Fat, black women are also affected by diet culture

Fat, black women are also affected by diet culture

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 strong opinions about black women.

In reality, what the world has is a set of inherent stereotypes and prejudices that people desperately cling to in order to maintain their (supposed) place in society’s hierarchy.

As a fat, black woman, these stereotypes range from regular insults of laziness to those of a more “positive” nature. For example, the image of the “strong black woman” is a harmful and pervasive trope that we see in everything from movies to reality TV.

It’s the idea that Black women are somehow impervious to the ills that plague our non-Black counterparts. As a fat, black woman, this 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 must confront a society that asks us to play both victim and savior.

The inconvenient truth is that fat, black women have not been spared from diet culture, and in the absence of empathy or compassion, we have had to save ourselves.

In the early 2000s, numerous studies were released on the impact of media on girls’ body image. Increased access to the Internet has opened up a whole new world for teenagers. Now, TV, movies, AND the web was working in tandem to fuel our insecurities about our appearance.

Some of these studies have attempted to compare perceptions of weight and body image across race. A 2012 study of school-aged children deduced that the black girls were the most satisfied with our bodies compared to our white and Asian colleagues.

Another study, followed the same year by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Foundation, stated: Black women are heavier and happier with their bodies than white women. Over the years the “tthey have white women” quietly fell from the title.

The bottom line was that thanks to fat acceptance in the black community – and our superhuman strength – we have been protected from the harsh realities of fatphobia.

I cannot stress enough how false and, frankly, dangerous this line of thinking is.

Growing up, my mother told me I had “two strikes” against me: I was black and I was a woman. She didn’t mention that being fat was my third strike, a fact that I would be reminded of often, even by other black people.

Growing up, my mother told me I had “two strikes” against me: I was black and I was a woman. She was arming me for a tough, lifelong battle to try to snatch some semblance of equality, understanding that I was already starting from behind.

He didn’t mention that being fat was my third strike, a fact that I would be reminded of often, even by other black people.

The concept of “fat” seems different in my community, but over the years I fear this has led non-Black people to confuse “different” with “accepted.”

While full hips, a round butt and thick thighs are celebrated, showing off a meaty belly or arms is not. I can assure you that singer Jill Scott and actress Gabourey Sidibe are not treated the same (although they are both beautiful plus size women).

In fact, I’d bet that the classic “video vixen” look — which requires excess fat around the hips, butt, breasts, and thighs but nowhere else — is much harder to achieve than simply losing weight.

There’s also this hard truth: Diet culture is firmly rooted in white supremacy, so says the brilliant Dr. Sabrina Strings.

In his 2019 book, Fearing the black body: The racial origins of fat phobiaStrings clarifies the lines between medical facts and history to understand how fatphobia and anti-Black racism are inextricably linked.

The book was foundational 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 because they were older.

The story of Sarah Bartmaan, who toured Europe as part of a “freak show” in the 19th century, comes to mind. According to physical descriptions of her, she was a fat black woman stripped of her humanity, transformed into a walking, talking oddity.

She died penniless and alone after being exploited.

Knowing the historical shame attached to fatness and being black, how could anyone look at me and think: wow, fat, black women have it easier?

This blasé attitude towards fat black women extends to eating disorders (ED) as well.

Historically, lack of representation, cultural incompetence and other barriers such as cost mean that black women are not as likely seek and receive treatment for ED. We are not a concern to most ED advocacy groups or the broader medical community.

I too was surprised when I was diagnosed with binge eating disorder.

The only images I have ever associated with eating disorders are white, young, fragile women who purposely eat little. Surely overeating 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, as most of it only affects white women, while black women are underrepresented in clinical studies on eating disorders. So I did what every millennial does: I turned to the Internet to find answers.

What I found was a robust anti-diet digital cultural space, run almost exclusively by and for thin white women.

It took me about three months to find an “anti-diet” registered dietitian who actually had experience treating a Black woman with an eating disorder.

This isn’t to say I only accept care from people who look like me, but after a lifetime of medical fatphobia and cultural insensitivity, I’d rather find a provider who is at least interested in my real problems and doesn’t tell me to “lose weight” every time I have a disorder.

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 Black women, who are often hailed for our self-worth but left on the back burner 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 isolated subgroups.

But if you’re not black, I urge you – I implore you – to stop imagining fat black women as confident androids and remember that. we are people too.

People who deserve to be invested in, just as we invest in others.

People who, like you, are victims of diet culture and are on the same journey to acceptance and self-love.

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