Home It's All Mental Black Women, Our Bodies & Perceptions of Beauty: On Self Esteem

Black Women, Our Bodies & Perceptions of Beauty: On Self Esteem

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Look at how they’ve got Khloe covered up by the text — poor girl is already touted as “the fat one,” what a way to perpetuate that “you shouldn’t be seen as much as the skinny one” meme. Sigh.

Self-esteem is defined as a confidence and satisfaction in oneself. A person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. If you were a stock on wall street, it’d literally be how much you think you should sell for.

If you listen to the national conversation about weight, one would presume that being overweight is a sin. It’s unsightly. It’s “offensive to the nation’s visual sensibilities.” The media regularly perpetuates this notion that if you don’t look anything like “X”, then there is something wrong with you. Never mind the fact that you may not look like “X” because you are simply a beautiful shade of “different.” All that matters is that you do not resemble “X,” and that this is a serious matter.

And we – innocent, unknowing, gullible, naive little us – we simply buy into it. Perhaps its too easy to go with the flow for many of us. Perhaps it takes too much time to challenge these ideas that tell us that we are “less than” because we don’t fit with an American cultural ideal. Perhaps this notion of being “less than” already fits in with perceptions we had of ourselves long before we recognized that the media agrees with us. The bottom line is.. “we” are told that we suck… and “we” agree.

As a woman who came of age around women who didn’t look much like me, I see how this affects everyone. I already wrote about how the young girls who didn’t need diet-anything were sucking down diet sodas for lunch. (Perhaps the corn syrup in the drink counted as a serving of vegetables? Just playing… maybe?) I remember my non-Black girlfriends getting relaxers to tame their curls so that it’d be easier to straighten their hair. I also remember those who refused to participate in the “race to be what they want us to be” being ostracized and mocked and shunned for their choice.

As a woman of color, I see how this affects women like me. We don’t see leading ladies with curly hair. Hell, we don’t even see leading ladies with their own hair anymore. (And please don’t take this as an insult toward individual choice.. it’s a direct critique of the images we see in the media.. not the people we see every day.) Black radio shows are full of advertisements selling weight loss pills, smoothies, shakes, and [insert random quick fix here]. We, as women of color, are often told everything is wrong with us.

It’s rare that you hear a conversation about why, though. Why are we told by the media that something is wrong with us? Why are we always told that we need to lose “that last five pounds?” Why is it so unappealing for people with heritage that doesn’t look like the mainstream image of “ideal” to be different?

Diet, diet, diet…. womp.

If self esteem is the perceived level of satisfaction in oneself, and you have imagery around you every day telling you exactly how “less than” you truly are… how hard is it going to be to develop a healthy sense of self? A healthy understanding of your worth?

The question I truly have, is why is so much of our self-esteem – essentially, our estimation of our worth – wrapped up in our appearance? Are we as a nation so superficial that we estimate a person’s worth by their appearance? Are we knowingly accepting a mentality that causes us to think less of ourselves and value ourselves even less? Because, let’s keep it real: if two thirds of this country is overweight, we don’t look like the girls who’ve got the magazine covers selling like hotcakes, do we? The value we place on them, inadvertently causes us to change the value we place on ourselves. How often do we look at an Us Weekly cover and say “Man, if only I could lose another 10lbs,” only to see a Women’s World magazine right next to it that says “Lose 10lbs in 10 days!” and thank our lucky stars?

Plain and simple, because if you didn’t believe something was wrong with you, no one could make money off of fixing you. As women of color, the message is often that everything is wrong with us because we are so different. We can’t get right for going left. We look differently. Our hair is different. Our facial features are different. We created magazines that would highlight what we were doing because we were shown our lives weren’t worth space in contemporary pop magazines. And as we scrambled to be like everyone else… we lost ourselves and lost sight of the things that truly matter.

Normally, I wouldn’t care about any of this. It’s capitalist principle – if you allow yourself open to be taken advantage of, then please believe there’s someone out there willing to do it. However, the conversation that tells people that they are less than and that they “must be skinny” has created an attitude that completely ignores health. In a country full of “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “low-carb” everything… in a country so obsessed with food bearing health labels, we are still two-thirds overweight. The irony of it all? No one’s doing any of this to be healthy. People do it to chase that “skinny dragon.” The perceived “healthy benefits” are just a “plus.”

When I was well over 300lbs, I didn’t gauge my worth by how “pretty” I was or by how much I looked like the current cover girl. Like I said before, “I didn’t need to be skinny to be a person of value to my community, my country, or my world. I mean, for crying out loud – skinniness isn’t what makes a person phenomenal! I don’t need to be skinny to be dynamic! I don’t need skinny to rock your world! Being skinny isn’t what makes a chick bangin’! I can do ALL of that without being a single-digit size.” I had the first part of self-esteem down pat – I understood what it did not consist of, but I failed to fully understand what I did include.

Now that I’ve lost most of that weight, my definition of self-esteem is a little more honed in. It sounds more like the stocks and bonds version. (What can I say? I’m a businesswoman.) I treat myself like a business that I want to see flourish. I invest heavily in me – without guilt – because I know the return on my investment is a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life. When I invest in my body, I know that only good can come of my investment, and it makes my stock more valuable. Why? Because when I invest in taking care of me, I am that much more capable of properly caring for those who depend on me. It’s as simple as that.

This may seem like a thinly veiled attempt to tell you to begin giving the media the middle finger (it is), but it’s not (it is.) It’s a simple suggestion to truly think about how we allow the outside world to influence our inside emotions, and how we allow the media to truly influence how we see ourselves. Especially as a woman of color, I’m beyond aware of the fact that the media hardly ever sees me, so why on Earth would I allow them to make me feel less than? I’m cool on that. I base my self-esteem on what I contribute to the people around me, and my investment in myself as a person worthy of love and care, and that’s all right with me.

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26 comments

Raydiance July 30, 2010 - 1:05 PM

I really love your blog. It is always insightful and well-written. I have a girls group at my school (I teach H.S.) that deals with this very issue of beauty and self-esteem. I started it because I have dealt with self-esteem issues all of my life, many of which stem from weight and appearance. I can honestly say now that my self-esteem is intact, but it took so much work and soul searching to get there. It took being uncomfortable and looking at the parts of myself that I considered ugly and embracing them. Unfortunately, this is not a skill that is often taught in the home or in school. Fortunately, we have programs that can help…but people need to have the desire to work hard at deflecting these images. There is always an outsider in every society, and there will always be a group that is not considered beauty because they do not fit a one dimensional standard. We have a choice as to how we respond to that standard. Jessica Simpson’s show “The Price of Beauty” really broke that down.

Tonya NewNaturalista August 1, 2010 - 11:15 PM

I found your site on the Black Weblog Awards nomination page, and I’m glad I did. What an inspirational blog! As a black woman who is “always on a diet” I find you inspiring. Thanks!

Jaclyn August 2, 2010 - 7:21 PM

I love this post. You said, quite eloquently, what I think a lot of women (women of all races and heritages) constantly have on the tips of our tongues and can’t quite find the words. My favorite part:

“It’s rare that you hear a conversation about why, though. Why are we told by the media that something is wrong with us? Why are we always told that we need to lose “that last five pounds?”

Touché and brava!

Arianne November 30, 2010 - 4:55 PM

You are right “Skinniness” does not make a person phenomenal. I have been “skinny”(Oh, how I hate that word)my entire life, and not just skinny, I am supposedly tooo skinny. I was not considered phenomenal.This assessment did not come from any magazine but from my community, my family, my friends the people that matter most to me. The people who supposedly know and love me.It is amazing how some think that because being skinny is the considered the norm (not in the black community)or the accepted state of being it is o.k. to proclaim for all to hear that I AM SKINNY! That I am less than, literally. Don’t get it twisted, this proclamation is never made with a smile so that maybe it can perceived as a compliment but always with a sneer or snicker and followed with weight gaining tips or a comment as to what men want. Tell me, what exactly is the correct response to this statement? I honestly didn’t realize how much this still affected me until I was standing in the grocery aisle and ran into an old high school classmate that stated quite naturally, “You are still skinny huh, and now you have skinny kids too,” as she looks at my perfect 11 year old.” How do I respond without disrespecting her as I feel disrespected. As I look down at my beautiful, caramel athetically built child who has yet to grow into herself and count to 10. How dare she, how dare anyone. I can’t say to anyone that is overweight, “Oh my, I thought you would have grown out of that baby fat from high school and now you’ve had little chubby babies too.” It is so acceptable to comment on my weight, because of this I have had issues my entire life. It hurts.

Zee July 11, 2011 - 11:31 PM

@Arianne, I think one way to respond to situations like this is to put the person on the spot by shifting attention from you to what they’re saying or to how they’re saying it. Ask them “Why would you say such an offensive thing?” or “Why are you being rude?” Don’t say it in an angry tone. Say it as if you are honestly perplexed as to why somebody would do such a strange thing. If the words are not offensive, but the tone is, ask them why they are adopting such a negative tone. Again, do it in a neutral voice. The important thing is to show your daughter that the woman’s words/ tone are inappropriate. Whatever happens next, do not let it accelerate into an argument. Feel free to end the conversation, say goodbye (politely) and go on with your business.

Afterward, when you’re alone, talk to your daughter and explain to her why you felt the comment by the other woman was offensive, or her tone negative.

Monica October 31, 2012 - 11:59 AM

I cannot even tell you the response to give to this but I have always been slim. I have gotten the same treatment. Some of the meanest things have been said to me but I have learned how to take those insults and build it into something positive we can’t internalize someone else’s in insecurities.

Janine January 3, 2013 - 5:17 PM

You could always do a little conversational jujitsu- smile wide, look right in their eyes, and say, ‘Thank you!’ Just as it is not their business to comment on your body, it is not your business to fall prey to their negative perception of you. Own your natural beauty!

Lacelioness April 2, 2011 - 7:42 AM

Thank you for speaking on this. Women of color are doubly bombarded with negative messages about our appearance. Like it or not, women generally are judged on the way we look first and foremost. We all want positive affirmation and we have to teach ourselves how to provide it for ourselves first. If we look to the outside world, we will never measure up & we’ll turn to food to make us feel a momentary and false comfort.

Lynaya May 9, 2011 - 8:50 PM

I totally agree with this article and I’d like to add, I’m turned off by the media’s sudden interest in “curves” on white women…..when Black women have had those curves since curves were. I’m not hating (personally, I think both Kardashians on the cover look great) just saying, why not also celebrate the curves of Black women? O wait, that’s right, we can NEVER be good enough in the media’s eyes. Le sigh.

Tina February 24, 2012 - 5:21 PM

The reason why curves on a white women are more appreciated than on black women in America (this is only a U.S. phenomenon) is because black american women have ruined their brand and society doesn’t value what is associated with them. You either add value to your image and reputation or you decrease value. Black women in the U.S. are damaged goods and not sellable for anything. Sorry ladies it’s the truth which is why I’ve decided to leave this country for a new start to rebuild. That’s the only option for us.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 25, 2012 - 9:38 AM

Ohhh, not to worry. I’ve got something JUST for you, Tina.

thequietvoice March 31, 2012 - 1:37 PM

LOL

TonI August 14, 2012 - 8:43 PM

This ws a very goos well written article.
@Erika… Lol
@Tina… You would like a blk woman to feel their damage goods..sorry thats no so….and if you are a blk woman…. You shouldn’t feel this way about yourself as well

TonI August 14, 2012 - 8:44 PM

Sorry for my Typos, new phone…. Lol

Paula September 26, 2012 - 2:59 PM

Hi Tina! I totally agree with your comment but I don’t think that this is a phenomenon that happens only in the US. I live in Brazil and the exact same thing happens here. The ideal woman here in the Northeast of Brazil is a white (or non-black) women with long hair, full lips, a big butt, a small waist and huge thighs – basically a white woman with may traits that are stereotypically black. When you go to gyms here, most white women focus on bulking up their lower body with weight training, instead of spending hours doing cardio on the elliptical or the treadmill to become skinny like women in the US. So, basically a white woman with a big butt and big thighs is much more desirable than a black woman with the same body type.

ab January 31, 2013 - 3:51 PM

sigh… why must you spout so much ignorance, why are you being so vile.

Let me let you in on a little a secret, you have ruined your own brand, at least right here. How does that feel?

Black women, haven’t ‘ruined’ our brand you very ignorant person and if black american women ruined their brand, guess what…. where ever you go it will follow you.

I wish to GOD people think about what they are saying before they say it. How damaged do you have to be, to be a woman and not only believe this foolishness, but to also have the temerity to spout it and whole heartedly buy into it and let it escape your lips.

I hope you heal. I really do.

p.s. I’m not American.

KMR May 25, 2011 - 5:07 PM

” No one’s doing any of this to be healthy. People do it to chase that “skinny dragon.” The perceived “healthy benefits” are just a “plus.”

Excerpted from Black Women, Our Bodies & Perceptions of Beauty: On Self Esteem | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

You’re so right when you say this. I am guilty of this fact. I want to lose weight to woo more male suiters and to look sick in clothes. Being able to get up the steps without dying or losing the risk of diabetes are just small extras. How petty and silly of me? But I cannot shake that feeling. I don’t care, I just want to be thin. I once told my sister (during a depressed defeatest state) that I didn’t care if I died just as long as I was a size 8 in the casket.

But I will say that as a women of color that when I admire the bodies/looks of celebrities it’s always a more curvier one (ie. Kenya Moore, Salma Hayek, can’t think of more at the moment). I have a piece on my blog called I Ain’t Hatin which talks about these curvier and confident women. In addition, I have to admit that I would like to lose weight to get further and further away from the stereotype of fat ignorant black women. It seems like a lot of women of color are overweight at this time and I don’t want to be a part of the statistic. Not that were all ignorant or loud, but the media constantly paints us that way. When I see people on the streets, I don’t want them to be like “there goes another one” Maybe this is wrong, I’m not sure.

My blog is not as snazzy as yours lol, but feel free to drop by at anytime gummiwormbandit.blogspot.com

Take care

Janine January 3, 2013 - 5:24 PM

Thanks for sharing! What you say about wanting to lose weight to distance yourself from stereotypes makes me think about a white friend of mine who says the same thing. She is terribly afraid of gaining weight and has said that it is driven by basically hating where she comes from- a small town in middle America where most people are overweight. I would be really interested to hear if others have this same pattern of thought: fat=what I fear in my heritage/community, therefore I fear fat.

TLS July 30, 2011 - 6:27 AM

“I treat myself like a business that I want to see flourish. I invest heavily in me – without guilt – because I know the return on my investment is a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life.”

So profound. This resonated with me so much now that my “aha” moment has happened and I am investing what it takes to be a more healthier, but still awesome, me!

Sharon July 15, 2012 - 9:18 PM

I love this website. It is always confronting to read the blog. Veggie are not my friend and lately I have found great food choices on this website. Thank you my sisters

Dee October 7, 2012 - 7:53 AM

very well written, I agree. No what about dark skinned women

Tina January 27, 2013 - 12:27 PM

I read your article and I am completely baffled by how you have confused two different problems. Yes, we have very homogenous idea of what beauty is. As a brown American I had a talk with my daughter’s pre-school about not singing ” Curly Hair….rosy lips…. fair skin….is that you who is teacher’s pet.” However, that has nothing to do with the issue of obesity. To promote obesity as beautiful is extraordinarily dangerous for our society and personally for the one who is overweight! This has nothing to do about race and if more people like you start to make it a race issue and start arguing that being obese is okay, then I very afraid about how we are going to manage our health system? Additionally, obesity is not a black or white issue. There are several white women who are also obese. This is a health issue!

Erika Nicole Kendall January 27, 2013 - 12:59 PM

It has everything to do with “the issue of obesity” when anything above a size six is considered “too fat to be acknowledged by the media.”

Where did I say anything about promoting obesity as being beautiful? I said – and have long said – that women who are obese shouldn’t be excluded from the right to have high self-esteem, and that their self-esteem shouldn’t be, in any way, attached to whether or not they look like what the media wants us to look like. You shouldn’t feel like you’re banned from having high self-esteem for having skin color that differs from what the media thinks you should have, you shouldn’t feel banned from having high self-esteem if your hair doesn’t look like the standard, and you shouldn’t feel banned from having high self-esteem if your body doesn’t look like the media’s standard of beauty.

All of those are interconnected. Period. It’s not about obese white women, and the fact that they exist doesn’t change – but only further illustrates – my point. People who deviate from the standard are barred from having self-esteem… and that’s not okay.

Losing weight in a healthy and sensible fashion is an act of self-love. It is not done out of hatred – either of self, of fat, or of anything. It is not something that is sustainable in a situation where you hate yourself and feel that you are worth little. And, if you can’t see how all that is connected, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Tiffani March 3, 2013 - 8:38 PM

I’m so glad I found your blog. It is balanced and insightful.

My weight is like a roller coaster especially now that I’m on corticosteriods for lupus. Also, having lupus limits the intensity of my workouts. Before I was diagnosed, I was healthy…I could run 3 miles or walk 6 even though I was still “chart-obese”. I was voluptuous and loving it!! No high blood pressure, high cholesterol or pre-diabetes.

I’m heavier now but I still don’t have the dangerous 3. I just want to be fit now and I know the weight loss will come.

Reading your blog doesn’t tempt me to feel inadequate. It motivates me to pursue my personal goals of what is healthy for me.

Whitney November 5, 2013 - 3:40 PM

Another great post! I wish I could develop your healthy sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Hopefully some day I will be happy with myself and see no need to make further “modifications” to my appearance based on what I see in magazines and online 🙂

Elisha Castillo April 15, 2015 - 4:29 PM

This is an amazing post. Growing up as a black girl my mom never called me by my name. She always called me Beautiful. “Come here Beautiful.” “How was your day Beautiful?”. The thing is that growing up I never saw girls like me when i watched television or looked in magazines. It was always the light skin girls with straight hair or if their hair was curly it would be pretty loose curls. I did not begin to appreciate my self and actually begin to love myself until I entered high school. I began to see girls who looked more like me and my height that loved themselves. Tumblr taught me to appreciate and love myself for who i am. Every black girl/women is beautiful no matter what size or color they are.

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