Real women (of color) have curves

by guest contributor Latoya Peterson

Robin Givhan, the fashion editor for The Washington Post, frequently peppers her columns and blogs with a unique perspective on how to interpret the passing fads of the fickle fashion industry. Last Friday’s column was no exception.

Titled “Rounding off Their Figures,” Givhan discusses the emergence of a new trend: fuller figured women gaining space on magazine covers and in product advertisements. This is especially interesting when juxtaposed with all the attention the fashion industry has received for creating and perpetuating unrealistic standards of thinness.

However, Givhan discovers one interesting thing that all of the fuller figured cover girls, models, and spokeswomen have in common. She writes:

The one thing that connects these three curvaceous women, other than their celebrity, is that they are women of color. On them, curves are acceptable.

While women such as actress Kate Winslet, who is white, have talked about not giving in to a Hollywood culture that demands they be super slim, it seems that only African American and Latina actresses really get away with extra pounds, or even just a round bottom. See: Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrera and “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Chandra Wilson and Sara Ramirez.

One could argue that these women, each one quite pretty, are not considered part of the mainstream — their ethnicity is still a regularly used modifier in their professional lives. They stand just a little apart, so they are exempt from adhering to mainstream definitions of beauty. They set their own standards. But being judged by a different set of rules can be both liberating and vexing.

Givhan continues in the article proposing that while all women fret about weight and diet issues, there is a smaller, more vocal contingent of women of color who are able to love and accept themselves even if their weight falls far outside of mainstream standards of beauty. These women have created an entire counterculture where big is beautiful, and have seen their efforts start edging into film and media. Givhan sees these changes as positive, but warns:

There is also the stereotype of the large black woman as the diva-like sexpot: strong, aggressive and entitled. See: the comedian Mo’Nique. There is always the looming danger of taking that caricature into destructive and demoralizing territory — black women as oversexed, or black women as impenetrable, or obesity as healthy. But that iconic image has established that big can be beautiful and desirable — at least when it comes to women of color.

She concludes the article by saying:

The larger culture has not bought into that opinion, but it seems to have been swayed. Roundness is more accepted of black women because they are more accepting of their own curves.

This article was not just provocative because of Givhan’s excellent analysis – more seemed to be revealed about our cultural attitudes about beauty and weight by examining what was not in the article, and the comments posted to the article by WashingtonPost.com readers.

The first thing that stood out to me was that the article continually referenced women of color – but completely omitted Asian women. They are not mentioned anywhere in the article, though I would venture to say that the standards of thinness applied to Asian-American women are more tyrannical than those applied by mainstream culture.

Secondly, the whole idea of large black women as a stereotype has unfortunately already come to fruition. The antagonist/”female” lead of the recent movie “Norbit” cashes in on this oversexed, overconfident, over-sized black woman stereotype and was laughed at all the way to the bank. In discussing this article with a friend of a different race, she noted that it wasn’t just the size of black women that contributes to the stereotype – it is also the personality attributed to a black woman of that size. She rightly pointed out that black women over 200 pounds are normally portrayed in the media as being loud, sassy, and completely overbearing – a negative reinforcement to the positive body image many large black women seek to represent.

Finally, the comments posted about this article alternately challenged and perpetuated fallacies about race and and perception of beauty. A few of the comments are below:

I am a woman of color who doesnt feel confident with her curves. Why? Because the majority of men I date are not of color and they have a different standard by which they define beauty. The result: me beating my body into submission, constant self-loathing, and a lack of confidence to feel beautiful in the white world.

By sigmagrrl | Feb 16, 2007 7:25:05 AM

im a black woman and if anyone ever told me that i have big legs i would be mortified! i identify more with, and personally find more appealing, a halle berry body type vs. jennifer hudson, beyonce, etc. not all black woman prefer, desire, or have full figures.

By calichic200301 | Feb 16, 2007 11:18:34 AM |

boy if this isnt discrimination against whites i dont know what is.plus size women are the same no matter what color they are.big booty is on all of them.too much diversity. too much feel nice.cant say anything etc..stop being racist to the whites..

By stan | Feb 16, 2007 12:10:28 PM |

…Ive lived my entire life being made to feel like being a small black person was freakish within the black communitiy. Now I see the greater community embracing this thinkign under the guise of acceptance. All white women arent thin. All black women arent fat. And if one more white woman tries to tell me Im wrong, Ill be obligated to shine my flashlight on THAT particular irony…

By aquafemme2003 | Feb 16, 2007 2:56:40 PM |

Never saw a fat China girl.. that is why San Francisco was my desire in 1973 and still is. That is what is is! By abroadventure | Feb 16, 2007 3:39:22 PM Real Women (of Color) Have Curve… – Docs & Spreadsheets

Wow! And this is what it has come to now. Black women glamorizing an unhealthy and unsightly lifestyle. Lets face it: the majority of the thick black women I see on the street are not attractive at all. There is a big difference between a Beyonce and the big black girl at my job. Beyonce is likely in great shape for her size. BTW, Id take Beyonce as she is with no problem with her weight. Jennifer Hudson likely works out regularly. The majority of thick black women I see are an unhealthy size. This is not glamorized in the white culture. And it should not be glamorized in ours.

By nboggs1 | Feb 16, 2007 4:07:41 PM |

There is enough material here for 3 discussions, but I am going to close this one with a final comment from the Post Article:

The rampant use of racial shorthand in this article is disheartening at best at worst, it is endemic of the worst abuses of modern media. Heres a free clue for the author and those who fail to miss the point: 1 there are four types of bodies out there … ectomorphs, endomorphs, hourglass shapes, and stick figures. America Ferrera has a completely different body type than J-Lo same goes with Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce and Tyra Banks three different body types represented. That the premise of the article lumps all of these women together based solely on their status as non-white is a disservice to those of use who a are clearly educated as to the physical differences inherent in different human beings — within or without race — and b are aware of the implications of said differences. Dare I say that those who are making sweeping judgments are not only completely uneducated as to the various strengths of weaknesses of different body types, but are also perpetuating stereotypes which are dangerous and unhealthy as they do not take different factors in mind. Keep in mind that people who run track are rarely stick figures, yet they are definitely more healthy than the average American. Just a little food for thought …

By badflubug | Feb 18, 2007 6:18:40 AM |