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.
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?