Fatness and Uplift: Not a Post about Push Up Bras

By | August 5, 2008

Although this post focuses on my being a fat woman of color, I’m going to begin by talking about my dad. My father’s way of thinking about life was deeply influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois and ideas of racial uplift and the talented tenth. His parents were part of the Great Migration and ended up in Indianapolis. His grandfather had fled GA with a heavily pregnant wife, because of an altercation with a white man in town. When my father’s parents bought their house, they were the first black family to own in the neighborhood (only semi-legally, since the deed to the house specified it could not be sold to negroes). My father’s parents emphasized education as the path to freedom. Their views were part of a general belief in racial uplift. By working hard, educating oneself, and generally setting a good example to other black people, we would help all of us get ahead.

Racial uplift wasn’t just about educated black elites giving other black people a helping hand, but also about showing white people that blacks were not a collection of negative stereotypes. The people at the forefront (the talented tenth) had to be smart, neat, clean, articulate, and above all they couldn’t get angry about racism. Instead, dressed in your best suit, you presented carefully constructed arguments against racism, knowing that any misstep would be taken as proof that blacks really were inferior.

Presenting oneself well, in the best suit, was an important aspect of being the stereotype breakers. In order to have a chance of being taken seriously, you had to look clean and put together from head to foot. Your hair had to be neat (and for women carefully straightened) because frizzy hair made you look like a “bush person.” The best way to describe the look is “controlled.” If negative stereotypes about black people were about them being savage, flighty, ruled by emotion and lacking reasoning, then the way to counter that was to look modern, tailored, and never have a hair out of place.

When I think about how this applies to me, I look to my father’s mother and his sisters all of whom are fat black women. My grandmother died when I was young, so my memories of her aren’t very clear. Looking at pictures of her, she is always carefully and neatly dressed with matching hand bags. Even when she had to ride the bus for over 2 hrs to get to the office she worked at, she always dressed carefully. No one could accuse of her being sloppy or lazy, and the same for her children. Her daughters, my aunts, dress more casually but with an emphasis on looking “pulled together.” Their clothes always fit nicely, their hair is neat, and nothing is scuffed or worn out. One of my aunts has cancer, and even though she is dealing with chemo, she is still putting together stylish outfits. When she was visiting my family she came down to breakfast wearing silk PJs with an abstract gold print, a cocoa colored silk wrap, and had wrapped a purple silk scarf attractively around her head.

Being concerned about looking “presentable” is an issue many people face, but it has particular relevance for fat black women. The image that we are fighting back against is the popular — and powerful — image of black women as mammies.

Mammies are fat and happy all the time. Mammies have dark, shiny/greasy skin, rolling white eyes, gleaming white teeth and a kerchief tied over unruly hair. Mammies are never attractive, and they are also de-sexualized. Mammies just love to engage in menial labor for white people. Mammies are humble and grateful for what they have, and don’t think of overreaching themselves to do better. Mammies don’t want to rock the boat. Mammies are the opposite of what that those seeking to better themselves want to be.

Because mammy figures are such a potent image, fat black women have to put in extra effort to not fit into the stereotype. This is why my aunts always paid careful attention to what they wore to work, erring towards professional rather than casual. Why they have steadfastly gone after promotions. Why they joined service organizations and to help their communities. This is why they would never dream of leaving the house with a kerchief wrapped around their hair (the silk scarf my aunt knotted around her head was too elegant to be called a kerchief, and besides she was with family). For myself, I’ll run to the corner store in PJs, but you’ll never see me with a red kerchief wrapped around my head.

I’m my father’s daughter, and he raised me with these ideas of uplift and doing better both for myself as an individual, but also as a member of the black community. It’s one of those things that was never explicitly discussed in my home, but pervaded everything. In the suburbs where I grew up, my father was the only black adult in the area. It wasn’t until eighth grade that there was another black student in my grade. Despite the lack of other physical black bodies, the presence of the stereotypes was always there. For better or worse, I mostly got “you’re not like those black people” or “I don’t think of you as black” which well. I was too young to really know how to respond to the racism embedded in both statements. I was succeeding in not being a stereotype, but instead of breaking down stereotypes about black people, my background ended up being erased.

It was in college that the importance of having an appropriately positive body really came home for me. I went to an ivy league school. Contrary to what people think about the school, the black community around me wasn’t just rich black elites: plenty of us were on financial aid with significant student loans. We were united in the belief that we could better ourselves through education.

The other thing that united the black students was not looking “ghetto” (and yes, there is internalized prejudice there that I don’t want to get into right now). No “extreme” hair, no big jewelry, baggy jeans, exposed curlers or loud attitudes. And definitely no jiggling flesh on display. Being fat was something you needed to control. Fatness was more often talked about in the context of the endemic problems of diabetes and high blood pressure in the black community, than in a positive affirming way.

While the black students didn’t look like they fell out of a J. Crew catalog, even at breakfast the black students tended to be more pulled together than their white compatriots so it was clear they weren’t the hired help. We disassociated ourselves from anything that would make white students forget we were there to labor with our minds not our bodies. Having a fat body that reminded people of a servant lacing up Scarlett O’Hara didn’t fit the cultivated image of the educated elite. We didn’t want the white students and faculty around us to forget that we were budding elites too.

The situation makes me think of Lena Horne’s father who, in the 1950s, said he hired maids for his daughter, and she wasn’t going to play one in the movies (with the NAACP’s backing, this was written into her film studio contract). This, of course, is in contrast to Hattie McDaniel who played almost nothing but maids and mammies during her film career. Lena Horne’s image as a glamorous, talented, successful black woman was also built on her slim body and pale skin. She was the opposite of a fat, dark mammy figure. Horne’s sleek tailored look, and beautifully controlled voice, made her someone the NAACP could stand behind.

It frustrates me when I hear white women in the fat acceptance community talk about how fat positive the black community is and express bitterness/jealously that “their community” isn’t, when they’ve never talked to a fat black woman about what her experience of fatness is like. The existence of the song “Baby Got Back” or the popularity of Queen Latifah are presented as proof of how fat accepting black people are. However, those examples are taken from black pop culture white people like, and are chosen without looking at the complexities of what fat black female bodies have meant both historically and in the present. “Baby Got Back” is not actually about fat women. It’s about women with “an itty bitty waist/and a round thing in your face” and who look like Flo-Jo, the Olympic athlete. On a related note, Sir Mix-A-Lot’s line “Cosmo ain’t got nothin’ to do with my selection/36-24-36? Ha, only if she’s 5′3″” is a reference to the 1970s funk song by the Commodores “Brick House.” In “Brick House,” the singer rhapsodizes about a big stacked woman; however her measurements are given as “36-24-36, what a winning hand!” These songs are about women with big boobs/butts and a defined waist, not necessarily someone with an overall large body. If I were going to pick a song that is fat positive, I’d go with Sista Big Bones by Anthony Hamilton. He selected Mo’Nique to be the star of the video.

My experience of being a fat black woman has not been a fat acceptance wonderland. I don’t feel like I have been shamed for my body, but I have felt pressure to have a more socially acceptable body size. I do worry about presenting myself well. Because of the history and attitudes in my community, I feel a responsibility to act in a manner that adheres to a strict code of conduct. Part of the code is hiding its existence from mainstream white culture. I struggle with those pressures when I don’t feel like pulling myself together, when I want to toss a scarf over my messy hair and grab some milk at the store, when I want to snarl at someone rather than do racism 101 for the umpteenth time. Being told by white women that I have it easy when it comes body image dismisses all of the complexities and difficulties of my identity and reduces them to “Cosmo says you’re fat. Well I ain’t down with that!” Making assumptions about someone’s identity and culture based on fragments of pop culture is dehumanizing. An important part of understanding the world beyond yourself, not just asking questions but also listening closely to people who have criticisms of your beliefs. Sometimes what you think is fact is based upon false premises. Black women do not live in a fat acceptance utopia and you’re making racist assumptions if you assume they do.


Link to more information about Mammy figures. Also, see Sapphire for related stereotype that Mo’Nique often embodies. This post was part of the Women of Color and Beauty blog carnival and International Blog Against Racism Week.

edited to add
Also, the way I primarily self identify is as someone who is mixed race (black and Swedish). I talk about being black in this essay, because that is an identity I also inhabit. I don’t “look mixed” or having passing privilege. When it comes to societal expectations and race, I’m black.

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