Let’s Talk About…Race and Body Image

In her controversial New York Times op-ed, Alice Randall (whose book we reviewed in our last post) exposed the cultural forces behind weight loss and body image by calling for a “body-culture revolution in black America.”  Instead of blaming America’s growing waistline only on McDonald’s and the media, Randall cites racial differences: “Chemically, in its ability to promote disease, black fat may be the same as white fat. Culturally it is not.”

This topic deserves more conversation.  Enter….us.  We come from somewhat different cultural backgrounds and want to discuss how this idea that being black, white, Latino, Asian, or any other wonderful ethnic background influences body image and weight loss – and how we have personally experienced differences.

Michelle Gibson, a fitness instructor in L.A. who teaches 10 classes a week, is “thick and fit” – and PROUD of her body.
Source: The Washington Post

Naomi: I am African American, French, Hungarian, Polish, Choctaw Native American, and Jewish. I add Jewish in the mix because even though it is not a race (although some believe it to be, especially after the Holocaust), it has shaped my cultural upbringing as much as – if not more than – some of my other ethnicities. I am also southern.

Elle: I am about as white as they come: about 98% German (when I was in Italy, strangers came up to me and started speaking to me in sie Deutsch), a little bit of French Canadian, and a smidge of Irish.  Even white people tell me, “you’re so white.”  My legs are so pale they literally reflect the sun…before scalding me. So to sum up: Naomi is much more ethnically interesting than I am.

Naomi: Elle, do you think where you grew up is important, too

Elle: As much as race and ethnicity are factors in cultural upbringing, culture is also geographically located.  My childhood was spent between the Midwest and the South.  My extended family all lives in a post-(auto) industrial city in Ohio; they’re not poor or anything, but the entire region has felt the effects of economic decline.  The South – and Mississippi, especially, where I attended high school and college –  is known for its swelling obesity rates, often related to low economic status and poor education rates. The South is also known for its Paula Deen-style entrees and sweet tea (sugar with a splash of tea).  Currently, though, I live in New York City, which obviously praises the rail-thin model type.  But more specifically, I live in a predominantly black, lower-income neighborhood in Brooklyn.  All of these places have impacted the way I feel about my body image, albeit in very different ways.  Do you have the same sense of difference living in two different places?

Naomi: Well I grew up in Tennessee, but currently reside in Atlanta, Ga. In Tennessee, I lived in upper middle class neighborhood and went to predominantly white schools. I moved to Atlanta a few years ago, and although I still live in the south where obesity rates are higher than anywhere else in the US, the city places a great deal of focus on physical features…i.e. booty (It’s “baby got back” country). I’d say living in these two very different cities has changed body image for me. I’ve even discussed plastic surgery, something I never really considered in Tennessee.  But I wonder if body image is solely a cultural issue i.e. family, friends, southern, or if it can change depending on where you live in the world?

Elle:  I lived in Ohio when I was a younger child and a bit more (wonderfully) oblivious to body image and its effects on my social standing.  Moving to the South, however, I encountered more overweight classmates – but also the “Southern belles” – even in public school.  I’m not talking Toddlers and Tiaras or anything, but there was a lot of hairspray, and going to the city pageant was an event more highly attended than most of our high school football games. My consciousness of that white culture in the South coincided with my coming-of-age in middle school and high school, where finding boyfriends and being popular became more important – and more heavily determined by appearance.

Naomi: I totally relate to the whole southern belles situation. Does “cotillion” ring a bell? I too felt the pressure and began to really notice appearance in middle school and high school. I think the worst part about it is beginning to understand that self-worth was based on male attention. Honestly, thinking about it makes me sick. However, that’s never ever going to change in my eyes; the more male attention, the more popular, and that also seems to be a trend with job opportunities and other situations in life. Remember Tyra Banks’s experiment wearing a fat suit? Granted, she’s a little over the top, but she seemed to show that “fat people” are expected to take the discrimination because it’s their own fault. I sure did have some good comebacks though back in the day when I was teased in school. “I can lose weight, but you can’t lose ugly.”

Elle: Haha!  Get ‘em, girl.  While I could go on and on about how my body image made me regard boys and dating in high school or even today (and maybe we should at a later point), I think we’re getting off topic.  If having “booty” is a defining characteristic of attractiveness in Atlanta, I’m assuming this applies not to everyone in Atlanta but more to the African-American community.  Correct me if I’m wrong, though. One term that one of the moms in the NPR podcast (link below) brought up was “thick and fit.”  As a white girl, I want to know, does having booty fall into that category?  Is having “booty” different than having a “fat ass”?

Naomi: Having a booty is an expectation of black women hands down, (although I find white girls in Atlanta care about having a booty too). I can’t tell you how many times it has come up in a discussion with my white and black friends. I don’t think booty and fat ass are very different within the black community, especially when they are so revered. Being that I’m biracial, I felt “slighted” in that category. However, I think having a booty was in for a while when J-Lo hit the scene and then Kim Kardashian, and neither of them are African-American. It seems booty has crossed over some cultural lines,changing the conversation a little for mainstream media. Although, saying Kim K has a fat ass would definitely not be okay with her, so the choice of the term is important; it’s really about who is using the term and what they mean by it, even if they’re referring to the same butt.

Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez
Source: Hello! Magazine (UK)

Elle: Beyonce seems like a perfect example of someone with booty who is “thick and fit.”  My guess is that she would find it difficult to fit her thigh into some of these damn skinny jeans, but NO ONE can say that she is ANYTHING but strong and in shape.  Muscle, baby.
My legs certainly aren’t all muscle – I wish. I actually do have muscular legs, but there’s a lot more than just muscle over them.  I seriously despise my legs. I wish I could wear shorts.  I wish I knew what it felt like to wear short skirts or to be able to cross my legs so easily like a pretzel, just as all of these long-legged beauties of whom I’m so jealous do.  But short and stubby is what I get.
The thing about it is…I’ve gotten “compliments” about my legs.  Granted, these are more akin to catcalls, but my big, muscular gams have gotten some attention from the black men in the city. One night I was getting some drinks with a few girlfriends at the Standard Biergarten in the now-trendy Meatpacking District when an older black fellow pulled me aside and asked, “Do you know why I called you over here?  I wanted to know where you got those legs.”
“Well, I run…”
“You have some sexy legs.  Here’s my card.  We should have lunch sometime.”
On another occasion, I was crossing the street by Bryant Park and heard a man say, “I like them big legs.”
I literally cried in the bathroom when I got back to work after that.  In my head, I screamed, “You like big legs?!  Well you can have the damn things.  I don’t want them!”
I know that the nature of these “compliments,” especially the “calls” that I get often enough walking home in my neighborhood – aren’t exactly romantic.  But it’s a racial-cultural preference that I honestly want no part of.  The only kind of legs I want are long and lean: toned.  I can’t do anything about the long; genetics have condemned me to short legs.  And honestly, I can’t do too much about the lean.  I’ve experienced skinny, and even then my calf muscles jutted out like masculine freak shows. Regardless, though, I want that ideal and can’t convince myself (at this point) that anything less is acceptable.  Maybe that’s the “white ideal.”

“Well, reading the book, you know, I – every time one of the black characters would say, now Ada, don’t get too skinny, I would laugh or kind of feel like crying, too, because I in my whole life have never heard a white person, male or female, say to me or anybody else, don’t get too skinny. And I think it would be wonderful to be more comfortable with being normal or even being overweight. And it really made me think so much why white women are so ashamed of being fat and why black women seem to have that part of the equation more balanced, more figured out. Although, it’s really complicated because being fat is unhealthy, but so is obsessing about your weight and dieting and thinking that, you know, you’re not – no one can love you if you’re overweight. I mean, that’s just as crazy and just as unhealthy. And that’s the world that I live in as a white woman.”

-Leslie Morgan Steiner in NPR’s Tell Me More segment “Alice Randall on Race, Weight, and ‘Ada’s Rules'”

Naomi: Certainly a valid point as we delve further into our insecurities, a lot of our cultural upbringing will determine the way we feel about our body parts. And as we spoke yesterday, this may have a lot to do with adaptation. Some people believe that, biologically, we were put here to mate and procreate. The way we feel about our bodies has a lot to do with the opposite sex, and my friends have suggested in conversation that many black and white women have adapted to men’s beauty preferences. I can’t wait to explore that issue more closely with our cultural surroundings theme.

Elle: I don’t know that I’m on board with a strictly biological attraction, instinct-to-mate those like ourselves or those that fit our cultural profiles of what (or who) we should be attracted to.  I also don’t know too many people who would get on board with that, either…at least out loud.
Case in point: I went out with a black friend of mine a few months back.  He knew me in high school and had witnessed my descent into impossibly skinny…then my quick ascent and growth upward and outward when I began to binge and gain that back.  I was (admittedly, a little intoxicated and) lamenting the fact that I didn’t have a fella but really wanted one, how the only time in my life when I had been noticed by the opposite sex was when I was “little” (my default, more p-c word that’s vague enough to be confused with “young,” and therefore “safe” for me to use without exposing myself).
He said, “Girl, you got to accept that you weren’t meant to be like that.  You a bigger woman, and you’re beautiful.  You just need to find yourself a black man or a Puerto Rican; they love them some curves. Your problem is that you like these white boys.” (For the record, that’s not exclusively true; I’ve been attracted to several different races and body types in men – just sayin’.)
He was operating with the implicit belief that race and culture would determine who could be attracted to me – if anyone.  My friend meant no harm, but that was a slap in the face to me; it meant that because of my body shape, I was limited, I was given less opportunity that other women might have.  It felt like just another way to be excluded and marked as “different” or “unacceptable.”

Naomi: Unfortunately, what he is saying is so widely believed. Just yesterday I was talking to my  friend Idris, a black guy friend at work, and he explicitly stated that his white guy friends like skinny girls and black guys like curvy women. So is it possible to explore why men (or women) have the preferences they do? I don’t think you can blanket races into their female preferences, but stereotypically speaking, what these two men said to us may not be far off. So do you conform and try to make yourself into the ideal mainstream woman, where white men or all men love you? It’s a catch-22; if (when) I get to my weight goal weight, will I be able to handle the attention of guys I’ve always been around? Will I be able to accept that suddenly they find me attractive because I’ve conformed to what they find attractive? The thought alone freaks me totally out.

Elle: I imagine that many people reading this might be adopting a feminist position and saying to themselves, “You shouldn’t allow any man’s opinion – regardless of his race or culture – to determine how you look or feel about yourself. Women shouldn’t be subjected to men’s beliefs or forced to be objectified and identified by appearances alone.” After all, some might argue that a black man’s appreciation for larger women was a response against being subjected to a majority white culture that has a history of oppressing him in America; if white culture likes skinny women, then black culture would appreciate curvier women. Intellectually, I agree with the feminist perspective that women should not subject themselves to men’s opinions but instead change them.  From experience and my emotional perspective, though, I can’t help but respond, “But that’s not the way the world works.”  Isn’t it true that we women are capable of objectifying men, too?  Just last weekend, I heard an overweight white woman – probably a size 16 or so – say, “Eeew. I don’t want a fat man; I like skinny guys.” I don’t think it’s wrong for us to have our physical preferences, but I see such hypocrisy and limitations when we force them into a group, gender, cultural, or racial mentality – we allow generalizations and stereotypes to ensue – not to mention emotional harm to women like us who feel excluded or disdainful of ourselves and our failure to be a certain shape or weight.

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5 responses to “Let’s Talk About…Race and Body Image

  1. I love this blog so much! I just want to comment that I am Puerto Rican (on the darker side with curly hair) and I’ve commented before about my “bubble butt” and thicker thighs. For a good portion of my life black men, puerto rican men have all been interested in me because of the curves and for a long time I thought that’s all that was out there for me. BUT I have been in a year long relationship with a white guy who lusts over my curves all the time. I know that there are stereotypes for a reason, but we all know not everyone fits into those. Great blog!! Keep up the great work ladies!

  2. Tried to commnet, got bootted off. Essentially, blood runs red, regardless of the outer ‘label’.
    Outward persentation is merely reflection of the inner. Change has to be seen – needed – not neccessarily wanted. Some change for health purposes, certainly some for vainity, and still others just be ‘pleasing’ to their ‘chosen ones’. Understand, God created, He did not SHAPE you. That’s on you. He can help you to look good, feel good, and live healthier, through the expertise of those He has talented / skilled to ‘MAKE IT HAPPEN’ SO – SEEK, KNOCK, ASK – He will guide. More to come, must go.

  3. Pingback: Welcome to myCultural Conversations! | myCultural Conversations·

  4. Pingback: Spotlight: Marsha Hunt – Model, Actress and KolorBlind Rock Mom… | KolorBlind Mag·

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