Food & Drinks

Fat, Black Women Are Affected By Diet Culture, Too

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 decided views on Black women.

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

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

It’s this idea that Black women are somehow impervious to ills that plague our non-Black counterparts. As a fat, Black woman, that 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 have to contend with a society that demands we play both victim and savior.

The uncomfortable truth is that fat, Black women were not spared from diet culture, and in the absence of empathy or compassion, we had to save ourselves.

In the early 2000s, there were several widely-circulated studies about the media’s impact on girls’ body image. Increased access to the internet opened up a whole new world for adolescents. Now, the TV, movies, and the web were working in tandem to fuel our insecurities about the way we looked.

A few of these studies sought to compare weight and body image perception cross-racially. One 2012 study of school-aged children deduced that Black girls were the most satisfied with our bodies when compared with our white and Asian counterparts.

Another study, covered the same year by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Foundation, proclaimed: Black women heavier and happier with their bodies than white women. Over the years, the “than white women” quietly dropped from the headline.

The conclusion was that thanks to the “acceptance” of fatness in the Black community — and our superhuman strength — we were shielded from the harsh realities of fatphobia.

I cannot stress enough how untrue and, frankly, dangerous that line of thinking is.

Growing up, my mother told me that I had “two strikes” against me: I was Black, and I was a woman. She failed to mention that being fat was my third strike, a fact I would be reminded of often — even by other Black people.

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

She failed to mention that being fat was my third strike, a fact I would be reminded of often — even by other Black people.

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

While having full hips, a round bottom, and thick thighs is celebrated, sporting a tummy or fleshy arms is not. I can assure you that singer Jill Scott and actress Gabourey Sidibe are not treated equally (though they are both beautiful plus-sized women).

In fact, I’d wager the classic “video vixen” look — which requires an excess of fat around the hips, butt, breasts, and thighs but not anywhere else — is much harder to pull off than just losing weight.

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

In her 2019 book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Strings un-blurs the lines between medical fact and history to understand how fatphobia and anti-Black racism are inextricably linked.

The book was pivotal 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 for being larger.

I’m reminded of the story of Sarah Bartmaan, who toured Europe as part of a “freak show” in the 19th century. According to physical descriptions, she was a fat Black woman stripped of her humanity, turned into a walking, talking oddity.

She died penniless and alone after being exploited.

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

This blasé attitude towards fat, Black women even extends to eating disorders (EDs).

Historically, lack of representation, cultural incompetence, and other barriers like cost mean Black women are not as likely to seek and receive treatment for EDs. We aren’t a cause for concern for most ED advocacy groups or the broader medical community.

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

The only images I’d ever associated with eating disorders are frail, young, white women purposefully under-eating. Surely eating too much 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, since most of it only pertains to white women, while Black women are underrepresented in eating disorder clinical trials. So I did what any millennial does: I turned to the internet for answers.

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

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

That is not to say I only accept treatment from people who look like me, but after a lifetime of medical fatphobia and cultural insensitivity, I would rather find a provider who is at least interested in my actual problems and won’t tell me to “lose weight” anytime I have an ailment.

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 for Black women, who are often heralded for our self-confidence but left by the wayside 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 siloed subgroups.

But if you’re non-Black, I urge you — implore you — to stop envisioning fat, Black women as self-confident androids and remember that we’re people, too.

People who deserve to be poured into, just as much as we pour into others.

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

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