“Weighing” to Exhale: On Black Girls, Women, and Body Image Disturbance

by Jaimee A. Swift

Ever since I can remember, I have been in a fight against my weight.

When I was eight years old, I went to Justice with my mom to buy back-to-school clothes. She picked a white shirt with a bedazzled flower accent and light blue jeans for me to try on. I went into the dressing room, excited about my new clothes, but the jeans wouldn’t even go up past my thighs. The shirt was too snug. I remember walking out the dressing room feeling so disappointed with myself as I watched other girls posing in front of the mirror, their new clothes fitting them with ease.

When I was 13, I remember swallowing weight loss pills in the bruised stalls of the girls’ bathroom in my junior high school. In seventh grade, I would eat just one apple and one can of tuna everyday. By the time I got to PE, my stomach would roar as I stepped to the white line, ready to run that ever-draining 400-meter race. Later, I would eat dinner and laugh with my parents at the table, pretending to wipe my face… all the while spitting my food into my napkin. In order to manage my weight loss, I would throw up my food and take laxatives on a regular. Working out two to four times a day was not unnatural for me. I would put myself through intense and grueling workouts all the while looking at celebrities and models as a means of body inspiration.

Even after losing fifty pounds and being the smallest I’d ever been, I remember crying in front of a mirror, clutching the flesh around my waist, wishing that I was beautiful and skinny.

While my personal battle with my weight was kept in-house between my family and I, there are many people suffering with eating disorders—loudly, painfully, and deeply. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from a clinically significant disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). Body dissatisfaction is the best-known contributor to the the development of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Yet for many reasons, cases are not likely to be reported. According to NEDA, by age 6, girls start to express concerns about their weight and shape, with 40 percent to 60 percent of elementary school girls, ages 6 -12, being concerned about their weight or becoming too fat.

Unfortunately, for many of us, this concern endures through life.

Over the past few years, studies show that there has been increasing evidence of disordered eating occurring among racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Although eating disorders have been commonly referred to as a “white girl issue,” a Minnesota Adolescent Health Study showed that dieting was associated with weight dissatisfaction and low body pride in all racial and ethnic groups. However, the statistics on how eating disorders are affecting girls and women of color are unknown. Much of this is due to the historically biased view that eating disorders only affect white women. Also, the prejudicial assertion that women of color are somehow exempt from having eating disorders because “their cultural identity provides some amount of protection against body image disturbances.” There has long been a belief that because African-American culture readily embraces thicker, larger, and more voluptuous body types, this excludes Black women of various body types from developing body dissatisfaction and assumes that Black women all want to look one singular, particular way. Or that all Black women love the skin and bodies they’re in.

However, there is some truth to this narrative due the perpetuation that being “thick” or “slim-thick”—having large hips and rounded a backside—is the pinnacle of Black beauty and physical aestheticism. With the onslaught of butt injections, waist-trainers, and trendy body image modifiers, many Black women and girls have put themselves in harm’s way to attain a glorified, curvy, hourglass figure. Last year, 34-year old Kelly Mayhew and 22-year old Daysha Phillips died after receiving butt injections while in basements and hotels Queens, New York and St. Louis, Missouri, respectively. Many celebrities such as Amber Rose, Ciara, and Kim Kardashian endorse the use of waist trainers, despite the various health effects it may present, such as organ damage, if worn over long periods of time.

In a cover story for Essence, Jada Pinkett-Smith even admitted her personal struggles with her weight and body image: “You don’t think I don’t want to be a couple pounds heavier? Black men like their women with a little meat. All my life Black men have told me how flawed I am.”

The incessant cultural criticisms of Black girls’ and women’s weight seems to be ever-fluctuating; as one minute, many are made to feel guilty for being too fat, but on the other hand, judged severely for not being “thick” enough. The demand by society for Black girls and women to look a certain way or to maintain a certain body image has and can cause much stress, anxiety, and emotional, physical, and even psychological harm.

“Growing up as an overweight Black girl in a predominantly white suburb, I learned to hate my body very early,” said Michelle Jackson, a writer and teaching artist from Los Angeles. “I’ve never been thin, and most likely will not. As an adult, I’ve had to invest a lot of time, energy, and healing into seeing my body in a positive way, despite its size and shape.”

“I still struggle with body image issues, but over the past few years, I’ve really done the work of learning how to accept, embrace, and love my body as it is,” Jackson continued.

Even with my extensive weight loss, I still was not satisfied. The struggle of wanting to be skinny, then all of a sudden wanting to be “thick,” plagued my mind day and night. I became very obsessive about everything concerning my weight. It wasn’t until I almost passed out one day, that I realized I was worth more than what the number on the scale told me. I was more than a size 6 frame, or my daily caloric intake.

After counseling and much-needed reconciliation and forgiveness with my body and myself, I no longer wished that I was beautiful. I began to believe that I am beautiful… and always was. Although I still struggle with my weight at times, I can say that I see myself as beautiful, witty, smart, lovely, and unequivocally me. No matter what weight I may be.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jaimee A. Swift is a graduate of Howard University and Temple University with a Master of Arts in Political Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, respectively. A writer and truth-seeker at heart, Swift is contributing writer at For Harriet. You can follow her on Twitter @jaimeeswift.

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