It is not totally rare that I am moved to tears, but this time it was for a good reason.
I was standing in a sleek little gallery on the Lower East Side, music beating in the background, as I looked at an enormous photograph of a little black girl holding the image of a white model’s face over her own. The colors were vivid, almost intense, but simple. The girls skinny legs and arms jutted. She was sitting, clutching the other face against her own. It had been torn from a magazine. It was a makeup ad. The girl was a Ugandan orphan. I wanted to peek under her mask and see her real face, but she wouldn’t let me.
The photographer was Gloria Baker Feinstein. She was in the city for her exhibit. She’s spent a lot of time in Uganda, and she established a non-profit for some of the amazing orphaned children she met and grew close to there (their art was also on display at the gallery). She also took a bunch of pictures of women eating cake, after reading this blog. And they are amazing.*
But anyway—I met Gloria in person for the first time, and she was wearing a leather jacket and being unassuming and quietly awesome and badass, and her photos made me cry.
And then that one, the one of the girl holding the pale face up to cover her own, dark one, made me suddenly think of this Op-Ed I read in the New York Times the other day. One that keeps bothering me. One that I don’t know how to talk about because it is by a black woman, talking about black women, and I am a pale, Jewish woman who is probably not fit to comment.
But I can’t help it. I’m commenting.
The article, by Alice Randall, is about how black women operate under totally different beauty rules than white women. Instead of feeling pressure to be thin, they feel pressure NOT to be thin. Losing weight is uncool. It’s not allowed. Randall’s husband wishes she wouldn’t. He likes her body the way it is. He likes the plumpness. And attitudes like that, as innocuous as they seem, are killing black women. The culture of weight celebration is causing black women to get diabetes and heart disease. So they should fight back against the beauty ideals of their community, and lose weight, and get fit, and stay alive.
I don’t know, but something about this didn’t sound right to me.
There is so much pressure to be thin in our culture, in other cultures, all around the world, that I wonder if it’s possible for so many black women, here in America, to be afraid of losing weight. When I watch TV and there’s a black woman in a show, she’s usually thin. Thin and strikingly gorgeous, with a face like a supermodel. Sometimes she is unique in that her face is not exactly like a supermodel. Occasionally, she is heavier. If she’s heavier, she’s often also silly and goofy and funny. Very rarely, she’s heavy and serious. Of course, TV is not reality; not even reality TV. What you see on TV is not what you see in your community. But it influences it. The beauty ideals of the dominate culture infiltrate minority cultures. They do. We see it everywhere. They seep in, like a toxin. They leach into the water supply. They spread, and they spread. And then articles start popping up about how eating disorders are proliferating, as the images of white, thin beauty reach new places and put down roots there and begin to claim all of the billboards.
I don’t know how much to believe. It’s hard to say. But I’m not very surprised. I’ve heard over and over again about the struggles of being dark skinned in a world that prizes pale skin. It is hard to look different. It is so damn hard to look different.
I know, and I only look like an Eastern European Jew. And we’ve managed to assimilate very successfully, in large part, I think, because of our pale skin.
So I have trouble with this idea, that black women are killing themselves to stay heavy. Can that really be true? Or if it is true, I can’t believe that it is true across the board. There must be room to feel all sorts of pressures. Unique communal pressures and also the endless whisper of the larger society’s motivation. It is always confusing, isn’t it, what we’re supposed to do with our bodies– how they’re supposed to look?
And if it’s true, God, how disappointing. Because I’ve always loved the way black women in general seemed to be more comfortable with their bodies. The way beautiful black women on the subway sometimes wear stunning, daring outfits, regardless of their weight, in a way that I almost never see women of other races doing.
If it’s true, I feel like another escape route has been blocked off. A reader named Sarah mentioned the “war on obesity” in the comments the other day, and I keep hearing those words, too. And while of course I want children to grow up eating healthy food and spend their lives diabetes free, and of course I want everyone to learn how to be as healthy as possible, I also wonder if it’s too simple to say, “Fat is bad. You are killing yourself.” And I wonder about what happens when we are all warriors against fat– when fat means both “ugly” and also “death.” At what point do we stop? How thin is no longer fat? Because everywhere I turn, people are ashamed, and afraid, and know their own inexcusable BMIs by heart, and feel as though they might be standing too close to enemy lines. They feel as though they might have stumbled across them.
I should clarify– I don’t disagree with everything Randall says. I think it’s important to raise awareness about health issues. I also don’t think fat=good, automatically. Just like nothing automatically equals good. Clearly, it’s complicated. But I am a little worried that the Op-Ed makes some problematic suggestions about beauty and health.
Let’s address health issues, please! But let’s not make acceptance of non-mainstream beauty a problem in doing do. Let’s not imagine that women are simply too complicit, once they are told they look good. Let’s not pretend that’s the end of story. Let’s not imagine that all black women, or a majority of black women, or a large number of black women, feel the same about anything. Let’s not blame men for being appreciative of their wives bodies, just as they are. Of course, no group of women should feel pressure to only look one way, whether that means being heavy or tiny or anything else. But being heavy doesn’t have to mean being unhealthy, and if black women can be proud of the way they look, even if they are bold and curvy and thick and rounded, then thank god! Because maybe if they can do that, they can manage to like themselves, actually like the way they already are. The way I’d like to like the way I already am. Because life is better that way.
But so often, I want to pull a mask up and approach the world with a different face—a better one. I want to face the world streamlined, mainstream, understandably lovely.
And I have a feeling I’m not alone in this. I have a feeling we all struggle, one time or another, with the urge to be the image in the magazine.
(Photo by Gloria Baker Feinstein, who gave me permission to include it here. I’m so grateful!)
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What do you think of the Op-Ed? Of the idea that black women need to fight the pressure to be fat? What about other women in other ethnic/racial communities? Are there very different pressures related to body image? Or is it always a mix of unique and common beauty ideals?
Unroast: Today I love the way my ears look against my short hair.
*I’m still not sure what to do with them, so I just put them in a Tumblr. But if anyone has a better idea, please let me know. I’m bad at this stuff. Marketing. Promoting. Getting the word out. I just want to sit here and look at the pictures of happy women eating cake, and smile to myself.