Knowing the historical shame attached to fatness and Blackness, how could anyone look at me and think: “wow, fat, Black women have it easier?”
The world has very decided views on Black women.
Actually, what the world has is a set of inherent stereotypes and biases that people desperately cling to in order to maintain their (assumed) place in society’s hierarchy.
As a fat, Black woman, these stereotypes run the gamut from the regular insults of laziness to the more “positive” in nature. For example, the image of the “strong Black woman” is a pervasive harmful trope we see in everything from movies to reality TV.
It’s this idea that Black women are somehow impervious to ills that plague our non-Black counterparts. As a fat, Black woman, that includes diet culture — but nothing could be further from the truth.
Our experiences with diet culture are at best, isolating, and at worst, demoralizing. Under the myth of the “strong Black woman,” our “strength” supersedes our humanity, and we have to contend with a society that demands we play both victim and savior.
The uncomfortable truth is that fat, Black women were not spared from diet culture, and in the absence of empathy or compassion, we had to save ourselves.
In the early 2000s, there were several widely-circulated studies about the media’s impact on girls’ body image. Increased access to the internet opened up a whole new world for adolescents. Now, the TV, movies, and the web were working in tandem to fuel our insecurities about the way we looked.
A few of these studies sought to compare weight and body image perception cross-racially.
Another study, covered the same year by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Foundation, proclaimed: Black women heavier and happier with their bodies than white women. Over the years, the “than white women” quietly dropped from the headline.
The conclusion was that thanks to the “acceptance” of fatness in the Black community — and our superhuman strength — we were shielded from the harsh realities of fatphobia.
I cannot stress enough how untrue and, frankly, dangerous that line of thinking is.
Growing up, my mother told me that I had “two strikes” against me: I was Black, and I was a woman. She failed to mention that being fat was my third strike, a fact I would be reminded of often — even by other Black people.
Growing up, my mother told me that I had “two strikes” against me: I was Black, and I was a woman. She was arming me for a lifelong, uphill battle to try and snatch some semblance of equality, understanding that I was already starting from behind.
She failed to mention that being fat was my third strike, a fact I would be reminded of often — even by other Black people.
The concept of “fat” looks different in my community, but over the years, I fear that has led non-Black people to confuse “different” with “accepted.”
While having full hips, a round bottom, and thick thighs is celebrated, sporting a tummy or fleshy arms is not. I can assure you that singer Jill Scott and actress Gabourey Sidibe are not treated equally (though they are both beautiful plus-sized women).
In fact, I’d wager the classic “video vixen” look — which requires an excess of fat around the hips, butt, breasts, and thighs but not anywhere else — is much harder to pull off than just losing weight.
There’s also this hard truth: diet culture is firmly entrenched in white supremacy, so says the brilliant Dr. Sabrina Strings.
In her 2019 book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Strings un-blurs the lines between medical fact and history to understand how fatphobia and anti-Black racism are inextricably linked.
The book was pivotal to my personal understanding of diet culture as a Black woman, as it uncovered some deeply troubling truths about the mistreatment of my ancestors simply for being larger.
I’m reminded of the story of Sarah Bartmaan, who toured Europe as part of a “freak show” in the 19th century. According to physical descriptions, she was a fat Black woman stripped of her humanity, turned into a walking, talking oddity.
She died penniless and alone after being exploited.
Knowing the historical shame attached to fatness and Blackness, how could anyone look at me and think: wow, fat, Black women have it easier?
Heads up from Healinggeeks
Trying to “do it right” when it comes to nutrition may feel tempting, but it can backfire.
If you are preoccupied with food or your weight, feel guilt surrounding your food choices, or routinely engage in restrictive diets, consider reaching out for support. These behaviors may indicate a disordered relationship with food or an eating disorder.
Disordered eating and eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender identity, race, age, body size, socioeconomic status, or other identities.
They can be caused by any combination of biological, social, cultural, and environmental factors — not just by exposure to diet culture.
Feel empowered to talk with a qualified healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, if you’re struggling.You can also chat, call, or text anonymously with trained volunteers at the National Eating Disorders Association helpline for free or explore the organization’s free and low cost resources.
This blasé attitude towards fat, Black women even extends to eating disorders (EDs).
Historically, lack of representation, cultural incompetence, and other barriers like cost mean Black women are not as likely
Even I was surprised when I was diagnosed with binge eating disorder.
The only images I’d ever associated with eating disorders are frail, young, white women purposefully under-eating. Surely eating too much was just a sign of my inability to control myself — a personal failure, rather than a symptom of a larger problem.
Traditional research was a dead end, since most of it only pertains to white women, while Black women are
What I found was a robust digital anti-diet culture space — run almost exclusively by, and for, thin white women.
It took me around three months to find an “anti-diet” registered dietitian who actually had experience treating a Black woman with an eating disorder.
That is not to say I only accept treatment from people who look like me, but after a lifetime of medical fatphobia and cultural insensitivity, I would rather find a provider who is at least interested in my actual problems and won’t tell me to “lose weight” anytime I have an ailment.
As I worked to decolonize my mindset around body acceptance and diet culture, it became even more urgent to be a voice for fat women of color — especially for Black women, who are often heralded for our self-confidence but left by the wayside when we need support.
I’m not blaming non-Black people. In fact, I think we’re in this fight together: diet culture is a global, institutional problem, and we can’t eradicate it in siloed subgroups.
But if you’re non-Black, I urge you — implore you — to stop envisioning fat, Black women as self-confident androids and remember that we’re people, too.
People who deserve to be poured into, just as much as we pour into others.
People who, like you, are victims of diet culture and are on the same journey toward acceptance and self-love.
A note on weight discrimination
Nutrition research rarely accounts for the role weight stigma and discrimination play in health. Discrimination is one of the social determinants of health — the conditions in daily life that affect our health — and it can and does contribute to health inequities.
Weight discrimination in healthcare can prevent people at high body weights from seeking medical care — and those who do may not receive accurate diagnoses or treatment, because doctors may attribute their health concerns solely to their weight.
As a result, any health condition a person may have may be more advanced by the time they receive a diagnosis. This can, and does, include eating disorders and other mental health challenges.
Meanwhile, experiences of weight stigma in daily life, even outside of medical settings,
Everyone deserves appropriate and compassionate medical care. If you’re interested in finding weight-inclusive healthcare professionals, you may want to follow the work of the Association for Size Diversity and Health, which is developing a directory that will launch in summer 2022.