beauty standards black women's bodies black women's health body policing body positivity healing health and body image
My Body Belongs To Me: Navigating Racial Body Politics as a Fat Black Girl8/08/2015
by Anitra Winder There are a few constants about living in Los Angeles. For example, trying to find a parking space at Trader Joe’s will b...
by Anitra Winder
There are a few constants about living in Los Angeles. For example, trying to find a parking space at Trader Joe’s will be akin to doing battle in the Thunder Dome, or attempting a group breakfast at any restaurant after 10 a.m. on the weekend is pure folly, and, of course, everyone works out. It’s common to see joggers zipping through city terrain filled with latte-sipping pedestrians clutching little dogs or packs of cyclists dominating the roadways or participants of CrossFit with routines so extreme that they may end up on the hood of your car doing burpees during a traffic stop. Yes, bodies are in motion in the city, a cultivated stock of stellar bodies, and then there’s me, a coffee-colored, unapologetic female occupier of ample physical space that’s usually reserved for males.
Non-white female bodies have long been the focus of a historical oppression that has misrepresented and complicated the social narrative of women of color. The nature of oppression in the dichotomous form of racism and misogyny are acted out through the subjugation of Black female bodies by whites. Frequently this subjugation is played out in public spaces through stereotyping and food and body policing, which are often positioned casually. A case in point would be when a white male coworker can’t be convinced that you enjoy hiking because according to his sources, Black women have a “sweat and hair thing that keeps them from exercising” or being told by a server in a vegetarian restaurant that the menu has small portions and no meat before moving on to another customer. Or when a thin, blonde overenthusiastic fellow shopper can’t stop congratulating you for “trying to get healthy and lose weight for bikini season” because your cart is filled with produce.
Because white supremacy is the foundation of our social fabric, it’s presupposed that all Black women share the same relationship to food and their bodies as white women; that we measure our bodies by the same standards set forth within the dominant culture, which by design are racist and damaging to women. Serena Williams, although a winner of multiple Wimbledon titles and is ranked number 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association, has been dogged her entire career by white assessments of her body and femininity. Williams has been criticized for being unattractive, fat, and unfit even though she’s snagged 21 Grand Slam titles and has repeatedly proven herself a consistent champion.
What we can take away from the social commentary surrounding not only Williams, but specifically any non-white female body that doesn’t fit the prescribed Eurocentric beauty model, is that you will not be afforded the agency to decide if your body is healthy or attractive. You will not be granted the right to personal corporal discretion because your body doesn’t belong to you. Your achievements, regardless of scale, are inconsequential because you will be denied the privilege of determining your successes.
Therefore, socially, my size 16 body is not only purportedly symbolic of my ill health but also representative of the indolence Black women have mastered. Yet, I’m a cognizant eater who has lost 160 pounds over the course of three years and hasn’t regained weight because I’m regularly physically active. However, this triumph is obscured because even after such a massive weight loss I’m still not thin. And more importantly I have the audacity to be at peace with it and refuse to act contrite. In a world where female beauty is predicated on whiteness and thinness, racist and sexist forms of female objectification have become a celebrated norm, while self-determination is vilified. Women often feel obligated to apologize for the supposed counterintuitive act of gaining weight, when often the act of gaining weight can sometimes be much more emotionally complicated than simply not being able to put down the fork.
For some weight loss is only qualified as a success if the end result is a body that’s a gangly assemblage of muscle fit to run a 10K. However, I’m choosing to honor my journey and view my body as a success because it is a testament to the many abuses it has survived at the hands of sexual abusers, racists, and misogynists. This body soldiered on. Despite years of severe hypertension, high cholesterol, edema, diabetes, and pain, this body withstood and maintained to bring me to my current state of health, which no longer requires medication or occasional canes. I can walk long distances, climb stairs, plank, and squat.
For the first time in my life, I’m metabolically healthy and I have a healthy relationship with food. The world couldn’t imagine that while still in a large body, this Black woman hiked her way through the desert for five hours – at night! This fat body can now do things it hasn't been able to do since adolescence, and my body feels good. So today, I’ll climb over a few hills and then down into crowded streets to pick up a coconut water at the end of my hike. I’ll probably catch a few puzzled stares along the way as I speed through, sweat drenched, in neon running shoes and my favorite crimson hoodie. And why shouldn't they stare…? They’ve never seen liberation in motion before.
Anitra Winder is a queer, crafty, Afrofuturistic, writer, and social justice advocate. She has a degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Health Care Administration/Public Health. When she’s not focused on social justice issues, she’s battling her comic book addiction…she’s not winning. Find her on Twitter @Donitocarmenito.