On Black Women and Revolutionary Fitness

I am fat.

I have been fat most of my life. I used to feel a lot of shame calling myself “fat”. I preferred terms like “big-boned” or “thick” or “curvy”. And yes, I am curvy too. But I’m not just curvy in the breasts, hips, thighs, and butt region. Some of my curves are rolls and hills and valleys.

Living in a fat body has been a struggle my entire life. I have faced ridicule from peers and judgment from doctors. My family has sent me mixed messages: “You’re such a beautiful girl. You don’t need to be thin to be beautiful… but you should definitely lose weight.” I learned to hate my body, starving and abusing it so I could manipulate it into something smaller and more acceptable. Still, I have also found ways to be militant in this body, affirming my right to be whatever size I very damn well please. Sometimes, my fatness has been the biggest "Fuck you!" I could muster to our society's limited constructs of beauty and attractiveness.

These days, my body and I are working on our relationship. While I still feel some type of way about the pressure to be thin, I also know that being morbidly obese is not good for me. I have begun to experience very real and serious health consequences due to my weight. I have also come to realize how I use my fatness as a defense mechanism. After being in an unhealthy, coercive relationship, I have used my weight is armor. My fat is protection against men. Most men do not pay a lot of attention to fat women, so I do not have to deal with the risk of being hurt again.

But I know I cannot use my body to hide forever. I know that I am too young to be dealing with some of the weight-related health issues I have. So I have become a fat girl who works out two to three times per week. It is the first time in my life where I’ve stuck to a fitness regimen longer than a few weeks. I have a friend, a fellow Black Woman, who is my personal trainer. With her support and guidance, I have learned all the wonderful things my body can do. I am much stronger than I ever thought I would be. I have more endurance and stamina than some of my friends who are much smaller than me. Every week, I discover something new about what my body is capable of… what I am capable of. It is empowering, to say the least.

Growing up, I never saw very many Black Women exercise for the sake of exercising. If they did exercise somewhat regularly, it was because they were trying to improve or fix something "wrong" with their bodies. Many of the women in my family would exercise to lose weight and then putter out once they got close to their goals… or the demands of working, raising a family, and being everything to everybody became too much. And if I did see Black Women who were exceptionally fit, they were usually athletes.

Because of this, I learned to equate health and fitness to “losing weight”. And I’ve always equated “losing weight” to “there is something wrong with me”. I avoided working out because it usually meant I had to confront a lot of complex, negative feelings about my body and self-worth. But now, being mindful of my personal fitness is a gift I give to myself everyday. Sure, it may be challenging, laboring, sweaty gift that I bitch and moan about. But it is a gift, no less.

Part of this change has been my understanding about the complicated realities of what it means to be a Black Woman in America. There is so much that works against our health and wellbeing, systematically and historically. Black Women are not allowed to take care of ourselves, much less are we given the opportunity to. Thus, we are at a higher risk for heart disease and diabetes. We are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with new cases of HIV. We deal with emotional/mental health issues like stress and depression. At times, I wonder if the world and its dominant systems of power are indirectly trying to kill us.

As a Black Woman, exercising is about so much more than losing weight. Making dietary changes means more to me than dropping a few pounds. Becoming health-conscious is me learning to love myself. Working on my fitness is putting that love into action. In many ways, this is subversive and revolutionary. I refuse to appease the world by killing myself slowly. I plan on doing whatever is necessary so that this Black Woman’s body, however fat or fit it may be, takes up as much space for as long as possible.

Sure, my body is my home. Yes, it is also a temple. But more than anything, I have learned that is a finely tuned weapon I can use to dismantle the harmful stereotypes about how Black Women take care of ourselves.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, storyteller, and teaching artist currently living in Southern California. She is a graduate of NYU's Gallatin School for Individualized Study. She has performed in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Washington D.C., and Southern California. For more information, please visit her website: michelledenisejackson.com.

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