Why Race-Based Body Imagining Exists

And why we shouldn't buy into it.
Publish date:
May 7, 2012
body image, race, why black women are fat

I've been checking myself out a lot lately. Naked.

The only naked picture of me on the Internet.

I no longer have the body I did five, three or even one year ago. Call it love weight or, more accurately, laziness, but after nearly two decades of courting curves I've recently acquired a few I'm ready to get rid of.

For years my family thought I had a tape worm. Every Thanksgiving, when I’d pack my plate with more calories than necessary in a week much less an hour someone with the thick exclamation-shaped legs and parenthetical hips of an Andrews woman would pinch non-existent me at the waist and ask the kitchen, “Where is all that going?” Apparently not where it was supposed to.

If milk was supposed to do a body good, it did mine in. Puberty and Vitamin D gave me little by way of cup size, instead my legs and arms grew like weeds. I was sixteen, 5’6’’ (and counting) and had yet to kiss a boy. The boys on the basketball team called me “Olive Oyl,” which didn't totally suck since at least she had a boyfriend. My mom called me “Boney Maroni” and according to the women I looked up to, “don’t nothing but a dog want a bone."

So I get the sentiment (if not the title) behind Alice Randall's recent op-ed in the New York Times, "Why Black Women Are Fat." In it Randall claims black America needs a total recall when it comes to body imagining because we have succumbed to our own mythologies. She maps the differences between "chemical" and "cultural" fat.

"...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," writes Randall.

Okay, that's super harsh for several reasons the least of which places the entire blame of African American weight issues at the feet of black women, which anyone with a keen sense of fairness will recognize as the inherent opposite of that. But more than anecdotally I can agree that weight, propotion and beauty perception are incubated in a petri dish disconnected from reality.

In middle school, The Nubian Sisters, the crew of cool black girls on the edges of which I ran, all had bodies that could con even college guys. I comforted myself with baggy clothes and thick "slouch" socks that gave me calves.

By the time I got to Columbia, I was 110 pounds with razor-sharp hips and a push-up bra that had little to work with. The first co-ed I invited into my extra-long twin bed thought it his duty to comment on the bare chest I was reluctant to share in the first place.

Cupping one of my minis he goes, “We’ll have to do something about these.” Something like what? I thought, suddenly protective of the body I didn't know I wanted. Needless to say we didn’t last past second semester.

The New York Times says Josephine Baker embodied a "curvier" figure of the black woman. Are we looking at the same picture?

What's troubling for me, however, is Randall's assumption that many black men will go nuts if their wives weigh less than 200 pounds. Sure, my main squeeze likes the hips I've acquired over the past year but when they go (and they will) I don't think he'll go with them. Maybe there was a time when I did think skinny and single were synonmous, but I thought a lot of dumb shit when I was 16.

As recently as last weekend I complained of "feeling fat," which is a compliment worm I usually don't use. My boyfriend, of course, doesn't see it but he does see me. "However you feel, Helena, that's how people will feel about you," he said, shattering whatever fun house mirror I'd been looking into.

Legend has it that black men "like big butts and they cannot lie." White men, I've heard, like big boobies (who doesn't?) and Latino men prefer a woman with hips that don't lie. But nowhere in these bald-faced stereotypes do the wants of women come into play. Unless, of course, all a woman wants is to please the men who surround her.