Why Do We Feel The Need to Keep Explaining ‘Our’ Fatness?

May 7, 2012  |  

Over the weekend Alice Randall wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times on black women and fat, simply titled just that. If you haven’t noticed, articles on this topic are becoming about as abundant as ones on black women being single and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Anyway, Randall plainly states that “many black women are fat because we want to be” and goes on to rehash the oft-expressed notion of black women preferring to have a little more meat on their bones as evidenced through her personal experience of praying for fat thighs as a little girl and knowing many men, her husband included, who have a panic attack the minute their woman drops below 200 pounds.

It’s evident right from the beginning that Randall is not aware of the difference of having rounder hips or a bigger backside and actually being fat, overweight, obese, or in any other physically plump state as a black women that has caught headlines recently, but that’s a far more frustratingly minor point in the overgeneralized and exaggerated prose.

Beyond the aesthetic appeal of a fuller body, Randall says African American women subscribe to being fat, black, and happy as some form of political statement. Quoting Andrea Elizabeth Shaw’s book, The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies, Randall too argues that the fat black woman’s body “functions as a site of resistance to both gendered and racialized oppression.” She writes:

“By contextualizing fatness within the African diaspora, she invites us to notice that the fat black woman can be a rounded opposite of the fit black slave, that the fatness of black women has often functioned as both explicit political statement and active political resistance.”

As a heavier black woman who just dropped 22 pounds and has several more to go I can tell you, it ain’t that deep. But if it was, then why do we feel the need to defend it?

Every time another study comes out about obesity in America or black women’s happiness being heavy, a slew of articles come out explaining why we’re bigger than white women and why we’re okay with that. It seems to me if we were really okay with it, there’d be no need to explain anything. I get that sometimes some of these studies feel like yet another attack on black women and we want to let “them” know we’re not falling for it, but the truth is we all know that when researchers point out the alarming rates of black women who are overweight, obese, or morbidly obese we know good and well they’re not talking about having a little something extra in all the “right” places, they’re talking about significant pounds that become a health concern and defense against that is not easily justifiable—particularly if the case for a heavier body is to please black men that I thought didn’t want black women anyway. Do we not realize how ridiculous it sounds to say black women are okay putting themselves at risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a zillion other illnesses to have a black man dish out a heavy dose of street harassment that we’re probably going to begrudgingly be subjected to in the first place? The thing is we’re not doing ourselves any favors by offering up this overgeneralized reasoning to the masses, especially because I’m more inclined to think black women are heavier not just “because they want to be” but because most of us haven’t had positive eating and exercise examples as a child.

The most frustrating part about Randall’s article is that after explaining why women want to be fat she moves into “WE need to change” and puts less than half the effort into encouraging women to actually get under 200 pounds or lose “the 10 percent of our body weight that often results in a 50 percent reduction in diabetes risk” than she did outlining all the reasons they “happily” got there in the first place. I’m thrilled at the confidence black women can display at any size and I don’t think we need to explain it as if it’s a state of mind we shouldn’t have. The more we attempt the justify it, the less secure with it we actually seem, and though that’s not such a bad thing either, we’re sending conflicting messages that don’t serve any positive purpose. As I’ve said before, not hating yourself because you’re not a size 2 and not caring about carrying extra weight are hardly the same thing but when articles like this come about it just adds to the stereotype that all black women are overweight and that we’re all intentionally overweight for cultural reasons. That line of thinking doesn’t make us sound much better than white women starving themselves to be thin to conform to their own beauty ideals. Let’s stop substituting one stereotype for another to justify something we say we’re okay with and start focusing on the real issue and the real problem: our physical health.

Do you think most black women are overweight because they really want to be?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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