Bittersweet Like Me: When the Lemonade Ain’t Made For Fat Black Women & Femmes
I watched the beautiful and amazing Lemonade visual album on Saturday, centered and very open to the generosity of Bey’s art. I was floored and enamored. It was lit as fuck, y’all! I was so proud to experience such a well-designed, politically important, empowering and intentional creative piece by a Black woman who is, hands down, one of the greatest artists of all time. Literally: what a time to be alive for Black women and femmes.
But as I watched it again to further explore the nuance and political layers, I discovered something was missing for me. I discovered I was missing in Lemonade. Which is to say, the lemons life and white supremacy have given me are not in Beyoncé‘s pitcher. The trauma, empowerment and reliability of the Black women and femmes in the video did not exist for me personally or politically.
There were literally no fat Black women or femmes anywhere in the video that were not portrayed as references to poverty (New Orleans video stills) or desexualized, grieving mothers (note: they weren’t even fat, but they were the only bigger bodied/non-sexualized bodies within the entire visual album). Now, when I brought up the lack of representation up to other Black women and femmes, the first responses were:
- You just hate Beyoncé.
- Why don’t you critique Rihanna and everyone else who’s not Beyoncé?
- Beyonce can’t do it all!
- Why do you need to see yourself in something that’s about Beyoncé’s experiences?
This hyperresponsive clapback is what I always expect when it comes to Queen Bey. But the lack of understanding around why fatness is important (and a fundamental requirement, TBH) in a conversation with another Black femme about the portrayal of Black girl magic and Black femme supremacy is absolutely, unexpectedly disheartening.
I felt very empty when I didn’t see anyone who had a body like mine in such an iconic piece of art that has been hailed as a visual anthem for Black femmehood. Instead of assuming that my perspective and opinion on Beyonce’s current work and her role in creating this powerful art is based in vitriol, can we make room for other Black femmes to talk about representation in something that should inherently include them? Is it possible that Black femmes and women who value Beyonce can also give necessary thought to her work and platform? Is it possible to ask for representation in something about OUR historical trauma and pain, especially set in the Deep South?
Is it really too much to ask that Beyoncé include one or two cameos from fat Black women or femmes that are not desexualized, grieving mothers? Is it really too much to see fat Black women and femmes in the Deep South slaying the game (’cause we been here) incorporated in this powerful piece of art? Was it too much to give Gabby Sidibe a call real quick to channel that Southern Black Femme Gothic vibe she was servin’ in American Horror Story? Is it ludicrous to think that Amber Riley could’ve popped her pussy for real niggas somewhere in between “Hold Up” and “6 Inch?” She couldn’t do a feature with Jazmine Sullivan and get these Black fat thighs sanctified too?
Lemonade has themes of Southern Gothic, Black femme supremacy, Black magic, Black transcendence, Black religion and spirituality, betrayal and abuse, survival and resistance. In all of the beautiful visuals, poetry (written and adapted by Warsan Shire) and storylines, the vulnerability and struggle was never reflected in a fat Black body. And the limited representation in Lemonade could easily be quantified as accessory trauma tropes — in which we never see bigger Black femmes and women incorporated into a deep truth-telling experience like Beyonce and her thinner cameos, but rather as a tragedy in the background for effect.
Southern Blackness is inextricably linked to bigger Black femmes’ and women’s bodies. Our bodies symbolize the birthright of Black struggle while also representing the lineage to white plantation/white supremacist functionality. The rich history of the Deep South and the violence around troping, codifying and oppressing Black women and femmes is centered on mammification, sexual violence excused through hypersexual mythologies, denial of beauty, animalizing our humanity and utilizing our bodies as a literal and symbolic vessel for the continuation of slavery and subordination.
The references to mammification (caretaking, being everyone’s keeper) within Lemonade’s visuals, poetry and lyrics speak to a violence that is inherently constructed around fatness, Blackness, womanhood and femmehood. I imagine the Fannie Lou Hamers who have always been maternal figures to everyone around her, expected and praised for being that nigga for all the people in her life but never receiving love and protection in return.
I think about the Big Mama Thorntons singing their pain, creating innovative magic through resilience but getting their legacy and craft appropriated and snatched. Black fat women and femmes are always expected to play support systems to everyone in the world (even to other black women and femmes) while being politically denied healthy access to sexuality/sexualization, gender conformity and humanity.
In “Hold Up,” Beyonce says, “I don’t want to lose my pride, but I’ma fuck me up a bitch.” Anger codified upon Black women and femme bodies is constructed as a disparaging, limited identity that seemingly invalidates our humanity and our ability to be logical, emotional and multifaceted.
But this trope becomes very different when fatness is incorporated; we are looking at a completely different type of violence. Angry fat Black women/femmes are not given space to be rightful in their anger — or even human in their feelings. We’re coded as angry inherently because ugliness (through fatness AND Blackness) denies us the pride Beyoncé is referring to. Beyoncé’s pretty (constructed through thinness, smaller features and light skin), which hurts so badly, is also a privilege that allows her to be worthy of anger when a man betrays her.
This concept of denying Black fat femmes and women respect, fidelity and loyalty is also where the popular line, “And I can’t even get a text back” comes from. It is often used as a disparaging response when Black fat women and femmes, deemed too ugly for happiness and love, post pictures about their relationships. How different would it have been if a Black fat femme had been incorporated in the Lemonade visual? Could our view of beauty and love for Black women and femmes grow more complex if we saw a range of body types and sizes? What would this say about misogyny and betrayal from niggas (read: cis-het men or masculine folks) if we saw a range of different Black femmes and women claiming the right to be angry and burn everything down when they are fucked over? How would desire politics be reshaped if we saw a black fat woman claiming autonomy and respect?
In “Sorry”, Bey says, “MIDDLE FINGERS UP, PUT THEM HANDS HIGH, WAVE IT IN HIS FACE, TELL HIM, BOY, BYE.” All the while, Bey and my bae Serena Williams are fucking it up (read: twerking, being bad AF, black femme supremacy). But imagine if a fat Black femme was twerking and fucking it up with them. Imagine if they were putting their middle fingers up and weren’t sorry, because fuck these niggas!
Since Black fat femmes/women are always portrayed as unloveable, unworthy, ugly, angry and animalistic, the presence of our existence would call the entire song into question. Because how could ugly fat Black bitches be unbothered and unbossed about ain’t-shit niggas? How are they desired and fucked enough to even have the relationship problems Beyoncé and Serena have? And that’s exactly the point. Black fat bitches been here, been getting love, been fucking, been hustling, been getting fucked over, but we are still powerful, worthy, beautiful and in a political position to control who we give our labor, time and bodies to. We still deserve to put our middle fingers high and tell that boy, BYE.
In the same song, she also says the infamous line: “BETTER CALL BECKY WITH THE GOOD HAIR.” There is a deep history of Black women’s and femmes’ humanity being compared to the purity, beauty and humanity of white women and femmes. Beyonce can drag Beckys (read: white girls) to hell, but can we also talk about how thinness (or proximity to acceptable body types), colorism, ableism and gender are also part of this larger critique for Black femmes and women everywhere?
Beyoncé has mad beauty-standard privilege, thanks to her light skin, her acceptable/thin body, able-bodied status, cisgender identity and heteronormativity. But when Bey reads white girls, it’s also praised and relatable because Bey is also on a beauty pedestal for being Black and exotic. If a Black fat bitch was next to her when she said that, would niggas still understand why Becky needs to be dragged?
Blackness + fatness denies us beauty proximity through the constructions of whiteness in ways Beyoncé and her Lemonade guests would never get shitted on for. It’s necessary to recognize that Black femme and girl pain is rooted in the policing of bigger bodies. We’re denied even the thought of sustainable and healthy love in any regard. Our clapback at white women would seemingly be read as a joke because we’re the literal opposite of white femininity (the most noted type of physical beauty). That’s why Black women’s and femmes’ pain and navigation of love has to be symbolized somewhere in this visual to really get Lemonade poppin’.
As we continue to examine and enjoy Lemonade, I search for the stories of fat Black femmes and women who have been raped, sexually exploited, beaten, politically ignored and are expected to remain strong, resilient — and silent– in their pain and experiences. I continue to search for the fat Black girls who are always the shoulder to cry on for the Beyonces of the world. I continue to question where the Aunt Jemimas (read: fat black women/ femmes in servitude) are, the fat black women and femmes who are tired of servin’ everybody, feeling like it’s them vs. everybody, feelin’ overwhelmed with people needing them and draining them.
I wonder where the Sheilas (Jill Scott’s character in Why Did I Get Married?) are — the fat Black women who are married to ain’t-shit ass niggas who continue to drain you of love and apologies while giving you nothing but self-hate in return. I wonder where the Big Mamas are at — the grandmas and nanas who always find ways to make Sunday dinner, who are berated for their physical health but never get asked about their mental health and grief from life in a world that was never created for their survival. I wonder where the little Black fat girls are who get told no one will ever love them or hold them or adore them — the Preciouses of the world who have experienced more trauma than care.
And I continue to wake up every day physically and emotionally TIRED.
My love for Beyoncé doesn’t come with silence or complacency. My critique of her doesn’t only happen when she’s dropping an album. The space I hold for her is not conditional, but rather intentional. I love Bey. I love Bey’s pop culture power and political growth. And I also hope to see Black fat femmes like me in her work centered on Black girl pain and Black girl magic — specifically because there is no story of black pain deeper than that of fat Black women and femmes.
There is no Lemonade for Beyoncé without the bitter violence against Black fat femmes and women. There is no Lemonade for any Black woman or femme without the sweet resilience, complicated experiences, beauty and existence of fat Black women and femmes.
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.