black women and fat and a photo of a girl wearing someone else’s face

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!)

*  *  *

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.

42 Comments »

Kate on May 10th 2012 in beauty, being different, body, exercise, food, weight

42 Responses to “black women and fat and a photo of a girl wearing someone else’s face”

  1. Jess responded on 10 May 2012 at 11:56 am #

    I think there are two big underlying things in the op-ed that you didn’t mention: One is that, just like thinness, an embracing of thickness has gone too far. Its a moderation thing, and it sucks when we as humans lose sight of moderation in either direction. I firmly believe being big is beautiful, but not to the point of killing you. Just as one should never chase thinness to the point of health issues; its equal danger.
    The other, which sadly she only barely touches on in the end, is the lack of nutritional knowledge and wellness practices in southern black communities. I am not black, but in both personal experience and in media, I have learned that a lot of black families, especially from the south, do not eat well-rounded meals and include a lot of processed foods. On the rare occasion there are vegetables, they are swimming in butter or other fats, and there’s something with a lot of sugar. In large quantities, at every meal. None of this is bad to do sometimes, and its certainly delicious, but as a staple diet it’s a recipe for diabetes, which the black community is also well documented as generally ignoring once diagnosed.
    I might catch a lot of shit for saying any of this since I am not black, but I believe that outside observers of any situation can be just as useful as those in it.

  2. Melanie responded on 10 May 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    I think that perhaps a high fat diet and lack of exercise would lead to unhealthy African American women, but not just that they are fat. I am fat, and incredibly healthy.

    But I agree with Jess on the fact that I am not one to proclaim that fat is the way to be. Fat is the way I am, because it is how my body reacts to the environment. I will not starve myself to be thin. I consciously eat healthy and move my body so that I can live a long eventful life. If I don’t get hit by a bus. :)

    I think we need to shift focus completely away from size, and focus on health. No “thin is right” or “plump is better,” but simply, “Let’s be healthy and not worry about what a scale or a number on a tag says.” I would like things to be that way. I am pretty sure they never will, but it would be mighty keen if they were. Honoring the way our bodies are meant to be, instead of forcing them in to some non-fitting mold makes people uncomfortable. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable.

  3. Sasha responded on 10 May 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    I had a completely different reaction, but am so grateful for the discussion of this important issue.

    For me, the most salient part of Alice Randall’s piece is this:

    “The billions that we are spending to treat diabetes is money that we don’t have for education reform or retirement benefits, and what’s worse, it’s estimated that the total cost of America’s obesity epidemic could reach almost $1 trillion by 2030 if we keep on doing what we have been doing.”

    And followed a bit later by this:

    “I call on every black woman for whom it is appropriate to commit to getting under 200 pounds or to losing the 10 percent of our body weight that often results in a 50 percent reduction in diabetes risk.”

    The take-away message for me was about small changes that have big impacts. Randall suggests losing 10% of our body weight to achieve a 50% reduction in our risk for diabetes. So for the 200 pound woman, lose 20 pounds and cut your risk of diabetes in half! You will still be curvy at 180 pounds, but half as likely to develop diabetes. That is an astonishing return-on-investment.

    My reaction was to applaud Randall for her sensible views on improving community health and reducing the burden of health care costs for preventable illnesses.

    I don’t know if there is an equivalent message for the white community, but there has to be a correlation between the pressure to be thin and the burden of health care costs for related preventable illnesses. Infertility, high-risk pregnancies, early-onset osteoporosis, and heart disease are just a few of the preventable illnesses to affect underweight women. Infertility and high-risk pregnancies in particular are extremely expensive and burden the health care system by their cost. Could gaining 10% of your body weight reduce the incidence of infertility and high-risk pregnancies? I have to believe that it can.

    So the message really can be applied to more than the black community. Body weight extremes are dangerous. Being underweight and overweight both affect your health, and yet both extremes are preventable. There may be pressure to be underweight in one community, and pressure to be overweight in another. But we must find the middle ground if we want to be healthy.

  4. Grace responded on 10 May 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    I understand your trepidation about talking about it, but we shouldn’t only talk about the things that look like us and think like us, so kudos for bringing it up.

    I am a black woman. I’m also fat. I’ve also struggled with weight my ENTIRE life. As a child, fat shaming (although looking back now I was not fat then) was something that was done around me, to me etc.

    As a teen/young adult, I found that some men embraced the curvier me – not the unhealthy me – and some men even liked the really heavier me. I have white women friends who are also big-heavy-fat-curvy-voluptuous and they say they don’t feel the same kind of love from the men in their communities.

    That said, the article bothered me on many levels – and this response in Ebony magazine summed up why better than I could. http://www.ebony.com/news-views/your-blackness-aint-like-mine/2

    Bottom line is, I think, I am a fat black woman. I am striving to be a healthy woman, regardless of my weight. Because I want to be healthy, a side product of that is I’m going to lose weight. I’m good with that and so are the people in my life who love me. I CAN love and appreciate and dress up and take pleasure in my body, even while I try to change it.

    This is my story, and I don’t speak for all black women when I tell it, and I think the author’s problem began when she wrote the article as though she did.

  5. Kate responded on 10 May 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    @Grace
    THANK YOU. I wish this response could just replace my post. It bothered me that the writer spoke for all black women, too. It bothers me when Jewish writers speak for all Jews. It’s just more complicated than that.
    And I love the Ebony article. Everyone should read that. Thanks for the link.

  6. Kimmy Sue Ruby Lou responded on 10 May 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    girl…i just e-mailed a photo of a healthy-eating white girl with a “so-called” black ass…she’s hot :) my photographer friend is making her rounds within our special group of women, capturing their natural beauty…and we come in all shapes and sizes…you’re awesome!

  7. Kate responded on 10 May 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    @Kimmy Sue
    Woman! You look amazing!!! I just saw the pics. You are rocking that dress! If you want me to share it in a post ever, let me know :-)

  8. Claire responded on 10 May 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Grace: I’m so glad you posted Jamilah Lemieux’s response — I was just coming down here to link to it! I think it’s a wonderful take not just on this specific issue, but on the larger problem of the reductive way in which minority experiences get discussed in “mainstream” settings.

    Kate: I think that your juxtaposition of the article with that amazing photograph is a good way of framing it, since it gets at the true complexity of the societal pressures surrounding the issue.

    I also want to point out that weight actually seems to be a pretty lousy proxy for health — rather, there is some tendency for obesity to correlate with health risk factors, but only when someone has generally unhealthy habits. When a person engages in healthy habits, there is actually little difference in all-cause mortality, regardless of weight (see this post–and the blog in general–for a great discussion: http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/study-healthy-habits-make-healthy-fatties/). If we can successfully separate “health” from discussions about weight, then there’s still a lot of work to do in battling other toxic factors that go into body image, but it might help cut down on the concern trolling that happens around this issue — and on the shame people feel for supposedly endangering their health — and force us to contend with the fact that the aesthetic principles that guide how we think we should look are essentially arbitrary.

    PS This is the first time I’ve commented, but I’m a long time reader and love the blog!

  9. Kimmy Sue Ruby Lou responded on 10 May 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    Kate, I think it would be very appropriate for you to share my pic in a post…seriously, do you know how many years of my life I wasted feeling self-conscious about my fluffiness :) ? Women have got to wake up and OWN it…because sexy is most definitely more about attitude and confidence!

  10. Jess responded on 10 May 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    @Sasha

    Well cited! Yes, its about small changes with big impact. Nobody is saying you can’t be a certain body type or weight if its not as a direct result of poor habits. And undereating is just as bad as overeating. Its important to separate looks from habits. A few healthy choices won’t change your looks too drastically, but it can make that world of difference in your health.

  11. maggie responded on 10 May 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    Yes! That is the article I was thinking about. I don’t know what to think. I like Grace’s response.

  12. Emily responded on 10 May 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    This reminds me so much of a recent experience. I have been quite sick this winter and constant nausea has caused made eating difficult. I’ve been loosing weight at a rapid speed. What’s interesting is running into people who I haven’t seen in a while. All the americans smile delightedly at me “You look great! wow you have lost so much weight. Fantastic!” The smiles fade as I reveal my diet secret. I am not “healthy skinny” the kind of skinny you get from carefully depriving yourself of food or bingeing at the gym. I “sick skinny” a concept that barely lives on in the U.S.

    Who can blame anyone, we are americans, and I certainly don’t mind the complements.

    But when I ran into my friend from India, it felt like he had magic glasses on that could see reality. He came up and looked at me with deep concern. “Oh Emily, I heard you were sick but you must be very very sick, you have wasted away. I am so sorry for what you are going through.”

    It was really refreshing because he had seen the truth. But the reason he could see the truth was because in India (and many other countries) skinny is seen as a symptom of sickness or poverty. I think it is important to remember that health doesn’t come with a particular weight. Some people are naturally thinner, some are naturally heavier. It is important for each person to find the weight that supports a healthy lifestyle (Excellent point above by Grace) but we need to remember that there are health risks at all the extremes.

  13. Samantha Angela responded on 10 May 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    I wrote about this not long ago:

    http://samanthamenzies.com/home/2012/03/black-women-are-heavier-and-happier/

    I think it is amazing how beauty is defined for black women by black women themselves. They carved their own identity, it created for them by mainstream media.

    It is an interesting example of how beauty standards are defined by culture. How, in a vacuum apart from media influences, a group of people determine their own ideas of what is attractive.

  14. Celynne responded on 10 May 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    I definitely think races have their different beauty ideals, or at least stereotypes of what those should be. Thick black women. Schoolgirl styled Asians. The exotic Indian or wild Native American. As the world becomes more homogenized, a bigger and more melted melting pot, our beauty ideals do eventually run together. Thin is very much in right now, no matter the race.

  15. teegan responded on 10 May 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    I have a comment – but not about race.
    Being nearly 21 weeks pregnant, I’m learning about the acceptance of gaining weight as you’re growing a baby and the conflicting information you find. Some doctors (on a far end of the spectrum) say to eat whatever you crave. Some prescribe strict sugar-free diets with lists of just how many fruits, vegetables, lean meats, etc, you should consume. Some diets have you consuming tons of liver and animal fats/proteins. Some exalt (good) fat, while others outlaw it.
    And, related to that, some people believe that you should gain whatever you gain by eating the way you like. Some people say you should gain whatever you gain as long as you eat well (whatever that means) and exercise. And a LOT say you should gain 25-35 pounds (a little more if you’re underweight, less if overweight). But even the ones that give specific poundage don’t take into consideration the fact that this is NINE MONTH PROCESS and every woman gains different weight at different times. I gained 8 pounds in the first trimester (I was hungry all the time! And had no morning sickness) while everyone I read about was faint with nausea and losing that same 8 pounds. So I panicked. And I made sure I was eating healthy (except for occasional craving indulgences – apparently my child loves plain potato chips, chocolate donuts, and oreos) and walking and stretching. And watched as my weight gain decelerated quite a bit for a few weeks. Now, I’m actually only a pound or two above “right on track” for gaining 30 pounds by the end.
    (Sorry this is rambly)
    And then there’s the fun fact that not only do pregnant women gain weight differently chronologically, but also in different places. The weeks I gained two pounds were not always the weeks I looked/felt bigger. And some weeks I suddenly saw a whale in the mirror, though I’d gained nothing at all in the week before.
    I know this is rambling and is only vaguely related to your post, but it’s what I thought of reading about the conflict of too thin/too fat/healthy middle. There’s so much pressure from so many directions. And all I want to do is to be healthy, to provide a healthy environment for my child to be growing in. Why does that seem so difficult?

  16. Sarah responded on 10 May 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    Kate, this is perfect timing. I literally just got back from a session with my nutritionist, and we discussed the previously mentioned “war on obesity” at length. She is so aggravated by the misguided “battle” that she just turns off the TV whenever it gets peddled in the news. In other words, here’s a pro who thinks it’s ridiculous.

    Melanie put it perfectly in an earlier comment: “I think we need to shift focus completely away from size, and focus on health.” People of ALL sizes, shapes, and ages get cancer. And heart disease. And diabetes. And eating disorders. Shall I continue?

    (It looks like I just reiterated what Grace had to say, albeit much less eloquently than her. :) )

    P.S. My birthday is next week, and I’ve decided to celebrate I’m going to make myself (and a few friends) the biggest, bad-ass cake I’ve ever attempted. Oh, and I’m going to eat it, too. You WILL get a photo submission. :)

  17. Kate responded on 10 May 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    @teegan
    This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing. It’s something I’ve wondered about before, because I’ve heard so many women express such different views about weight and pregnancy. I know a woman who dieted through her pregnancy, and a woman who ate everything in sight. Bear likes to research healthy eating related stuff, and he thinks I should cut out sugars completely when I get pregnant one day. My mom says I should cut out all processed foods and artificial sweeteners. eek! So much! I love getting your perspective on your experience. And that’s amazing, that you didn’t get morning sickness! I didn’t even know that was possible!

  18. Kate responded on 10 May 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    @Sarah
    I can’t wait for those pictures!!

  19. Terri responded on 10 May 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    Kate, as a young African American woman, I applaud your ability to address such a controversial topic. So many tend to shy away from it when, in fact, it does need to be addressed at some point.

    Now in regards to the article, I have mixed feelings. I think there is a lot of pressure on black women to be thick. NOt fat. However, that pressure seems to be applied by other black people and the occasional white person. As a size 0, I constantly hear people demean my “blackness” and act like I’m some mythical creature because I don’t have a black ass or thighs for days. I’ve even had white friends of mine proclaim that they are more black then me because they are thick. It doesn’t matter that I am pretty curvaceous. And yes, that hurts sometimes. I gets to me that my ethnicity or race is being questioned just because I don’t fit the image that many Americans have stereotypes us as.

    While the criticism does hurt, I still care a lot more about being healthy. I was once a hardcore dancer and continue to keep it up. I eat healthy and do everything in my power to keep a balanced diet.

  20. morgaine responded on 10 May 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    This conversation hinges on two very different things, and we, as a society, really ought to separate them. Fat, at a certain point (morbid obesity), is unhealthy, or can lead to ill health down the road. That doesn’t mean it’s ugly. I can’t stand hearing that obese women shouldn’t enjoy their looks because their bodies might be unhealthy. So fucking what if their bodies are unhealthy? That’s a separate issue. A woman with cancer shouldn’t be barred from loving her body just because it’s sick. (Not that obesity = cancer, of course, but it’s an extension of the same point.) I have a bone disorder that causes my ankles to warp. I acknowledge and treat it, but I’m not ashamed of my feet. I can think they’re beautiful even as I realize they’re not the healthiest.

    Essentially, knowing that you might need to make some changes shouldn’t keep you from loving yourself the way you are.

  21. P Floores responded on 10 May 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    If you lived in the south, you wouldn’t doubt that black women are pressured to live rounder. But there is a far heavier pressure on them, speaking culturally: to have straight hair.

    Body image angst lessens dramatically after you have some babies. Why is that?

    Did you see the Time Mag. cover story about attachment parenting? Now there is a sexy woman! A bit too skinny, but wow!

  22. Rapunzel responded on 10 May 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    I just wish everyone, man or woman or teen or child, can just be who they want to be. No questions asked. No opinions offered. No judgments to worry about. Whether it’s about weight, height, skin color, hair color, the excess or the lack of certain attributes, whatever….why can’t we just be who we are?

    I just want to be me!

  23. Adrienne responded on 11 May 2012 at 1:36 am #

    You know, I keep hearing about how Black women supposedly feel pressure to get or stay big, and honestly I think it’s bullshit. Not because I don’t think that some Black women feel this pressure, but because it seems like everyone who writes an article like the one you mentioned talks to the same group of Black women over and over.

    Why do I say this? Because, as a Black woman from a family full of Black women who went all the way through school with lots of Black girls and women, I NEVER saw this.

    What I saw were lots of skinny Black girls who had skinny Black moms and enjoyed being skinny. I saw thick Black girls who were envied by skinny Black girls and fat Black girls who were ignored or taunted by the skinnies and the thicks.

    Unless the fat girls where loud/outgoing/outrageous. Then everyone liked them. Go figure.

    When my mom found out she was pre-diabetic in the early ’90s no one told her to just go on insulin and try to keep her 250 pound figure. And if someone had she wouldn’t have listened. She was so scared by the news that she lost 100 pounds in a little over a year and has kept that weight off for almost 20 years.

    Part of the problem with this stuff is that we can’t really define “thin” or “fat”, since they mean different things to different people, regardless of race. I’m sure that for some Black women “thin” means having a space between your upper thighs even when your legs are as close together as possible. While for other Black women “thin” just means that your waist is smaller than your bust line and hips, no matter what size you are. And all “fat” might mean is having a big butt.

    From my experiences growing up, according to the op-ed piece, I was basically raised White. We need to remember that, like you mentioned, all of no group thinks or feels one way about anything. While I do feel that most Black women have less of a desire to aspire to the physical proportions of your typical supermodel, the idea that all Black women across the USA feel pressure to gain weight or stay fat has become a stereotype that will not die.

  24. Yassmin responded on 11 May 2012 at 2:19 am #

    Hey (from a long time reader but rare commentor).

    I found your article, the original article and ebony’s response quite interesting. There was one point in particular though, that I wanted to respond to…

    I can’t speak as an African American or a white person, as I am neither, but I can speak as an African who grew up in a white society. Ceylenne mentioned this idea that thinness is very in right now, regardless of race —but I don’t think that is a fair comment to make at all. Yes, you are right Kate, quite often the constant pressure from American media is to be quite thin and to adhere to a certain beauty ideal, but it should be noted that although Western media has quite a wide reach, it doesn’t necessarily influence or dictate the views of all races around the world. To say that thinness is in, simply because “it is in” throughout the West says to me that there is the assumption that the Western ideal dictates the beauty ideal throughout the world, and this isn’t totally true yet.

    I know in Sudan, where I am from (Northern Sudan though, which is more arab), women who are too thin are thought of as underfed and not as beautiful, due to the same reason a previous commentator mentioned – thinness is a sign of poverty and the lack of ability to feed oneself properly. On the other hand, people that are seen as “too large” are also derided because they aren’t “taking care of themselves”, but the beauty ideal here is someone with a sizable rear, thick legs, round face, long hair etc etc. A cousin of mine was getting married and lost a few kilos before the wedding and all the aunties were worried “She’s getting too thin, she should eat more and take care…” which I thought was amusing, since in Australia losing weight before a wedding is pretty much the accepted norm.

    I guess I just wanted to point out that different beauty ideals still exist. I make this comment without talking about health — because health is a completely different matter (especially here in Sudan!) but from a beauty/weight standpoint alone, there is definitely more than one acceptable standard, one just sometimes needs to look outside their borders.

    Cheers =D

  25. kate in cleveland responded on 11 May 2012 at 7:17 am #

    I really love that most of us are stressing “health, NOT size” as the concern, because that is the real concern. Healthiness has always been my primary concern, which is so hard to try to turn off what is even considered healthy! @teegan shared a concern that is so common for all women, pregnant, skinny or round – what is healthy? Is an avocado the good fat or the bad fat or a vegetable or ok but only if it’s sliced and served on whole wheat?

    Whew. It just boggles my mind. I know I want to be healthy enough to have good stamina for whatever kind of working out I end up doing, to be able to walk for 30 minutes a day, to be able to bend a little further each time I take yoga – BUT I also like eating the dishes I concoct with both the food I’m growing in my community garden and the fancy cheese I buy.

    Really great discussion thread, everyone! we are all being really thoughtful to one another :-)

  26. Eating as a Path to Yoga responded on 11 May 2012 at 8:30 am #

    I’m so sick of the so-called war on obesity. You know the government has been lying about all the so-called deaths from being obese, right? Just watch the documentary America the Beautiful 2, where the government admits it right on camera!

    Fat does not equate sick. Skinny does not equate healthy. Thin does not equate beauty. Size is NOT an indicator of health!

    Why do doctors prescribe weight loss diets that only have a 2% chance of working? Why do they tell patients to go on them, when science shows us that being on a diet is the greatest indicator that you will GAIN weight and/or develop disordered eating?!

  27. Emmi responded on 11 May 2012 at 8:41 am #

    I am battling the flu and can’t form many coherent thoughts/comments of my own, but I just wanted to say that I love this post and love even more the wonderful, thoughtful comments here. *This* is how good discussions should go! Bravo Kate, and all the commenters :)

  28. Shyra responded on 11 May 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Hi Kate – so good to be back reading! Perfect place for me to pick up. I read this op-ed when it came it out and I did agree with her recommendation that everyone woman over 200 lbs lose 10% of their body weight. But She said where appropriate and didn’t give the requirements for who it was appropriate for. I’m 5’3 and I weighed 200 when I was in high school. Not because I was morbidly obese and lazy but because that’s the way I was built. I was a three sport athlete and had more muscle mass than half the boys basketball team. As a black woman I feel the pressure to not be too thin. My community embraces curves and if you have great ones you can land a man with a good job. Think Kim Kardashian curves verses just being fat. I will never be a size two and if I was my bf probably wouldn’t be interested in me. I see a personal trainer (he’s white) and he understands what is healthy for me and my body and doesn’t necessarily go by the charts that’s supposed to be for everyone. Every body is different. And everyone has a different preference.

    Today I will not eat the cheesecake in the refrigerator, but I will eat McDonald’s!

  29. Kate responded on 11 May 2012 at 9:37 am #

    @Adrienne
    Good point, about definitions of “thin” and “fat.” It’s actually totally unclear what they mean, because they look different for different people. Sometimes people mean “curvy” when they say “fat.” It quickly gets confusing.

  30. Kate responded on 11 May 2012 at 9:44 am #

    @Yassmin
    Thanks for the comment! And I love learning about the way things work in places I’ve never been and know very little about. I will say (just because I don’t want to sound totally ignorant), I’m not incredibly surprised by your story about your cousin and the wedding (though I found it sort of adorable). I’m aware that western beauty ideals don’t dominate everywhere, and glad that’s true, but keep reading about how quickly and far they are spreading. I think that was my point, although I probably made it sloppily and should have clarified :-)

    I want to learn more about what it was like to grow up in Sudan! If you ever feel like writing a guest post about Sudan and body image, please send me an email!

  31. Deanna responded on 11 May 2012 at 9:49 am #

    It seems to me that everyone these days is trying to lose weight. I am at least 10 lbs underweight yet when I go see the doctor or talk to me they assume I am also trying to lose weight just because everyone else is. I can’t eat what I want because I have certain health problems that require I eat a relatively healthy diet so it’s not easy for me to gain weight.

    Let me say this thought: People have no trouble insulting a thin woman. One of my friends told me her husband thought I looked terrible because I am too thin. Do you think I would tell her my husband thought she looked like a beached whale? I don’t think so. People just assume I have an eating disorder and I am trying to stay thin.

    On the other hand, I have to say that when they call very fat women curvy that bothers me too. Curvy means curves..not lots of fat and it seems to be a way to get back at thin women. I know that a lot of thin women work it really hard. Some of us are just that way and we might like a few extra pounds but I suspect that we are a small group.

    The pressure to look a certain way is mind boggling. Growing up I was tall and thin but I had scraggly hair, a big nose, deep set eyes and a big space between my teeth…I was plain ugly. I never had boyfriends which has affected my self esteem even now. It’s hard to shake that.

    So it’s not just weight..it’s everything. Even thin women get the ugly blues from time to time.

  32. Eat the Damn Cake » I want a ceasefire in the mommy wars responded on 11 May 2012 at 11:39 am #

    [...] everything is a war these days, it seems. Yesterday, we were talking about the “war on obesity.” I even heard that Obama declared “war on marriage.” So “war” means [...]

  33. Kate responded on 11 May 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    @P Floores
    Just wrote a post about it!

  34. Kate responded on 11 May 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    @Shyra
    OK, I admit it, I was waiting for your comment :-) I thought you might have something to say, and I always enjoy your perspective!

  35. Carol Adams responded on 11 May 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    I’m not sure that black women feel that they need to be “thick” as they would maybe say, but they definitely are less interested in being skinny for sure. In saying that I do know that black men like curves for sure! Look at Kim Kardashian… Black men LOVE her. My daughter is 22 and black men do double takes because she is a very curvy D cup…with a very curvy behind. Even at a lower weight the curves are there. It seems like so many HS/college age white men buy into the stick thin anorexic look. This is not only my observation but my daughter’s too. Even if my daughter starved herself she would never be that. Enough of thoughts from a white middle aged woman.. I wonder what a black woman would have to say about this… Love your blog.. you are amazing!!! Hugs

  36. Also, a Response « Expectations responded on 17 May 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    [...] primarily about women’s perception of their bodies and their places in society. She posted a piece a week or so ago about the pressure placed on African American women to be curvy (as opposed to [...]

  37. Heavy responded on 29 May 2012 at 11:16 pm #

    I’m a black woman and the whole idea of trying to stay heavy or thick is soooo alien to me that I started writing a blog years ago about my battle with weight issues–primarily trying to lose weight but also trying to accept my body as it was. It’s still a battle. I appreciate the men I’ve met who like me the way I am (though I’ve never had a dude urge me to stay heavy) but it’s a double-edged sword for me because I don’t necessarily like what I see in the mirror. None of the black women I happen to know are fighting to stay heavy either. So when a piece appears in the NY Times telling the world why I am fat, and it has nothing to do with my experience, it’s annoying.

    Also one thing that’s awfully clear in that article is that the writer is a hell of a lot older than I am. Maybe the pressures on her growing up were different from the pressures on me growing up. I was born in Africa (DRC) in 1976, and came to Canada when I was 1 1/2 and my mother has never done anything but urge me to be thin. She was urging me to be thin before I was ever a pound overweight (thanks, Mom).

    This is all to say, there are a HUGE variety of experiences around weight had by black women and it chaps my ass when someone writes an op-ed that tries to conflate those into one experience.

  38. Melinda responded on 13 Jun 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    I agree with the Black women here who said that experiences with weight and body image vary, all based on the individual.

    I happen to be a VERY light-skinned biracial woman (black/white). I’ve been a size 00 at my smallest. I am now the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life, at a size 10-12.

    When I was growing up, I was often criticized for being thin and having light skin. My cousin, who has been anywhere from a size 16 to a size 24, was considered the “pretty one” in our family.

    When I was in school, boys generally preferred girls with big boobs/hips/butts. I had the hips and the butt even as a skinny girl, but no boobs to speak of.

    It bothers me when I hear anyone attempting to speak for Black women on the whole, because all of our experiences and perceptions are different.

    I have no desire to be fat. There, I said it. I’m only speaking for myself and my personal body image. I don’t want to be too thin, but I’m also heavier than I would like to be.

    I believe that sometimes Black women who are heavy/thick/obese/overweight fall victim to stereotypes because of their size as well as their race.

    I’ve noticed that on TV or in films, fat Black women are often stereotyped as loud and obnoxious or as the funny, sassy sidekick to white women. Kind of like the old “mammy” stereotype. No disrespect to anyone, but that isn’t who I want to be.

    Shows like “Glee” demonstrate this perfectly. Amber Riley, the actress who plays Mercedes, is cute and she has a phenomenal voice. But she is still playing a stereotypical Black female character…the fat girl with attitude. The one who is friends with everybody but can’t find a boyfriend, while all the other (non-black) girls around her are dating.

    I like Queen Latifah because she seems to be comfortable in her own skin. She sends a positive vibe. But M’onique? Not so much. There’s just something very off-putting about her. She just seems trashy to me. That’s just my opinion, though.

    I know plenty of Black women who claim to love their bodies and that’s wonderful, but I know that gaining about 60 lbs. has not helped my self-esteem. It has also caused some new health issues. I have ovarian cysts, my right foot hurts constantly, and I’m always hot.

    So as I said, it comes down to the individual and how she feels. But I will be working on losing the weight I’ve gained due to depression, illness, and poor lifestyle choices.

  39. Melinda responded on 13 Jun 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Oh, and I would like to clarify that on me, a size 10 is fat because I’m very short.

    If I were taller I wouldn’t mind.

  40. Size0 responded on 23 Apr 2013 at 2:25 am #

    hi, im 15, 5’9ish, and under 115lbs. Ive stumbled across this blog (which i love btw) and this post at around 2am. I should be doing homework, but this is much more interesting than spanish. Anyways, last summer i went on a diet, i had this moment of “opposite of anorexic” i saw myself as super skinny and wanted terribly to gain weight by my high school years. For about a week and a half i went on a 2500-3000 calorie diet of nutella, peanut butter, cookies, and waffles. To my disappointment i only gained about 2 pounds. Also, because i wasnt getting the results i wanted, i gave up. Other than right now, ive only told 2 other people about this week of binge eating. Anyways, i was born in the late 90′s and therefore im growing up in the “big is beautiful” era of society. Not being big is one of what i consider to be one of my biggest flaws. Ive always assumed that the reason boys didnt like me and the reason i didnt look good in the mirror was because i wasnt big enough. But i tried to justify my weight by telling myself that technically i could be a model, if i wanted. That didnt help. Especially when this photo started to float around. “https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRu6nO1-668zLPTsnsQRwd5oEUlQbmerwqonIKOONtSxrUh4La4″ I looked like the top row, and i realized that the bottom row was prettier, sexier, and everything i wished to be. I still wish that i could be bigger that i could love my curves. It makes me laugh though because i think that if anyone else read my body description, theyd probably think that i was a) anorexic b) bulimic c) gorgeous. None of the above are true…I dont really remember where i was going with this though (forgive me, its 2:30 in the morning). But yeah, sometimes no matter what race you are, the “media” can affect anyone whether they are a “real” size 10 woman (does this make me not a woman?) or not.

  41. Jay responded on 02 Apr 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    Hey Kate, one of your ghost-readers here. I usually drop by just to feel like I’m having stimulating conversation aside from my studies and aside from teaching a 2 yr old how to talk. But this issue strikes close to home, and I may ramble and waffle below. I never do get a chance to, so bare with me…

    I’m fat. Not huge fat, I have a figure that I cover up, But…but I am fat. I have pudge on my belly, and my thighs press together, and if i straighten my arms I get dimples at my elbows. And my whole extended family of middle-eastern origin (I wish I were exaggerating) consists of slim and petite females. I stick out like a sore thumb painted blue. And until I was married, that was enough to be depressing. I always thought when I married HE would accept me, jiggle and hips and boobs and all, because that’s what happens in all the stories…

    I’ve done this before, started writing out a comment then chickened out and deleted it, not bothering to post, but I WILL submit this time, because your post and the links brought me to tears and I have to unload all the baggage that links with those feels.

    I know I am not ugly, I can look in the mirror with no makeup on and most days that’s enough to keep on going, keep my chin up and get s*** done. I don’t have trouble breathing, I don’t have any diseases, I rarely get sick. But then my memory kicks in, and every word anyone has ever said about my looks and others who sit in the category of ‘fat’ jumbles up there so that I have a refrain all day whilst hubby is gone, and he gets home and chips in eventually himself, asking why I don’t lose ‘just’ 10 kilos. That’s almost the tipping point. So i read up on other’s who have it worse than me, who actually have a reason to be miserable, and tell myself to suck it up and try harder. And I’m making myself sick.

    I can’t think about eating without feeling terrified that somehow I will get even bigger than I am. I’m breastfeeding and force myself bite after bite to think hey, your kid needs this stuff, don’t be selfish. I watch my portion size at a quarter or half of my husband’s, and that still seems too much. I’m sick of being miserable. Why can’t the world be happy I am not sick, and instead focus on fear-mongering elsewhere?

    I put a face on every day. It consists of a smile, and bright, uplifted eyes. I put a filter over my mouth every morning. I don’t swear, I don’t complain, and when I argue, I stick to the topic. This is because I hate my body. I hate how it makes people look at me and think I am unhealthy, or making the wrong choices. I want to change it. And my face, and my hair, and everything about me, because there must be something wrong if everyone is saying the same thing, right?

    I know the truth, but reality is not just a construct of truth. Reality is a myriad of many people’s opinions and voices and projections, and my truth is barely even a sliver of that. My truth is drowned out, and I’m left miserable, because my truth doesn’t conform – so there must be something wrong with me. The reality is that I have weight that should be ‘lost’, and that as I am I have never been good enough. The reality is that I want to shut myself up in a dark room and curl up because I’m sick of not being enough, of my best always falling short, and of every person who has two cents worth pitching in to let me know. I hate buying clothes and knowing that it will stick in at my waist and highlight how big my hips and bust are especially compared to the rest of the family. What does it matter how the silhouette looks when there’s something to pinch wherever the eye can see?

    So I wake up every morning with a cloud of racial ideals to live up to, and a cloud of mainstream ideals that come suffocating into my mind, and the knowledge that I am not ideal, have never been ideal, and almost everywhere I turn is the same understanding reflected back at me. And I am not happy, but know I could be if there were no ideals – I know that if only acceptance were not just a word but a belief, then people would stop pointing out what was wrong with me and see what was right. And i dread what my daughter will go through someday, because I passed on my genes to her. Will she hate me for being her mum and not looking like her aunts, and saddling her with the predisposition to end up like me?

    Thank you for doing your bit to open up people’s eyes on issues like this, Kate. I only hope your message can travel further and travel faster, because I want to be able to love myself, and feel justified in doing so.

  42. Kate responded on 08 Apr 2014 at 10:57 pm #

    @Jay

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautifully written, painfully honest comment. Honestly, even if no one ever read my post, I wish everyone could read this.

    I kept nodding along. I’ve felt many of the things you describe. I still feel many of them. We are told in so many ways that there is so much wrong with us, and then told to shut up and smile and act like everything is fine. To “stop being so sensitive.” It’s wildly confusing. It’s quiet, terrible, terribly damaging.

    But there is actually nothing wrong with you. This historically recent, media-hyped obsession we have, as a culture, with fat– it’s bordering on insanity. It’s out of control. The idea that what matters most about you is your surface– that’s ridiculous, too. Of course surfaces matter, but they are only one piece of information. You are infinitely more than your thighs or the shape of your face or the weight on the scale. And the fact that you know the truth is critical. Because sometimes the majority of people in your life are actually wrong about something, all at once. People are actually often wrong about something, all at once. It’s easier to see when it’s not about you– you see a group of people ganging up on someone, bullying someone for another reason, and you think, “This is crazy!” Or sometime everyone becomes obsessed with music you think is badly done. Or sometimes everyone drives around without a seat belt because no one thought to put seat belts in the cars yet. A lot of what we experience really is a fad. Doesn’t make it less relevant to our lives, certainly, but it does give some perspective to look at it that way.

    It’s awesome that you’re a mother! You made a whole person. That’s fantastic. That should be celebrated. It’s much more important than what you look like, even if you looked like the most popular supermodel alive. If people are directing your attention away from this to your legs, you know what? screw ‘em. That’s just stupid and shortsighted and superficial. But for you, personally, in your own head: I hope so hard that you can find a way to love yourself for being a mother and being well-written and introspective and brave. And that’s just what came across in your comment, one comment, left out here on the anonymous internet. In person I’m sure you’re a million other awesome things. Right now, you’re the center of your daughter’s world. I know, because I’m the center of my baby girl’s world. And I am trying every day to love myself more in her honor, so that I can show her that being a woman is about so, so much more than whatever the narrow confines society sets up for us. That maybe it’s not easy, but as long as we’re willing to grapple with it, we’re the kind of thinking, questioning people the world can always use more of. And if you’re willing to question, and willing to face your own self-hate, then maybe, underneath everything, you love yourself more than you’re giving yourself credit for.