need is a body-culture revolution in black America. Why? Because too many experts who are involved in the discussion of obesity don’t understand something crucial about black women and fat: many black women are fat because we want to be.

The black poet Lucille Clifton’s 1987 poem “Homage to My Hips” begins with the boast, “These hips are big hips.” She establishes big black hips as something a woman would want to have and a man would desire. She wasn’t the first or the only one to reflect this community knowledge. Twenty years before, in 1967, Joe Tex, a black Texan, dominated the radio airwaves across black America with a song he wrote and recorded, “Skinny Legs and All.” One of his lines haunts me to this day: “some man, somewhere who’ll take you baby, skinny legs and all.” For me, it still seems almost an impossibility.

So…are we “fat” because we want to be, or because “our men” want us to be? Wait…there’s more:

How many white girls in the ’60s grew up praying for fat thighs? I know I did. I asked God to give me big thighs like my dancing teacher, Diane. There was no way I wanted to look like Twiggy, the white model whose boy-like build was the dream of white girls. Not with Joe Tex ringing in my ears.

How many middle-aged white women fear their husbands will find them less attractive if their weight drops to less than 200 pounds? I have yet to meet one.

But I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight. My lawyer husband is one.

Another friend, a woman of color who is a tenured professor, told me that her husband, also a tenured professor and of color, begged her not to lose “the sugar down below” when she embarked on a weight-loss program.

A dancing teacher doesn’t have “fat” thighs, she has muscular ones. You don’t have to pray for them… you have to work for them.

How many men legitimately know what 200lbs looks like on a woman? If your husband is weighing you every morning and buying you super sized burgers and fries every time you hit 201lbs, your husband might be creepy. Regardless of how handsome, “sane,” tenured and successful he is, he is not excluded from being a scumbag.

Unless you are upwards of 5’9″, you’re going to experience problems due to your weight and the means by which you’re keeping it on, provided that it’s mostly fat. And if you aren’t experiencing them now, you may look forward to them in the future. The fact that a husband, who is supposed to want you around long enough and healthy enough for you both to live together forever, doesn’t know that and holds his wife to such a silly standard (Does he want her literally above 200lbs, or does he simply want her to maintain a curvy figure? Must her curvy figure be a 43-35-50, or would a 38-26-40 suffice?) even if it risks her health…. he’s a creeper. If your husband has the audacity to hinge the health of your marriage on you remaining a way that results in your jeopardizing your health, he’s a creeper… and you might wanna change the beneficiary on your policies. Sorry.

And really… “the sugar down below?” The food you eat might affect how “sweet” your “sugar” is, but unless his “stuff” is the size of a tree trunk, he’s not going to notice anything sexually that can’t be fixed with – yep, you guessed it, a little hard work. Emphasis on “hard.” Emphasis on “work.” Separately… and together.

…but I digress.

To get a quick introduction to the politics of black fat, I recommend Andrea Elizabeth Shaw’s provocative book “The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies.” Ms. Shaw argues that the fat black woman’s body “functions as a site of resistance to both gendered and racialized oppression.” By contextualizing fatness within the African diaspora, she invites us to notice that the fat black woman can be a rounded opposite of the fit black slave, that the fatness of black women has often functioned as both explicit political statement and active political resistance.

Now, I actually ordered this book and, with any luck, will have it by Thursday. It’s a short read, but I don’t want to disparage a thesis I haven’t even read yet. However… this feels tone deaf to me. If a “fat Black woman” is supposed to serve as a political statement against the idea of the “fit Black slave,” where does that leave “fat Black men?” It’s far more likely to me, at this point, that the invisibility of Blacks to predominately-white marketing teams contributed to the fact that Black women don’t get the “message” to hyperextend themselves in the quest to be thin. Not that we passed down this idea that Black women “need to be fat to protest against the idea that we should simply be workhorses,” because if that were the case, then we would’ve stopped being nannies, midwives, or even…ahem…portraying them on film.

I’m still gonna read the book, though.

I live in Nashville. There is an ongoing rivalry between Nashville and Memphis. In black Nashville, we like to think of ourselves as the squeaky-clean brown town best known for our colleges and churches. In contrast, black Memphis is known for its music and bars and churches. We often tease the city up the road by saying that in Nashville we have a church on every corner and in Memphis they have a church and a liquor store on every corner. Only now the saying goes, there’s a church, a liquor store and a dialysis center on every corner in black Memphis.

…which is no different from Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas or any other state that’s a part of the bible belt. Overlay a map of The Bible Belt…

…with a map of obesity rates…

…with a map of where Blacks are living in the US…

…and then overlay that with a map of poverty in the United States.

If you wanted to refute your own point about Black women being fat “because we want to be,” this was a great way to start.

The rest of the essay was all over the place – apparently, according to Mrs. Randall, fat Black women are the reason the $1 trillion will go towards obesity-related illness (not, say, poor prioritizing on behalf of the government… because we sure can find trillions of dollars when it comes to the defense budget or, say, our politicians’ own inflated salaries and benefits), “sliced cucumbers, salsa, spinach and scrambled egg whites with onions” is a great “go-to family dinner” worthy of mentioning in her essay, and mentioning the “six” almonds she eats with her greek yogurt was also important – but a few things stand out for me.

For starters, as the wife of a lawyer and a “writer in residence” at Vanderbilt,I can tell you that she has access to far more money than most Blacks in America. Why? Because approximately 50% of all Black wage earners are making less than $25,000. In fact? The number of individual Blacks making more than $50k? I can’t even remember the number, but I’m almost certain it’s not high enough (edited to reflect). (And before you rattle off all the affluent and upwardly mobile Blacks you know, also think about how small those circles are and how there are still well over 32 million self-identified Blacks in America. There’s a reason you wind up seeing the same folks at the same events.) The fact that she has that money is a large part of why real, legitimate issues like “lack of fresh produce” or “affordability” or “the time it takes to learn about cooking and actually cook” don’t make an appearance in her op-ed. This is the contingent that merely worries about their husbands leaving them, should they lose their collective booty (or, maybe not, because if he hasn’t left her over that “go-to dinner,” then…I’own know. He might love her more than she thinks.)

Secondly, can we briefly discuss the fact that there’s no legitimate information in this essay that we didn’t already know? Those of us who have the free time to commit to reading the NYTimes already know the dire straits the community is in when it comes to health, but was it supposed to be some epiphany that she chose to correlate “lack of education funding” to “fat Black women” (not, mind you, health concerns in the Black community, even though dialysis centers were mentioned)? Because we legitimately think that if the government was surprised with a windfall as a byproduct of the success of the “no fat Black chicks” campaign, it’d spend it all on education? Chile, please.

I also don’t know how to reconcile this idea that “our men want us fat” with the conversation we had a couple of weeks ago, discussing the fact that losing weight actually opens up your opportunities in dating, and women’s pursuit of such. It sounds much more like men trying to protect themselves from having to compete with other men for a woman’s affection…and for that to spill over into a marriage, where [ostensibly] you’re there ’til death do you part? It’s creepy.

And, lastly. I know, I know, I get it. We’re unique. We’re special. We’re Black. We’re different. But there’s not a single damn reason that applies to us that doesn’t apply to the rest of America, either. Everyone is affected by lack of knowledge. Everyone is affected by the lack of access to fresh produce and healthy meat. Everyone was bitten by the processed food bug and, although poverty disproportionately affects Blacks, everyone is affected by issues of time and affordability. Singling us out and then applying foolish reasons that sound more like Sheena Easton songs than legitimate husbandly concerns winds up harming us all, leaving those of us with legitimate concerns rendered invisible, and severely discredits those of us who simply don’t know better. It makes us look like the “burdens on the system” we’ve always been painted out to be, and plays right into the hands and mentalities of those who think we are lazy, shiftless, and foolish. Stop trying to separate us from the rest of society, and for goodness sakes, stop blaming Black men for our weight… because, truth be told, they’re just as overweight as we are.

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By | 2012-05-15T13:43:14+00:00 May 7th, 2012|The Op-Eds|58 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. Tamara May 7, 2012 at 12:29 PM - Reply

    As soon as I saw the photo of Baker I was about done. By the time I finished the article I could have given myself whiplash with all the shaking of head.

    It’s one of those moments were if you squint, you can see the point she was aiming for.. but then you realize just how far off the mark (any mark, really) she was.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall May 7, 2012 at 12:32 PM - Reply

      My question to her is… If Josephine Baker has the curves you desire… do you think she weighs 200lbs?

      • Judi July 16, 2012 at 12:20 PM - Reply

        Yes! Oh, my gosh. Josephine Baker looks FABULOUS! To correlate her size and build with the level of obesity that exists among women in our community today is ludicrous! Why do we keep rationalizing black obesity?

  2. Jame May 7, 2012 at 12:38 PM - Reply

    Thanks for this reply. I was really puzzled when I read this article. It was really clear, she didn’t 100% get it. Or even comment that this rise in obesity is a pretty recent thing (that coincided with the switch to all of the processed foods and moving away from the homegrown foods many of our parents grew up with…..)

  3. Tasha May 7, 2012 at 1:09 PM - Reply

    Thank you Thank you! Forget that crazy article, THE MAPS!!!! That was unbelievable! I would also like to see the dialysis, diabetes and heart disease maps to see who those numbers line up!

  4. Monique May 7, 2012 at 1:15 PM - Reply

    I read this drivel and I have no words. It’s the same ole, same ole. Blacks are to blame for everything, the housing crash, health care crisis and the crucifixion of Jesus…and I’m not a “religious” person but damn, some folks need to get a life. She should worry about her husband and her almonds and leave the rest of us out of her pathology.

  5. Anna-Teres May 7, 2012 at 1:59 PM - Reply

    Do you think they meant that 174 billion was spend on medical expenses in connection with illness due to obesity? Also wanted to say that I truly enjoy your blog and thank you for being a woman that dare to speak, ask and have opinions. Keep doing what you are doing.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall May 7, 2012 at 2:06 PM - Reply

      I do – I’d have to question the logic behind bringing it up in the first place in an article railing against Black women for being overweight, if that wasn’t the implication, you know what I mean?

      It’s like…Black women are no more than 7-8% of the population…surely, you don’t think we’re the problem when it comes to the US Budget, right? Right? LOL

  6. Rudie May 7, 2012 at 2:54 PM - Reply

    Sweet. Baby. Jesus. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but perhaps having and educated, health-minded, non-stereotypical black woman at the right hand of the POTUS has made black woman bashing exceptionally popular in the last few years (including the “scientific publication” about black women being less attractive). I think the following statement sums up much of how I felt about the article : “It makes us look like the “burdens on the system” we’ve always been painted out to be, and plays right into the hands and mentalities of those who think we are lazy, shiftless, and foolish. Stop trying to separate us from the rest of society…”.

  7. Dr. Goddess May 7, 2012 at 3:22 PM - Reply

    Erika, a long time ago, after you terrorized me for some horrendous diet rule I’d broken (and admitted to) on Twitter, you wrote “it’s what I do *files nails*” LOL!!! Well, you did the damn thang on this article. I LOVE The Maps because I love for folks to be duly informed. Alice Randall is a wonderful satirist but I am so disappointed in her article and so glad you responded so well, I feel my work here is done. *files nails*

  8. Marva Nelson May 7, 2012 at 3:49 PM - Reply

    I’m with you. The sister was all over the map with her op-ed, and that’s just what it is: an opinion of one black female which, hopefully, will not be taken as the gospel.

    She should read Ernst Mayr’s “The Biology of Race and the Concept of Equality”. Mayr’s thesis discusses how geographical location created evolutionary adaptations, some of which may explain why women of African descent tend to have broader hips.

    Also, a Yale study conducted about 12 years or so ago, discovered that women who were under a lot of stress tended to store more abdominal fat. That would definitely be black women, especially those, but not exclusively those living in the South! I fall into that category, and I’m willing to bet a ton of us do, having to deal with family, work, money, life issues on a much greater scale than a lot of other folks.

    Thanks for the response to the NYT op-ed piece. Ms. Randall is also author of “The Wind Done Gone”, a satirical re-write of “Gone with the Wind”; Yes, that “Gone with the Wind” of movie fame.


    • Xay May 7, 2012 at 6:54 PM - Reply

      That’s what I know her from! “The Wind Done Gine” was terrible!

  9. Quinnette May 7, 2012 at 4:42 PM - Reply

    I think weight is just the last thing anyone can try to hold on to, the issue is really “How DARE you be comfortable in that FAT skin of yours when the rest of America idolizes women that have body like boys!” My ultimate size would have me in a 14-16 and that is what I am striving for. I ran 12 miles a day in high school and still weighed 219. If adults around me focused on the fact I was built like Serena Williams as 12 instead of trying to have me trim down, I would be so much better off now. In my family all was good, but the crap my mother got to put me on diet from her wannabeskinny friends was ridiculous! I am obese (right now) and have normal vitals and I am certain I am using NONE of that reported millions on healthcare!

    • Capretha Jones May 7, 2012 at 6:46 PM - Reply

      Your response brought me back to the same place. Because the scales said one thing and my do for pushed at my parents soooo hard about me being obese, I too was subject to questions of why I couldn’t get passed 160lbs (even though I was a dancer/athlete) and was forced on so many diets and often deprived of food…..just to fit in that mold. Now that I have a choice….I often feel like my body is confused. Maxed out at 300lbs….I continue on this journey. Where is the $174 mil/bil to help people like me with no health insurance. And for the “almond eater” to dare say that I want this?…..almost makes me want to cry.

      • Quinnette May 7, 2012 at 9:33 PM - Reply

        The funny thing Capretha is any trainer or health care specialist whose area of expertise is in the realm of weight and are not trying to get money off you by selling you a pill will tell you that the goal set by the media and money maker doctors is not realistic. No one wants to talk about how our body compositions are different through breeding than when our ancestors originally came over through the middle passage. My friend said once when her trainer had her on some crazy deprivation diet “i just want to be normal”, to which I replied “my friend you are 5’11 and I am 5’10, I wear a 12 shoe and you wear an 11, no matter how much we lose, we..will..never…be normal.” All we can do is love ourselves and exercise and keep moving. I am striving for 230. I wish I knew what my bmi was back then, I am sure it was within healthy parameters, but science aren’t interested in cases like mine…Chin up!

  10. Armanthia Duncan May 7, 2012 at 5:03 PM - Reply

    Hello Erika,

    I was first introduced to this article yesterday by my partner. I am a PhD student in the Sociology department, and my research examines the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and obesity among African American females. Last semester, I took a race theory course that was outstanding, and the final paper I wrote for that class, and the title was: “Why are African American women obese?: Structural versus Cultural Explanations.” In this paper I attempted to debunk many of the very cultural explanations that this author posits. I loved the use of the maps. Relating obesity to poverty is so essential to this argument. Here is a small snippet of my paper:

    “As a result of these startling statistics there needs to be more research that focuses on examining the susceptibility of this demographic to the contraction of this condition. Despite the dearth of literature that focuses primarily on the susceptibility of this demographic, there is much literature that makes mention of black women and their complex relationship with food. However, it tends to focus more on individual level problems and not on larger societal issues. In this paper, I seek to examine literature that discusses both the cultural and structural problems that are affecting the susceptibility of African American women to the contraction of obesity. The paper is thus divided into two parts, first the structural part examines the multiple oppressions that black women are subjected to then the history of residential segregation and how this practice has resultantly affected the poor health outcomes for this group. The second part examines and critiques cultural arguments addressing why black females are possibly susceptible to obesity first examining the counter-hegemonic constructions of body aesthetics and then examining the history of the derogatory label of mammy and the strong black woman paradigm.”

    There needs to be more discussions that examines not the amount of money that one perceives is being spent on obese black women and consequential related illnesses, but I would argue the money being spent to keep us obese and ill (e.g. pharmaceutical companies, fast-food restaurants, junk food manufacturers, etc.). This is just my two cents. Love the blog, and I follow it daily, and have purchased a couple of the meal plans ;-). Keep fighting the good fight.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall May 7, 2012 at 5:10 PM - Reply

      I would LOVE to read that paper, if you’re up to sending it to me.

      And yes, thank you! You too! <3

    • Shelter May 8, 2012 at 11:12 AM - Reply

      I’d love to read the paper too. Can I look it up somewhere?

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