Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: How Do You Keep The “Fat Black Girl” Media Message From Getting To You?

Q&A Wednesday: How Do You Keep The “Fat Black Girl” Media Message From Getting To You?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: I feel like every time I read the health section of any major news source there is a new article about how black women are in poor health. There are boundless statistics about obesity rates, cancer rates, diabetes rates etc. While the popular articles certainly stretch the truth found in the original medical research, I am not going to deny that there is truth in all of these figures. Yes, as a population, we do have disproportionately high rates of a multitude of health issues. However, do you ever feel like you separate yourself from these figures?

According to BMI charts I am one of the 4 out 5 black women who are overweight or obese in the United States [I know BMI charts are flawed and do not take into account muscle mass, but since they are considered the metric of choice in the medical world, I will use them as well]. I am one of the women contributing to the epidemic and “costing” the nation billions of dollars in medical costs. When I read these figures, I often feel a sense of guilt that I am part of the number. I am physically “fit” by most standards. I ran a half marathon recently, I go to the gym 4-5 times a week, and my blood pressure and other vitals are in check. Why do I still feel a sense of guilt that I am part of that figure? If I lose the last 10 lbs and become the 1 out of 5 who are not overweight/obese, will I have finally arrived?

After yesterday’s news came out, I felt like answering this question was appropriate for today. I may even break Q&A Wednesday tradition and respond to that post on today.

Listen. And listen carefully.

Sometimes, you have to just give a clean, cold, freshly-manicured mental middle finger to messages that don’t reinforce the good within you.

It’s the same message delivered to women who have children out of wedlock, the same message delivered to single parents (yes, you divorcees, widows and the like are all lumped into this bunch, too!), the same message delivered to fat people. You’re a problem, you’re flawed, and I really wish you’d stop bothering me with your presence until you’ve “married your baby daddy”/”invited me to your wedding”/”lost some freaking weight, already… unless you’re going on the Biggest Loser, in which case I’d love to watch you torture yourself to lose that weight.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I’ve separated myself from these figures; I’ve just always felt like there’s an agenda out there that is hyperfocused on making everything about me “a problem.” Before I was engaged, before everyone knew there was a man in my life willing to commit to me and my child long-term, I had to endure all the people beating me over the head with statistics about single parents and how my out-of-wedlock child was going to be the downfall of the entire race. Before I lost weight, I had to endure all the messages about how my being “as big as a house” was going to result in me being a bum, living under an overpass, with a pet rat named “Luchini.” (Sorry, Camp Lo.)

I mean, in a way, this is how society self-regulates, yes? Society determines what is acceptable, and is pretty protective of its standards. If you have a trait that is deemed undesirable, society regulates you – shames you into compliance, relishes in watching you struggle to comply, then pats you on the back for “falling in line.” The “falling in line” part is important, though – now that you, after all your struggling, have complied, you then become another foot soldier in showing other people that they, too, can do it. They, too, can do what you did, “fall in line” and receive all the benefits that come with compliance. Also, chances are high that because you struggled and sacrificed to receive those benefits, you’re that much more adamant about defending those standards.

Take weight, for example. You’re fat. Society shames you for it. Watches weight loss porn to watch you struggle with losing the weight, so that you can absolve yourself of the shame… and enjoys it. Then, after you’ve lost the weight and started receiving the benefits that come from being thinner, not only are you personally invested in defending “thinness” as being ideal, but now you’re also that much more likely to become a person who shames those for not doing what you’ve done.

The same happens with Black women’s hair. Heaven forbid you not fit the long, thick, bouncy, straight stereotype. (There’s weave for that, you know… just shave your hairline back and glue one of those permanent ones on!) The same happens with single parenthood. The same happens with wanting to be athletic and have a more muscular build. All of these are things that I’ve experienced… and I just learned early that most people, quite frankly, don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

It’s one thing to know that you’re not physically fit, can’t run to save yourself in the zombie invasion, can’t lift yourself up from a crater in the Earth if you accidentally fell into one, have no physical strength, high blood pressure, pre-diabetic or are type 2 diabetic. If you know that, then feel like you need to address those concerns for you. Not so that you can offload the shame and guilt the media insists upon forcing down your throat.


If you already know that they don’t know what they’re talking about because they’re going by BMI, and you already know you’re physically active, with a clean chart and healthy bloodwork, and only 10lbs away from being what a stupid chart says is your “ideal” weight, then why the hell would you let media messaging influence how you feel about yourself? Why care so much? And that’s not meant to mock you, it’s meant to challenge you – why care so much about the thoughts and feelings of people who don’t know you from Annie, and don’t care if you’re OK?

The bottom line, really, is that neither shame nor positive reinforcement should come from outside sources. You don’t let the media make you feel bad about yourself for being “different,” and you don’t let it make you feel good about yourself for being what society wants. Continue to strive for what you define to be excellence, always be on the lookout for healthy and sane ways to grow, and use that knowledge as markers for when you’re stagnant. It shouldn’t matter to you if your last ten pounds would mean you’ve arrived; at that point, your own opinion of you would matter far more than a bunch of strangers who are trying to decide your worth by looking at you.

Like I said earlier. Sometimes, it’s perfectly okay to give a freshly-lotioned, well-manicured mental middle finger to the media. And any time that media imagery starts to make you feel any guilt or shame about being who you are, might just be a perfectly good time. Like now.

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Charey December 19, 2012 - 11:58 AM

It’s sooooo hard though. I’ve come to realize I’m not as strong-minded as I could be. It’s similar to my weight-loss journey of being on track for 2 months then backsliding for two weeks, repeat cycle. I start to genuinely feel good about myself and my progress then I see something in the media or a stranger makes a comment and all confidence flies out of the window. Sigh. I will continue to fight the good fight. I’m a work-in-progress inside and out.

Anna December 19, 2012 - 12:30 PM

I can’t relate to the black woman part but I can tell you as a white woman I have a hard time with this too.

I didn’t even know what my body should look like after losing weight. And my stretch marks from having 4 kids….and my body fat percentage is still high at 30% and I struggle to accept myself the way I am…much fitter, healthier and much better mental health. I’ve decreased my antidepressant to a very low dose and was able to cut out my anti anxiety medication.

And yet my body type is not the thin waif like white woman in ads and I have to learn that I’m beautiful with my wide hips, large shoulders and thighs. And that my stomach has loose skin and lots of stretch marks.

Karm December 19, 2012 - 1:55 PM

Absolutely, Lovely Post. As we make these commitments to living a healthy lifestyle, there will be those times when we mess up, and fall into old pattern….and in the early days, I was good for beating myself up about it; but it’s a process, and as long as we remember that, its easier to stay committed to health, despite the so-called mistake. All that said- we gotta get to that mindset that says ‘ iCan’t…be bothered with anyone who wants me to feel worse for any issue(s) I’m already working on….’

OAN- Erika: Really don’t want THAT kind of Luchini falling from the sky….

Erika Nicole Kendall December 19, 2012 - 5:19 PM

But this is it, what? This is it, what?

seejanesweat December 19, 2012 - 2:53 PM

Great article Erica. I agree. Sometimes you do have to give the media a mental middle finger. I’m a size 4 and I workout 7 days a week. I watch what I eat 99 % of the time and according to the media, I have eating disability. You see, if you are overwieght then you have a problem. If you are a fitness fanatic, you have a problem. My co-workers often tease me because I say no thanks to the cookies, cakes and donuts that make their way to our office. They tease because I make working out a priority and cause I east 6 small meals a day. Also as a once single mother of three, I know what it’s like to be surrounded by these married folks who think they are better than me. But here’s what. I write them as well as the media off because their opinion of me is none of my business. for your reader, you have to do what’s best for you. no oe but you know your struggle. no one but you will have to walk your walk. You get stronger, healthier, better for you. And by the way, being skinny does not equate to being healthy.

BAnjeeB December 19, 2012 - 6:05 PM

Well stated Ericka. It’s hard to keep taking the blows that are delivered from all sides no matter what you do. I just remind myself that no, I’m not where I want to be physically, but I’m healthy. I also tell myself that everyone is working on something, it’s jus that some of us are easier targets.

And I really can’t wait for your response to that study, because I looked at their sample size and gave it a great big side-eye.

Lorrie December 19, 2012 - 6:26 PM

Very well done Erika. This is a great piece.

JoAnna February 27, 2013 - 4:40 AM

A very timely article for me. I’m training to walk/run my 1st 5k in May and trading dance/voice lessons with a pro dancer to start our own burlesque-esque act. Being plus-sized and black, I was told so many times that I couldn’t do burlesque despite the rhythmically challenge sloppy big white gals I’d see onstage. Then I was told it was one step removed from stripping and only low-class people involve themselves in it. Well maybe so, but it’s fun and I love the self-confidence exuded by the performers. It takes guts to get on a stage in lingerie, prance around, tease off your clothes down to pasties and panties, and demand applause. So it’s ok for white women of any size to do this but demeaning and ugly for large black women to do the same thing?!?

All I want to do is develop and perform 3-4 acts (comedy and dance), wearing some gorgeous makeup and corseted lingerie/costumes, and get paid and asked back for more. It’s FUN, not a social-political statement. Losing weight, getting toned, and looking like a gorgeous pin up just happen to be a side benefit. Not sure folk why wanna get this twisted.

antalya September 4, 2013 - 3:54 PM

In ur country media ix da only issue… Bt in mine its a whole different story being fat and having wheatish or brownish or dark complexions is frowned upon… Girls go to great lengths to be stick skinny…. N get all sorts of skin treatments to get a fair skin….

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