The New York Times Offers Reasons ‘Why Black Women Are Fat’

By Guest Contributor Erika Nicole Kendall, cross-posted from A Black  Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

… for crying out loud … good grief.

I had lots of thoughts about this op-ed, simply because I struggle with the reality that so much of women’s body issues are tied up in dating and mating, not their own health. I’m not downing those who have made that decision–that’s not my place–I just wonder if those women truly wind up getting what they originally wanted in the end.

I’ll explain that later. For now, on to the article.

I had to chop this up into bits and pieces. It’s so hard to read, that every time I go to paste a new paragraph, I feel like sticking my virtual finger out and saying “B-b-but …” because it misses so much of the point.

Maybe I’ve been writing about this stuff for too long.

At any rate…the article starts out with a photo of Josephine Baker, with the caption “Josephine Baker embodied a curvier form of the ideal Black woman.” This highlights a huge problem with a lot of Black women as it is today: we don’t understand sizes, our bodies or “curvy” because “curvy,” like “thick,” has been misappropriated so many times that it no longer has any meaningful definition.

Courtesy: A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

“Curvy” simply means that you have curves. Josephine Baker–and, by correlation, Marilyn Monroe–does not have the same kind of curves that many Black women (hell, women period) refer to when the say “curves” today. Josephine’s waist isn’t any larger than a 28; her hips, no larger than 40 inches. Not by a long shot. She might be curvy, but she was small. Petite women and smaller women are also afforded the ability to be curvy. Maybe if we embraced and accepted that idea, we’d stop clinging to the notion that “curves” can only accompany a larger frame. It simply isn’t true, and I’m annoyed by the author’s attempt to use Baker’s photo to imply such.

Four out of five black women are seriously overweight. One out of four middle-aged black women has diabetes. With $174 billion a year spent on diabetes-related illness in America and obesity quickly overtaking smoking as a cause of cancer deaths, it is past time to try something new.

Surely, we don’t believe that all $174 billion of that is spent on the Black community, right? I mean, we’re what–13% of the population? With approximately 60% of the entire Black population suffering from at least being overweight, we’re maybe 7% of the obese population. Do we really think $174 billion is being spent on us?

All I’m sayin’ is that this isn’t a necessary guilt trip. We know the numbers are bad. But taking it to this comparison… there’s a reason it hasn’t been done before.

What we need is a body-culture revolution in black America. Why? Because 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.

The black poet Lucille Clifton’s 1987 poem “Homage to My Hips” begins with the boast, “These hips are big hips.” She establishes big black hips as something a woman would want to have and a man would desire. She wasn’t the first or the only one to reflect this community knowledge. Twenty years before, in 1967, Joe Tex, a black Texan, dominated the radio airwaves across black America with a song he wrote and recorded, “Skinny Legs and All.” One of his lines haunts me to this day: “some man, somewhere who’ll take you baby, skinny legs and all.” For me, it still seems almost an impossibility.

So…are we “fat” because we want to be or because “our men” want us to be? Wait…there’s more:

How many white girls in the ’60s grew up praying for fat thighs? I know I did. I asked God to give me big thighs like my dancing teacher, Diane. There was no way I wanted to look like Twiggy, the white model whose boy-like build was the dream of white girls. Not with Joe Tex ringing in my ears.

How many middle-aged white women fear their husbands will find them less attractive if their weight drops to less than 200 pounds? I have yet to meet one.

But I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight. My lawyer husband is one.

Another friend, a woman of color who is a tenured professor, told me that her husband, also a tenured professor and of color, begged her not to lose “the sugar down below” when she embarked on a weight-loss program.

A dancing teacher doesn’t have “fat” thighs, she has muscular ones. You don’t have to pray for them…you have to work for them.

How many men legitimately know what 200 lbs. looks like on a woman? If your husband is weighing you every morning and buying you super sized burgers and fries every time you hit 201lbs, your husband might be creepy. Regardless of how handsome, “sane,” tenured and successful he is, he is not excluded from being a scumbag.

Unless you are upwards of 5’9″, you’re going to experience problems due to your weight and the means by which you’re keeping it on, provided that it’s mostly fat. And if you aren’t experiencing them now, you may look forward to them in the future. The fact that a husband, who is supposed to want you around long enough and healthy enough for you both to live together forever, doesn’t know that and holds his wife to such a silly standard (does he want her literally above 200lbs, or does he simply want her to maintain a curvy figure? Must her curvy figure be a 43-35-50, or would a 38-26-40 suffice?) even if it risks her health…. he’s a creeper. If your husband has the audacity to hinge the health of your marriage on you remaining a way that results in your jeopardizing your health, he’s a creeper… and you might wanna change the beneficiary on your policies. Sorry.

And really…“the sugar down below?” The food you eat might affect how “sweet” your “sugar” is, but unless his “stuff” is the size of a tree trunk, he’s not going to notice anything sexually that can’t be fixed with–yep, you guessed it, a little hard work. Emphasis on “hard.” Emphasis on “work.” Separately…and together.

…but I digress.

To get a quick introduction to the politics of black fat, I recommend Andrea Elizabeth Shaw’s provocative book “The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies.” Ms. Shaw argues that the fat black woman’s body “functions as a site of resistance to both gendered and racialized oppression.” By contextualizing fatness within the African diaspora, she invites us to notice that the fat black woman can be a rounded opposite of the fit black slave, that the fatness of black women has often functioned as both explicit political statement and active political resistance.

Now, I actually ordered this book and, with any luck, will have it by Thursday. It’s a short read, but I don’t want to disparage a thesis I haven’t even read yet. However…this feels [clueless to me]. If a “fat Black woman” is supposed to serve as a political statement against the idea of the “fit Black slave,” where does that leave “fat Black men?” It’s far more likely to me, at this point, that the invisibility of Blacks to predominately white marketing teams contributed to the fact that Black women don’t get the “message” to hyperextend themselves in the quest to be thin. Not that we passed down this idea that Black women “need to be fat to protest against the idea that we should simply be workhorses,” because if that were the case, then we would’ve stopped being nannies, midwives, or even…ahem…portraying them on film.

I’m still gonna read the book, though.

I live in Nashville. There is an ongoing rivalry between Nashville and Memphis. In black Nashville, we like to think of ourselves as the squeaky-clean brown town best known for our colleges and churches. In contrast, black Memphis is known for its music and bars and churches. We often tease the city up the road by saying that in Nashville we have a church on every corner and in Memphis they have a church and a liquor store on every corner. Only now the saying goes, there’s a church, a liquor store and a dialysis center on every corner in black Memphis.

…which is no different from Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas or any other state that’s a part of the Bible Belt. Overlay a map of The Bible Belt…

Courtesy: A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

 

…with a map of obesity rates…

Courtesy: A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

…with a map of where Blacks are living in the US…

Courtesy: A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

 

…and then overlay that with a map of poverty in the United States.

Courtesy: A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

 

If you wanted to refute your own point about Black women being fat “because we want to be,” this was a great way to start.

The rest of the essay was all over the place–apparently, according to Mrs. Randall, fat Black women are the reason the $1 trillion will go towards obesity-related illness (not, say, poor prioritizing on behalf of the government…because we sure can find trillions of dollars when it comes to the defense budget or, say, our politicians’ own inflated salaries and benefits), “sliced cucumbers, salsa, spinach and scrambled egg whites with onions” is a great “go-to family dinner” worthy of mentioning in her essay, and mentioning the “six” almonds she eats with her greek yogurt was also important–but a few things stand out for me.

For starters, as the wife of a lawyer and a “writer in residence” at Vanderbilt,I can tell you that she has access to far more money than most Blacks in America. Why? Because approximately 50% of all Black wage earners are making less than $25,000. In fact? The number of individual Blacks making more than $50k? I can’t even remember the number, but I’m almost certain it’s not high enough (edited to reflect). (And before you rattle off all the affluent and upwardly mobile Blacks you know, also think about how small those circles are and how there are still well over 32 million self-identified Blacks in America. There’s a reason you wind up seeing the same folks at the same events.) The fact that she has that money is a large part of why real, legitimate issues like “lack of fresh produce” or “affordability” or “the time it takes to learn about cooking and actually cook” don’t make an appearance in her op-ed. This is the contingent that merely worries about their husbands leaving them, should they lose their collective booty (or, maybe not, because if he hasn’t left her over that “go-to dinner,” then…I’own know. He might love her more than she thinks.)

Secondly, can we briefly discuss the fact that there’s no legitimate information in this essay that we didn’t already know? Those of us who have the free time to commit to reading the New York Times already know the dire straits the community is in when it comes to health, but was it supposed to be some epiphany that she chose to correlate “lack of education funding” to “fat Black women” (not, mind you, health concerns in the Black community, even though dialysis centers were mentioned)? Because we legitimately think that if the government was surprised with a windfall as a byproduct of the success of the “no fat Black chicks” campaign, it’d spend it all on education? Chile, please.

I also don’t know how to reconcile this idea that “our men want us fat” with the conversation we had a couple of weeks ago, discussing the fact that losing weight actually opens up your opportunities in dating, and women’s pursuit of such. It sounds much more like men trying to protect themselves from having to compete with other men for a woman’s affection…and for that to spill over into a marriage, where [ostensibly] you’re there ’til death do you part? It’s creepy.

And, lastly. I know, I know, I get it. We’re unique. We’re special. We’re Black. We’re different. But there’s not a single damn reason that applies to us that doesn’t apply to the rest of America, either. Everyone is affected by lack of knowledge. Everyone is affected by the lack of access to fresh produce and healthy meat. Everyone was bitten by the processed food bug and, although poverty disproportionately affects Blacks, everyone is affected by issues of time and affordability. Singling us out and then applying foolish reasons that sound more like Sheena Easton songs than legitimate husbandly concerns winds up harming us all, leaving those of us with legitimate concerns rendered invisible and severely discredits those of us who simply don’t know better. It makes us look like the “burdens on the system” we’ve always been painted out to be and plays right into the hands and mentalities of those who think we are lazy, shiftless, and foolish. Stop trying to separate us from the rest of society, and for goodness sakes, stop blaming Black men for our weight…because, truth be told, they’re just as overweight as we are.

 

  • Anonymous

    A 44-50% obesity rate is insane (those numbers must be old. Its definitely higher). Splitting hairs in this realm helps no one, and actually furthers the problem.

  • Anonymous

    One thing that I find problematic is that aside from the fat bashing, this author contributes to the misinterpretation of the “black beauty standard.”  And b/c she is a black woman, she will be seen as speaking for us all.  And I HATE that.  I dislike minorities who seek to curry favor with the mainstream by putting us down in public.  

    Black men don’t like fat women (well, maybe fat WHITE women as Chris Rock discussed in one of his comedy shows and as was spoofed by Rachel Dratch on SNL).  They like small to medium women with large, round butts (large breasts are optional).  But the ideal waist would still be small and the stomach would be flat, and yes, some thickness in the thighs is preferable to stick legs for a lot of them. But not fat or obese.  If you are in fact larger then you’d still better have a nice hourglass figure with  a small waist.  And that body type does NOT increase your risk for heart disease or diabetes.  It’s called steatopygia, and there is a reason why women of African descent sometimes have this shape (it increases reproductive fitness/fertility while minimizes body area, a necessity in hotter climates).  

    I’m kind of tired of the fact that black women who aren’t fat get described as fat b/c they have thicker thighs and larger butts (no, not all black women have this but I’m not going to pretend that this particular fat distribution isn’t more common in black women).  For some reason, the skinny legs, flat bottom, and visceral body fat distribution found more frequently on whites is never attacked as being fat(or ugly for that matter).  But thick thighs and a large bottom on a small waist becomes “fat.”  I actually am fat but it is clear that my bottom will always be prominent(and as I work out and lose weight, it stands out more) and I like it, and anyone who has a problem with that can suck it.  My goal is to be healthy and my butt is a permanent feature of that journey.  

    So even if we wanted to pretend that this is based on male preference and not genetics, it still comes down to something that is associated with black women being deemed ugly by the mainstream.  

    And at the end of the day this is Sarah Baartman all over again.  The othering of black women, and the message that they have no right to have any pride in a society that puts them down, and that their “features” are ugly when compared to non-black women.  It really bothers people that black women don’t internalize these messages, and they won’t ever let us forget that they think we are ugly.

    In the grander scheme of things, I don’t think it’s helpful to try to define fatness or what someone SHOULD weight b/c no one knows where healthy eating and exercise will take their body, and people should not feel that they are doing something wrong just because it doesn’t take them to a size 4 jeans.

    I wish people would focus on diet and exercise and stop trying to divine people’s medical histories based on their pants size.

  • Anonymous

    I am a white male, and I am obese.  I struggle with it.  I will offer the idea that no one really understand obesity, if I was given an easy manageable way to lose weight, I would take it.  Most people would.  Not because of looks, but because of health.  But despite the legions of skinny doctors who have all the answers, it ain’t that easy, for me or anyone else. 

    Seriously, picking my black sisters as if they were somehow different from me?  Get a life, and find some real answers, or leave us alone.

    Well written.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Great post on the reasons why that NYT article was so wrong to target and fat-shame one particular subset of the American population. It’s always too easy to pick on someone for being fat without considering that a). not all fat people lead unhealthy lifestyles and b). for those suffering from health problems due to obesity, the causes are complex and multi-dimensional, and thus just fat-shaming people towards diet and exercise won’t be enough to bring down America’s obesity rate. If these fat-shamers really care, why don’t they show it by calling for better public policies towards increasing access to fresh, organically grown food to the entire population (not just to middle-class shoppers at Trader Joes)? Why don’t they find out the practices of corporations like Monsanto, that want to prevent access to good unprocessed foods? Or is it that they believe that government has no “right” to take away someone’s right to eat unhealthy, the way some right wingers attacked Michelle Obama’s proposal to introduce better school lunches to children?

  • Pingback: Say It. I Dare You. - Page 2254 - CurlTalk

  • Rebecca A

    Stuff like this makes it hard for black girls with eating disorders to get attention. the mentality that we all want to be fat is damaging and hides us. They think “Ohh she could never want to throw up or be anorexic. She wants a big butt and thighs, why would she restrict her food?” I hate it. I am not thin in the slightest, quiet fat, and OI’m struggling to love myself. This is terrible to assume that we all want to be one way. It’s way many of us suffer alone. (I really want to go off about how this relates to how black people don’t cut because it’s for white folks but lets not) she needs to reconsider her terms when she says “all”.

    • Birch

      Just wanted to add that binge eating is the most common eating disorder (but of course not every individual who is considered overweight or obese has this disorder).

    • k.eli

      Yes, yes, and YES!! It’s as though they’ve convinced themselves that black people are somehow immune to certain illnesses or conditions. If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say “black women are so lucky that they’re not pressured to be skinny” …

  • k.eli

    Sigh. It never ceases to amaze me how problems that affect everyone else in the country are somehow seen as pathological only in black women. Last I checked, over 2/3 of all adults in the US are overweight/obese – this is not a problem specific only to black women. And to place the blame almost completely at the feet of black men’s desires is ludicrous – socio-economic status, culture, and access to healthy living are far greater determinants of who’s likely to be overweight and who is not. It’s not a coincidence that most obese people in our country live in the South which has a notoriously unhealthy cuisine. As the author of this post duly noted, poorer women are more likely to be overweight than wealthier women. Why? Not because their husbands want them to look that way, but because they oftentimes don’t have as many resources available to them to live healthier lives. Sometimes I think people just look for an excuse to bash black women. 

    • Keith

       Working class people pay for the cost of living.  That includes all working class people and when times are hard some within these groups of working class get hit a little harder, but all in all we all suffer. The affluent pay for the quality of life. Their is obvious a link between the increase of obesity and the pressure of working class people to pay to maintain a decent quality of life as neo liberalism takes it’s toll. So for the last 30-40 or so years their has been this subconscious notion that some how blacks are the burden that somehow holds America back from being the great nation it could be, and if blacks would go somewhere else or at least picked themselves up by their own boot straps (but disappearing would be much better) all will be right with the world. And you wonder why it’s so easy for the 1% to take so much from white working class people that buy into this mess.

  • Anonymous

    “Unless you are upwards of 5’9″, you’re going to experience problems due
    to your weight and the means by which you’re keeping it on, provided
    that it’s mostly fat. And if you aren’t experiencing them now, you may
    look forward to them in the future.”

    This is really disappointing “obesity panic” rhetoric.  Given that fat people as a group are taking a serious bashing this week from “The Weight of the Nation” I’m sorry to see this kind of uncritical “OMG  FAT WILL KILL YOU” comment posted here.

    • Enterprise

      I don’t think it was meant as fat bashing, but I do think that it is difficult to capture “obese” in any set of height/weight variables, because it varies so much from person to person. However, having said that, I know at least 20 members of my family who are suffering various stages of health problems ranging from minor to serious because of being overweight. Many of them sing the “I’m fat and I’m proud!” line, but in moments of sincerity, most of them would desperately like to loose the weight but due to poverty and a lifetime of bad habits have absolutely no idea of where to begin.

    • k.eli

      I don’t think the author was suggesting that some fat will kill you; instead she was stating the fact that excessive fat is not good for you. I understand that overweight/obese people may feel (and rightfully so) that they’re being attacked simply for being fat – but that doesn’t change the fact that being significantly overweight or obese does indeed cause many problems (including diabetes, hypertension, and a host of other issues) that often result in premature death. Cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer in the US of both men and women; the number of Type II diabetics in the US has also soared over the past couple decades, including in children who used to be rare in this group. I don’t condone hating on fat people, but I also don’t condone pretending like rising obesity rates aren’t a major cause for concern. 

  • Jay

    This piece was difficult for me to read, because there is a lot that is problematic about the whole concept of what is “overweight”, the idea that people are actually getting significantly fatter in the US, and the very underlying notion that fat people are necessarily unhealthy.

    I don’t think I am qualified to write a counterpoint that addresses these issues, but I hope that someone much more learned than me does, and submits it to Racialicious.

    • Kat

       How about if we just use diabetes as a measure? Otherwise of course many people that are fat are still healthy. Most people don’t use the term ‘fat’ only to describe people who cannot walk without help anymore, but for anyone chubby. Nonetheless, I think however you think about it: The main point of the article still stands- since fat is so closely related statistically to poverty (and since that is closely related to some PoC, including Blacks), it is not for the majority of people a choice. There simply isn’t the money around or the time (off work) to buy more healthy food or to buy a gym membership etc. And that is a point that many White upper middle class blogs that I know (and sometimes read) ignore when they write about “embracing their fat”: That it is not a choice for many, it is a side effect of poverty. Sure, that still means that the main point of fat acceptance stands: No bullying, no discrimination of fat people. But unfortunately many privileged bloggers turn that into an “everyone who is fat wants to be fat and should embrace and celebrate it” point, when in reality many people who are fat do not have the means to eat differently. [yes, I know there are many other factors than food and exercise, but this is not about all possibilities; it's about the majority]