Meat on Dem Bones: Confronting Fat Antagonism & Diet Culture in Black Beauty Politics
I’ve written several times about various aspects of fat antagonism. But because the body positivity, Health at Every Size, and fat acceptance movements trend very white, there is little discussion—both within these movements and outside of them—about body image issues for Black folk.
That’s a problem for several reasons. Mostly because I’ve been having a lot of feels lately and I have few spaces I can go to talk about them.
I’ve been swimming in Black beauty standards my entire life; I know them all too well.
They mostly apply to women (or those perceived as such) and include large, perky breasts and a slim waist, standard for white women, but also a perfectly round, prominent ass and large hips and thighs (not too large, of course); straight hair (curly hair is okay as long as it’s not kinky-coily); bodies that aren’t too small because we reject the violence of white supremacy’s expectations of Black bodies, but not too big because lol/ew fat people; very light-skinned, light brown if you’re lucky.
Y’all know what I’m talkin’ about.
There’s been a tiny sampling of articles and essays that address the harmful nature of these standards and fat antagonism in Black American culture; except for the fabulous Ashleigh Shackelford, most don’t discuss these issues in depth.
To be sure, modern Black beauty standards are a direct result of white supremacy. The very idea of a limit on what is valuable is a very effective tool in the white supremacist toolbox.
It’s a tool we’ve latched on to partly for survival (particularly for Black women, femmes, and non-binary people) but also because, like any marginalized group, we aren’t immune to perpetuating oppression on other marginalized groups.
How fat antagonism shows up in Black spaces varies, as it does in the larger culture. A few examples—with explanations of why these things are problematic or downright oppressive—follow below.
It’s your place of worship’s New Year’s commitment to weight loss resolutions
The diet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry because it relies on what most researchers already know: for the overwhelming majority of people (approximately 95% according to most sources), diets (or whatever you want to call them) don’t work.
In a fat antagonistic culture, where people are promised happier lives, better looks, better sex and relationships, and professional success (a real phenomenon due to employment discrimination against fat people) if they’d lose weight, the diet industry has a revolving door of customers who would happily continue chasing the dream of being one of the few who actually get (and stay) slim.
For most of us though, we find ourselves in a cyclic pattern of what has been termed “yo-yo dieting,” a phenomenon that can be linked to many of the health issues often attributed to fatness.
It’s referring to certain body types (or body parts) as “sloppy”
One of the amazing things that can be said about us as a people is that we have a way with words. Much of the slang that’s been a part of the American lexicon for at least the last 70 years is a direct result of Black cultural production.
But for all of the empowering, comical, and enlightening language we’ve introduced, we can also use and create language that’s harmful (see also: thot).
“Sloppy” calls to mind an image of someone who’s careless, unkempt, disgusting, and probably smells—all common stereotypes about fat people regardless of race. In reference to bodies or body parts, it usually refers to something that’s perceived as not “put together.” An ass that’s big, but not toned or not shaped a certain way. A body with too many jiggly parts. Breasts that don’t sit up and stare at you. A belly that hangs.
It should go without saying that there are negative effects to body shaming in general, but the fact is that in a fat antagonistic society—where fat people are marginalized and slim/thick people are privileged—the shaming of fat bodies has real, systemic consequences beyond interpersonal exchanges or hurt “fee-fees” (although that’s important too – microaggressions directly impact fat people’s mental and physical health). What a shocker.
It’s a dearth of (unapologetically) fat representation in media
In the media spaces Black folks occupy independently, to varying degrees, and in which we have increased social control and power (compared to our lack of such control in the wider media landscape), you rarely see fat people.
When fat people appear, we’re usually relegated to the best friend, the comic relief, or for Black women, a maternal or even mammy figure.
And don’t “not all” here. We know there are examples of Black cultural production that include Black characters, storylines, or themes that are inclusive of fatness and treat it with respect and dignity. You prolly started naming them as soon as I started calling this shit out.
That they exist, sometimes as some of the most dynamic figures in our catalogs, doesn’t negate the point. From Lemonade and countless music videos to Soul Food and Scandal, we’re invisible in our own spaces.
Our lives aren’t complex or exciting. Sometimes we don’t even get to speak. Furthermore, there is copious celebration by our community when the few prominent Black celebrities who are larger bodied shrink themselves to what is considered acceptable.
It’s food shaming and food moralizing at our barbeques, holiday get-togethers, and block parties
Food shaming is a result of food moralizing. Food moralizing says, “These foods are good. These foods are bad. I can eat the good foods. Must. Avoid. Bad. Foods.” It’s an internal determination (inner dialogue as we create grocery lists, make a trip to the market, or look at a restaurant menu) that’s heavily dictated by external forces (culture, family and friends, media, the healthcare industry, etc.).
Food shaming is an interaction with other people or oneself in which we scold, correct, or even berate a person (or oneself) for making the “wrong choice” based on this labeling of foods as “bad” and “good.” When “bad” foods are consumed, we often think of ourselves (or others) as “bad.” Think, for example, about the diet culture language of “cheating.”
It’s true that there will be some foods that make us feel better—physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually—and others that’ll make us feel like crap.
For some disabled people (people with allergies, those living with diabetes, celiac disease, and many other conditions), some foods can be harmful or deadly, in quantities great and small. They must pay attention to what’s in their food for their own well-being. Saying “For health reasons, I have to avoid or limit my consumption of that.” is okay.
It’s distinct from clinical eating disorders; the latter are actual medical diagnoses (specifically, they’re mental disabilities). Disordered eating includes problematic, unhealthy behaviors related to our conception of food, our bodies, and/or exercise.
What we need to focus on is our own plates. More than that, we need to focus not on the “consequences” of the food on our plates but how it makes us feel, both in the moment and over time.
I eat fruits and veggies because they taste good—I mean, come on. Most are just delicious, nutrients aside. I also drink whole milk and eat cake. All of these things make me feel good or neutral physically. Cake, cookies, and butter are no longer my enemy.
I listen to my body, heart, and mind, and know when I’ve had enough. If you haven’t had enough yet, or finished five bites ago, it makes me no nevermind.
It’s considering putting your child(ren) (including teens) on a diet or commenting on what and how much they eat and their body size
This can, and often does, create the foundation for a lifetime of body image issues and disordered eating and/or exercising. It can even develop into clinical eating disorders, which are already on the rise among people of color, partly due to the increased recognition that people who aren’t white can have them.
Recent research shows, however, that rates of eating disorders are about the same for people of color when compared to white people. (Here’s where I remind readers that fat people live with eating disorders, too—and not just binge eating disorder.)
It’s expecting fat people, particularly those of us who aren’t men, to “dress for our size” in a world that already limits the fashion we have access to and polices our bodily autonomy
Often, we’ll hear people talk about which clothes look “flattering” or even “slimming” for a person of a larger size. Besides the fact that fat people come in many shapes and sizes yet are forced into a fashion industry that treats human bodies like they were made in cookie cutters, the truth is that the clothing that makes me feel good about the body Ihave to live in is none of your business.
Y’all will probably hate me by the end of this, but we can wear whatever the fuck we want.
Maybe you don’t feel comfortable enough to show off your tummy or your thighs, whether they fit society’s ideals or not. Maybe you could but you prefer to adhere to modesty. That’s cool, do you.
But if we’re going to talk about true liberation and the importance of bodily autonomy in various aspects of social justice and the necessity of marginalized groups doing what they want to survive and thrive in this world, then we need to stop playin’ and give fat people the space to do the same, without commentary.
The Personal Impact of This Mess
I know what you’re probably thinking. “This is bullshit.” But remember: a fat person is telling you these things are true.
They’re of my own and others’ personal experiences and political knowledge. They’re also based on facts (check the links), so you need to hush and listen to the marginalized person in the digital room. Also: internalized fat antagonism is a thing, just like internalized anti-Blackness.
If I didn’t lose you in that last paragraph, hear me out . . .
The points I’ve made only scratch the surface of fat antagonism and diet culture. There are many great activists, culture creators, and thinkers who are talking about these issues. Ashleigh Shackelford, as I mentioned before, is just one of many people doing this work.
Black beauty standards, fat antagonism, and diet culture touch the lives of Black people of all shapes, heights, sizes, and genders.
While only fat people (and darker skinned people and people with Afrocentric phenotypes) experience systemic oppression, no one is immune from harm in a culture that polices and shames what and how much we eat, how and how often we move our bodies, the brownness of our skin, and the sizes and shapes of our vulvas, labias, dicks, tits, asses, hips, lips, noses, thighs, and waists.
We can’t claim to reject white supremacy without rejecting fat antagonism and diet culture. Period.
I’m empowered as I write this, but many of those old insecurities began creeping up on me about a month ago.
I know most of y’all saw The New Edition Story on BET. In fact, you’ve probably watched it 10 times by now. (Don’t lie.) I’d heard of it last year but had only begun to look forward to it about a month before it premiered.
I knew that it was going to be a huge Black cultural event and I couldn’t wait to be a part of that. I have childhood and teen memories of watching The Five Heartbeats and The Temptations. My whole body was ready for a new experience. What I wasn’t ready for was a new crush – that wasn’t really so new.
I discovered the gargantuan talent that is Elijah Kelley about a decade ago. Hollywood was abuzz about a film adaption of the musical Hairspray, itself an adaptation of the 1988 John Waters film.
While not the star, Kelley’s was a stand out performance and, if you’ve watched the film, it’s easy to understand why. I loved his feature number, “Run and Tell That.” There was something about him – and deep down I knew what it was – but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Instead, I just enjoyed the music.
I casually followed his career after that, enjoying his turns in films like Red Tails and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Then The New Edition Story happened.
I want to just type gibberish here because that’s still my reaction, not just to the film but more precisely to bae. By the end of the second night of the mini-series, I was hooked. Kelley was finest damn thing I’d ever laid my eyes on and, over a month later, I still can’t stop thinking about him.
It sounds entirely lustful, but it’s beyond that. It’s his lively personality, his evidently impeccable upbringing, his talents, his commitment to and love for “the culture,” his Southern roots, his humor, his humility, his ambition, and his spirituality – the whole package.
The weekend before the NES premiere, at a national conference, I stumbled into a small space full of Black love and community. That life-giving experience couldn’t have come at a better time, because when I finally – after 10 years of denial – admitted that I like Kelley, a flood of issues bubbled over. I’ve spent a few nights over the last few weeks crying my eyes out.
This journey of purging myself of anti-Blackness, learning how to love and unlearning hate for myself and my people (Black men in particular), started in 2013. I saw Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and reluctantly developed a crush on actor Michael B. Jordan. I started a journey of unpacking the pain of internalized anti-Blackness and personal trauma. And I haven’t been the same since.
Since that summer I’ve grown a lot, but Kelley has thrown me for a loop. He inadvertently opened up new, equally painful revelations and traumatic issues for me to examine.
This time around, I’ve found it much easier to recognize and tackle them. It’s a battle for my mind and my people in a society founded on white supremacy. But something else came up for me again, which I didn’t address during the summer of Fruitvale Station. And it’s a big part of what led me to write this article.
One of the hardest parts of being a fat, brown-skinned, disabled bisexual Black woman in a society that actively oppresses all six of those things is sex and dating. Desirability politicsmean that our attractions are constantly influenced by a racist, sexist, fat antagonistic, ableist, colorist, bi+ antagonistic society.
However, as Preston Mitchum notes, we hide behind “preferences” instead of examining the ways in which our desires adhere to the status quo and perpetuate the oppression of marginalized groups. That’s how you leave the theater in denial that you like Michael B. Jordan. That’s how you spend 10 years (!!!) pretending you ain’t attracted to Elijah Kelley’s sexy dark chocolate self.
With Jordan and Kelley, I found myself wondering, “Would he like me back? Or is he more into that slim-thick, light-skinned chick interviewing him? Does he have eclectic taste? Am I included in that? What if he saw my belly? My rolls? My thunder thighs? My jiggly arms?”
This is an experience unique to crushes on Black people, especially Black men. Upon reflection, I think that it stems from a desire to deeply love and deeply be loved by my own people. It’s a deep fear that, no matter how much I continue to grow in my love for us, I’ll never be loved back because I’m too fat and too Black.
These questions aren’t based on an assumption that I’d ever get to meet these people, let alone date or sleep with them, even if my dream of becoming a screenwriter comes true.
While they are the impetus, ultimately it’s not about them. It’s about the fucked up world in which I live. It’s about how much I wish the world were different so I wouldn’t even think to entertain these shitty questions.
But it starts with the urgency and the initiative to begin the journey of unlearning.