Author responds to 'Black women and fat'

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When Alice Randall’s New York Times opinion piece Black Women and Fat appeared on May 5th, the blogosphere erupted in aggravation over her claim that “many black women are fat because we want to be.”

In her article Ms. Randall references my book, “The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies,” in which I argue that, despite the West’s current privileging of slenderness as an aesthetic ideal, the African Diaspora has resisted completely succumbing to the fat anxiety now mortifying most women in the Western world. Yes, within the Diaspora, some women don’t feel the need to go into seclusion because they are larger than a size 12, and some men have no hesitation about asking those same women out for a night on the town.

Within the avalanche of tirades Ms. Randall’s piece inspired, black women insisted they have never been and will never be one of those sisters happily munching doughnuts at a size 14, or worse a size 24. White women were bewildered at the thought that anyone, black or white, would want to be fat, size 14, or worse size 24.

Randall’s claim that 80 percent of black women are overweight — compared to an approximated 60 percent of white women — aroused suspicion among many readers, but although this figure is startling, it’s true.

While I don’t believe “many black women are fat because we want to be,” there are certainly some of us who don’t have our Spanx in a twist because we shop in the plus-size section.

But, one of the more intriguing enigmas that Ms. Randall’s article identifies — but which has not elicited much discussion — is why the dysfunctions that black women have in their relationship with food have tended towards excess intake and compulsive eating. This, while studies indicate that white women have laid claim to eating dysfunctions that involve the denial or purging of food — anorexia and bulimia.

I’d like to suggest that black women’s reluctance to deny ourselves food may reflect a subconscious strategy to compensate ourselves for all the ways in which our bodies have historically been called into service for other people’s needs while we are asked to deny our own.

Let me be clear in acknowledging that women of color have anorexia and bulimia, and reports of these diseases among this population are on the rise. However, African-American women are less at risk for eating disorders directed at attaining slenderness. Our food dysfunctions seem to mostly manifest as excessive eating.

The first black woman whose relationship with food I observed was my mother’s. I grew up in the Caribbean, and like many other Caribbean mothers mine came to the table last and left first, feeding everyone before feeding herself, then rushing back to the kitchen to clean up. Although our China cabinet had beautiful sets of dinnerware and glasses, my mother always drank from a drab plastic cup and snacked from food bundled in crushed paper napkins.

In her thought-provoking study Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity, Doris Witt relates a similar story of actress and singer Pearl Bailey’s mother, who would eat tiny portions of food at home from a saucer then sneak off to restaurants to treat herself to a hearty clandestine meal. Witt suggests that presumptions about black women as “unrelenting nurturers…consequently stigmatized their own expressions of hunger and desire.”

So perhaps the reasons for black women’s unwillingness to starve ourselves and our proclivity to overeat has less to do with men’s desire for our ample bodies but with how cultural expectations stymie our ability to recognize and respond to our own needs and desires (i.e., a dozen doughnuts).

As Randall inferred in her article, it is inevitable that we have to consider the politics of race and gender in any effort to stop the expanding waistlines of black women. But it seems that this enterprise is undermined if we primarily attribute black women’s size to the Diaspora’s more flexible appreciation of various body types.

We must take into consideration how the legacy of domesticating black women’s desires by insisting these women presume a permanently maternal posture also contributes to their struggles with weight — along with more practical considerations such as poverty and the consequent lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, healthcare, and safe exercise facilities.

Reversing black women’s upward trend in size has to include reshaping cultural expectations of black women in ways that allow us to articulate our needs and desires without shame or guilt and to reach for what we really need instead of a quart of ice cream.

Andrea E. Shaw is an associate professor in the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She is the author of The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies, and her blog, Ordinary Anointments.