A couple of months ago, I wrote an article entitled The Body Positivity Movement Looks A Lot Like White Feminism.
The feedback I received ranged from, “Why should white women be blamed for the lack of representation in the body positivity movement?” to “Fat women of color have it easier; what do you mean racism exists in the body positivity community?” As much as I want to drag everyone for the commentary, I want to focus specifically on the idea that fat women and femmes of color have an easier time navigating fatness and body positivity. This comes up a lot due to the reality that often, when we see bigger body women and femmes of color juxtaposed with thinness and whiteness within media, it gives the illusion that fat women of color are “more accepted.” But it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
First, let’s contextualize the fact that body positivity does not exist in a vacuum. When we talk about fat positivity and fat acceptance, we have to realize that fatness is political just like our race, gender, sexuality, ability, body type, mental health, skin color and phenotype. Bodies of color are viewed through the gaze of whiteness and the mythologies created by whiteness. Our bodies are seen through distortion because we are compared to unachievable and unobtainable humanity and beauty standards that are constructed around white bodies.
When we see many plus-size (or fat — however you identify bigger body people or how they identify themselves) women and femmes of color, there’s this idea that we’re more accepted because there are defined standards around our bodies that categorize us in opposition to whiteness and white bodies. In the Black community, we’ve cultivated terms such as “thick” and “phat” (pretty, hot and tempting) that represent our bodies in contrast to the expected ideals of thinness. These terms signify the fact that our bodies have never fit within the beauty standards used to confine and define us because they were created around whiteness.
Beauty standards are inherently based in whiteness as a political structure, identity, representation and power system. This means that even if we’re thin, our bodies are still subject to violence and interrogation. The best example is when Zendaya was photoshopped in her spread for Model. The fact that Zendaya, who has been accused of having an eating disorder by a white feminist because of her petite body, has been subject to photoshopping her body so significantly to make her look even more thin proves that our non-whiteness will always make us deviant from beauty and humanity standards. This is also similar to when Michelle Obama was critiqued for being “overweight” by a white high school football coach who called her, “Fat Butt Michelle Obama.”
Screenshot via Zendaya Instagram
Another example of how beauty standards or body positivity never work in favor of fats of color is how often plus-size/fat/bigger-bodied women and femmes of color are losing weight after gaining notoriety. America Ferrera, who stars in Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty, lost a significant amount of weight after leaving roles centering on her bigger body. Let me be clear: I am not scrutinizing the reasons why America lost weight or if it was intentional or not. There is no room for body shame within my politic, but I do want to note how often this happens when we have bigger-bodied women and femme celebrities.
Raven Symone, Amber Riley, Tocarra Jones, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Queen Latifah, Oprah, Jill Scott, Star Jones, Wendy Williams, Crisette Michelle and Kelly Price are all examples of women who lost weight after gaining more attention and celebrity status. Of course, we don’t know the specific reasons for every single one of these women’s decisions about weight loss or body alteration.
Monique lost a significant amount of weight in her career as well. This was hard for a lot of other bigger Black women to handle, since she built her career on her comedy that incorporated her experiences being a big Black woman. In her movie Phat Girlz, her character Jazmin Biltmore states, “I ain’t fat. I’m sexy succulent.” When she portrayed an abusive and violent mother in the film Precious, her body was required to be bigger in order to emulate the character from the original story. After these films, Monique maintained a significant amount of weight. When fat women of color celebrities lose weight and go on to “better and healthier bodies/lifestyles,” it suggests that fatness represents ugliness, laziness, unworthiness and ain’t-shit-ness.
In the plus-size modeling world, plus size women and femmes of color are expected to be smaller if they expect to garner more opportunity. Tess Holliday’s success would be unheard of if she was a person of color or Black. Being shorter, having more visible cellulite and not having an hourglass shape would make Tess’ success impossible if she were a person of color too.
I also think about how Rosie Mercado recently lost a significant amount of weight, which garnered her major network attention. She used fat-shaming commentary to justify her weight loss and to garner more attention as a smaller fat person. What does it mean when women of color have to lose weight to maintain any significant status within body positivity and plus size movements?
The hype surrounding Kylie Jenner’s and Angelina Jolie’s lips proves that bigger anything works best on white people, but is demonized on people naturally associated with those features. Similarly, noses are generally valued more when they’re thinner, smaller and associated with Eurocentric beauty standards. But there are many white people with larger noses who are glorified for their differences such as Uma Thurman, Chloe Sevigny, Lea Michele. Meanwhile, many Black women and femmes have only risen to more fame with adjustments to their noses. For example: Beyonce, Tyra Banks and Halle Berry.
Fat women and femmes of color are ignored, while those who are lighter-skinned are hyper-humanized. This works in conjunction with fatphobia. Darker-skinned fat Black women and femmes are demonized and juxtaposed as the direct opposite of the beauty standards that promote white, thin, femme bodies as a universal goal. Gabourey Sidibe is a primary example of why body positivity and fat acceptance does not privilege women or femmes of color. If so, Gabby would have the platform that Melissa McCarthy or Rebel Wilson has. We never regard Gabby as a forerunner in the body positivity movement, although her representation and presence is imperative for everyone. Seeing a darker-skinned Black woman who is not shaped like an hourglass, who does not have small petite features and who is unapologetic is powerful and necessary. Adele, Melissa McCarthy, Kathy Bates, Rebel Wilson, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham are all heavily valued within body positivity while making millions and doing nothing to change the beauty standards that so violently harm everyone else non-white. Radical body positivity can not exist within whiteness, white passing-ness, or white people.
Adele, Melissa McCarthy, Kathy Bates, Rebel Wilson, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham are all heavily valued within body positivity while making millions and doing nothing to change the beauty standards that so violently harm everyone else non-white. Radical body positivity cannot exist within whiteness, white passing-ness or white people.
If we regarded fat bodies of color more, then we would also see a rallying cry around Black bodies and bodies of color in general. There are direct connections to Black Lives Matter and the larger racial justice movement to body positivity. There was no outcry for Black women in the Holtzclaw Trial, in which Daniel Holtzclaw targeted, assaulted and raped over 40 Black women.
Erin Andrews, a white woman, was awarded over $50 million dollars for emotional distress in her case against her stalker who videotaped her naked, but the Eric Garner trial was settled for $5.9 million. Whiteness is always valued, humanized and protected. There is no room for this conversation without considering the ways our racist, anti-Black environment contextualizes how violent beauty and humanity standards affect people of color.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, agender, Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet and the creator of Free Figure Revolution, a body positivity organization. She is currently working on her M.A. in Africana Studies at Morgan State University. Read more at Facebook.com/AshleighShackelford.