I also spend a lot of time, and experience considerable heartache, convincing White people, “even” many White Fat Studies scholars, that weight stigma exists in Black communities. Popular media representations of fat, Black women may provide some justification for some of these misunderstandings. The increasingly powerful and pervasive media representation of the happy, fat, bossy, Black woman may convince even many fat, Black women that they themselves are just lazy overeaters who deserve weight stigma. They sometimes simultaneously join the chorus that weight stigma does not exist for Black women, contrary to their own experiences. This chapter uses media representation and intersectional critical theory with an applied autoethnographic focus to explore the disprivilege of women at the intersection of fat, Black, and female.
Intersectional Hurdles for Fat Female Sisters Seeking Social Justice
In Intersectionality, Collins & Bilge (2016) identify interconnected domains of power that provide opportunities for using intersectionality as a tool to better understand hurdles to social justice. These domains of power are interpersonal, disciplinary, structural and cultural. Black women and girls are affected by weight stigma in all these domains. Interpersonally, fat, Black women and girls experience painful exclusions from those who have thin privilege in Black, and mainstream communities in the interpersonal, disciplinary, structural and cultural domains of power outlined by Collins & Bilge (2016).
Black girls experience interpersonal fat stigma from strangers, friends, potential mates, doctors, teachers, community members and their families, even if those others are fat themselves. I grew up in New York City, where no one can ever be “too thin or too rich.” My working class Black family had Southern roots. Though Black women of the South tend to be fatter than their Northern sisters that doesn’t mean I experienced less fat stigma from my family. My mother was an undiagnosed bulimic who prized the thinness of her youth. My mother put me on a weight loss diet when I was five years old. Most us know that some bodies are just designed to be bigger and that diets make us fatter, as neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt confirms (Fain, 2016).
The younger you start dieting, the fatter you are likely to get. My family considered my fat body an embarrassment to them and proof that I was a worthless, unattractive excuse for a girl. This family fat stigma for Black girls is common. After speaking on the first Fat Acceptance panel in the history of the University of Alabama, Birmingham’s medicalized campus, in February 2018, a thin, young, Black male audience member asked if Black girls and their families had more important challenges to be concerned about than their daughters’ fatness. The other Black panelist, Doula Melodi Stone, immediately and adamantly responded that Black families deal with all those other oppressions and hate their daughters’ fat bodies.
In the United States, Black girls are 50% more likely to be fat than their non-Hispanic White counterparts (Office of Minority Health, 2017). Black girls are also 500% more likely to be disciplined more frequently and harshly. They are more likely to be considered as less innocent and less worthy, or in need, of protection than non-Hispanic White girls (Crenshaw, 2015). In 2002, 82% of Black women were so-called overweight and higher, as were 60% of White women (CDC, 2002). More recent race/gender data only includes the highest weights (obese), showing Black women at 55% and White women at 38% (National Center for Health Statistics, 2018). The incarceration rate of Black women is twice that of White women (NAACP, 2018). Fat Black females suffer from a toxic intersectional combination of hypervisibility (when one needs someone to blame for a bad outcome) and invisibility (when it comes to inclusion in sharing the good) (Mowatt, French, Malebranche, 2013).
Prevalent use of the non-intersectional term, “women and minorities,” in research and popular parlance often leads scholars and the public to (largely unconsciously) perpetuate and exacerbate White supremacist (racist) and patriarchal (sexist) assumptions (Daufin, 2017). Ironically, most knowledge about the inequities of “women and racial minorities” doesn’t clearly include people who are both women and racial minorities in most Western countries. Research report statements such as: “x improved for women but not for minorities,” reinforces the malignant stereotype that only White women are “true” women. It simultaneously allows people to assume that racial minority women are more privileged than minority men, and/or White women, which is rarely, if ever, the case.
African American women have long faced the problem of how their needs simply fall through the cracks of anti-racist social movements and feminism (Collins & Bilge, 2016). Anti-racist movements focus on men of color and feminism on White women. Anthems of self-acceptance and body positivity of largely White fat activists disavow experiences of shame tied to bodily race and disadvantage (Cooper, 2016).
If research on women doesn’t include enough, or any, Black women or other women of color in gender questions, then the authors and media reporters should state that study findings focus only on White women. If populations in race studies do not include enough or any Black women or other women of color, then the authors of those studies should report that their work is only about men of color. Imprecise and often inaccurate language (“women and minorities”) leads many people of all races to believe the White supremacist and patriarchal fallacies that Black women have all the unearned privileges of White women but don’t suffer the sexism that White women do, and/or don’t suffer racial disprivilege as Black men do (Daufin, 2017).
Too few studies and social justice movements deal with the race and gender intersectionality of Black women. Virtually no studies or movements look at the intersections of race, gender and fatness. Instead, studies and media reporting of them often compare weight stigma to racial stigma, as if there were no people of color living in the crossroads of the two (as in Puhl, Andreyeva & Brownell, 2008 and many others).
Researchers who do look at weight stigma and African American girls and women often assume that Black women and girls will experience weight stigma in the exact same ways as White ones do. They often don’t consider intersectional, internalized oppression and social context. Also the few studies on fat Black females that have been conducted don’t include the intersectionality of Black Hispanic fat women and girls who represent a large and growing demographic.
Of relatively few studies that look at Black women, most neglect to account for the fact that 82% of us are at higher weights (so-called overweight or obese) whereas fewer than 64% of non-Hispanic White women are at higher weights (Center for Disease Control, 2017). Black women seeking to lose weight usually aspire to a fatter goal than do White women. This goal weight difference is erroneously and often used as a measure of Black women’s and girls’ so-called greater body positivity and lack of experiences of weight stigma (as in Averett & Korenman, 1999, Hendley & Zhao, 2011, and many others). In fact, this difference is merely a reflection of Black women’s overall higher weight status. Also, though long-term weight loss is unsustainable for all but the smallest percentage of people, Black women lose less weight, and more slowly, even initially, while following the same weight loss diet and exercise regimes as White women (Delaney et. al, 2014). For African American women, the genetic propensity for higher weight and lower metabolism may be, in part or in whole, a result of our ancestors’ bodies’ adaptation to performing arduous physical and emotional labor, with little food and under extreme stress and emotional and physical distress, during the centuries-long American slave and breeding industry heyday (Daufin, 2015).
HAES/Health At Every Size proponents champion the fact that health is not equal to thinness and health itself is a relative goal that most humans cannot reach or sustain as they age (Burgard, 2009). A fat, Black woman’s imagined goal weight of a size eight is no more safely, sustainably or even possibly obtainable than a fat, White woman’s goal weight of a size two (Daufin, 2015). That difference in the sizes to which different groups of women might aspire should not be mistaken for greater body esteem or less weight stigma. This is a problematic limitation for White scholars and activists, both fat and thin, as well as for virtually all thin, Black scholars/race activists and even some of the fat, Black ones, too. In my experience and research, there is no shortage of weight stigma in Black communities, especially among thin Black people.
For example, a thin, Black woman who had sought my help to gain an adjunct position in my department had no problem sending me condescending, ridiculing, fat stigmatizing emails when I suggested to her that fatness is not necessarily a result of overeating and under exercising. This came up after she made the unsolicited suggestion that I join her running club to end my fatness, rather than write more articles about weight stigma and Black women.
Fat stigma is perpetrated in higher education in other ways. For over two decades, over 85% of my students at an Historically Black University were African American, usually more than half of them female and upper. All African American students readily accepted being Black as a powerful, disprivileged, immutable identity, especially for men. Yet many predictably regurgitated the sexism and fatphobia that they had learned from Black communities when discussing the disprivilege of female gender and race, much less higher weight. The number of higher weight students in my classes ranged roughly from 0 to 20%.
Virtually all the fat, Black female students privately expressed their gratefulness that someone was talking about fatness as an oppressed identity rather than a personal, mutable character flaw. Their very presence made teaching about the interpersonal and intrapersonal media effects of visually identifiable, fat, Black women easier because other students generally did not want to hurt their classmates’ feelings. When the fat students were absent, the task was harder as the Black students were especially reticent about recognizing their thin privilege. Some thinner Black students felt free to publically and in class use my size to disparage me, up to and including one thin male who repeatedly screamed at me from just inside his dorm window, “Dr. D(aufin) – fatass!”
The three classical media stereotypes of Black women are Mammy, Sapphire and Jezebel (West, 2017). Sapphire is the castrating (of Black men in general and her husband in particular) spitfire and Jezebel is the amoral, seductress nymphomaniac. Both Sapphire and Jezebel stereotypes are damaging but they typically present as thinner (with perhaps disproportionately large sexual characteristics of breasts/buttocks/thighs). The Mammy stereotype began first as a justification for slavery, later for segregationist policies and now for the oppression of fat, Black women. The Mammy is a higher weight Black woman, usually dark skinned and supposedly asexual, who happily serves all the domestic needs (emotional and physical) of a White family with apparently no families bonds or responsibilities of her own. Though she is a work horse, ironically it is assumed that the Mammy got and stays fat by eating too much soulfood and not getting enough exercise. Fat, Black women are less likely to have a support system, more likely to be single head of household, and more likely than any other race/gender category, perhaps by virtue of the Mammy stereotype, to be expected to happily care for others (Harris-Perry, 2011). Though many of these stereotypes find fertile ground in the United States or North America, discrimination against fat, Black women, is not confined to nations of North America and Europe (Collins & Bilge, 2016). International export of U.S. popular culture spreads fatphobic, mysogynoire stereotypes globally.
The Mammy stereotype can be a hurdle in academic . For example, of the three Black, female editors of a book on Black culture, two were thin and one was fat. At every stage of manuscript development, the two thin, Black women wanted to reject my chapter on HAES. Even the fat Black woman who championed the inclusion of my work, defended to me the notion that fat, Black women don’t face weight stigma, not based on her own research or personal experience (both rife with weight stigma) but upon a sassy Black woman in the reality show, Atlanta Housewives, who made no apologies for being fat.
Reality shows are only real in that they don’t pay actors guild scale, or real writers to script the forced scenes they set up but rather foist that job upon underpaid producers (Nededog, 2016, June 7). This brilliant, beautiful, hardworking, fat Black woman book editor, professor and professional leader knows that. Additional fat stigma came from the two thin Black book series editors, one male and one female, who kept changing my affirmative fat sentences to negative ones, repeatedly “thinking (I’d) made (the same) typos.”
Internalized oppression occurs when members of an oppressed group believe and act out stereotypes created about their own group (Community Tool Box, 2018). Intersectional identities allow for intersectional internalized oppression too. Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that even fat, Black women sometimes believe and reinforce negative stereotypes about themselves and other fat, Black women (as do fat White women who internalize fat stigma).
My own fat body esteem is hard won and requires daily reinforcement as I did not grow up with it and I am exposed to daily disparagement that is mediated interpersonally and structurally. Many White women who have seen me defend myself against race stigma from other White Fat Studies scholars and HAES proponents assume it does not bother me because I do not break down crying in front of them but save that for a safer, private space (See Lawrence, 2018, August 22). That seems to make them feel they do not have to publically defend me against their White colleagues or spend any time comforting me, even if they normally would be so inclined. Then again, Harvard-trained Anthropologist Jason Silverstein says that White supremacy allows people of all races to
James W. Potter effectively argues in Media Effects (2012) that pervasive and overwhelming, repetitive multimedia exposure teaches us more about how to behave, and what to think and feel, than any other force. This influence is rarely direct but is incredibly powerful (Potter, 2012, and hooks, 1992). It takes place whether media practitioners intend to teach, or merely entertain, and whether we intend to be “taught.” All but the most isolated populations are exposed to some form of media. Over half of the world’s population has Internet access. In North America 70%, and in the U.S. 81% of the population has at least one social media account (Statista, 2018).
Some media effect scholars argue that other people, whether in person or through social media, are the greater influence over public opinion, interpersonal, political and social behavior and identity, than the media themselves (Chowdhary 2018, June 8). However these human influencers are also profoundly affected by the media, which colors their influence on others. So either way, whether consciously or unintentionally, media representation in content and advertising grossly informs how we behave, what we think about and how we treat ourselves and others. Thus media justice is an integral part of social justice because of the huge intersectional media influence. Like the rising temperature of the water in the slowly warming pot in which we “frogs” sit, media influence goes unnoticed until it is too late to leap out. Unlike the frog in the pot metaphor, there is virtually nowhere to leap out of the media’s influences on ourselves and others.
Some White, female Fat Studies scholars (yet another one during the editing of this chapter) have argued with me that they believe fat, Black women face no weight stigma based solely on the existence of the rapper, TV show host and actress Queen Latifa (Dana Owens), popularized in the sitcom Living Single. This U.S. TV program aired for five seasons on the Fox network from 1993 through 1997 (IMDB, 2018). To begin with, we need to remind ourselves that media stories, even documentaries (which Living Single was not) are consciously constructed narratives, based on often unconscious White supremacy, patriarchy, classism and consumerism (hooks, 1992).
Concerning race, it was indeed delightful to see six Black people as principle characters in Living Single, rather than as the lone Black sidekick character, temporary sub-character, or inconsequential extra, as is the case in most television series produced outside of the sub-Saharan African continent. Indeed the more commercially popular sitcom Friends appropriated and “Whitened up” the Living Single storyline one year later and ran twice as long (Mock, 2017, January 18). The all-Black Living Single cast also allowed White viewers to mistakenly believe the fantasy that the show allowed them a realistic view of Black life that was foreign to them; thus the White Fat Studies scholars’ vehemence that they knew more about the fat, Black female experience from watching the show than did I who live the life and research the rigmarole.
Concerning gender in Living Single, remember the two thin, Black men lived upstairs “above” the women and were thus conceptualized, some media scholars would argue, as superior to the women.
The women of the show were relatively light-skinned except for the actress who played the character Maxine. All had their natural kinky hair usually straightened or covered with wigs (though sometimes braided), except for Maxine, whose hair was always in a natural style. As a fat, Black, kinky haired, female, Fat Studies, media scholar, I found the most liberating representation to be about appetite. Most media tropes have Black fat women as bossy, voracious, weight loss losers (See the main characters in the films Narberth, Precious and even Fat Girlz, to name only a few). However, the darkest skinned, most naturally kinky haired, thinnest Maxine was portrayed as the one obsessed with food, not Queen Latifah’s fatter character, Kadijah. Though this representation further stigmatized the darkest and most kinky-haired Black woman character, I was glad that for once it was at least not related to a woman of higher weight, as is constantly represented in the media and enacted upon me in my life.
The lack of the fat-girl-always-eating trope and the fat-girl-self-loathing trope (Lawrence, 2018, August 22) may have also mislead White audiences unaware of their reliance on media representation as reality, to believe there is no weight stigma in Black America. Also, especially for Black women, Latifah was and is only moderately fat. Even by the standards of the predominately White NAAFA (National Association to Advance Size Acceptance), Latifa is a “mid-size” rather than a “supersize” fat.
Still, to see Queen Latifah as an exemplar of, or argument for, the idea that real Black women enjoy weight stigma-free lives requires some White-privileged selective perception. As a cover girl, spokesmodel Latifah is constantly made to appear thinner through multiple media techniques including make-up, camera angles, digital manipulation, clothing, staging, lighting, etc. And as a Jenny Craig spokeswoman, she has endorsed intentional weight loss, not fat esteem. White-privileged selective perception also ignores the two episodes (at least) of Living Single that explore how weight stigma negatively affects Kadijah’s ability to find straight, Black males who want to date her.
Kadijah often fit the comfortable (for White consumption) classical Black female media stereotype of Mammy (Prater, 2004)—the fat, jovial, servant who is also very strong and assertive (Bogle, 2001). A selfless woman who is happy to be the servant of others is less intimidating to White viewers. Granted, Kadijah was what the Black community calls a “good race woman,” more preoccupied with uplifting the race than with personal fulfillment. She was also an entrepreneur rather than a maid, serving mostly other Black characters rather than White employers. However, the emotional labor is still the same (Hochschild, 2012).
Fat Studies as a White Space
Sometimes White people tell me they believe Black women face no weight stigma because some sassy Mammy type of reality TV, or real-life Black woman said so, as in the reality TV character of the fat, Black female book editor example. They also don’t see many Black women in fat acceptance advocacy circles. In addition to internalized oppression, despite the weight stigma we may face, many Black women experience other impediments to adopting a size acceptance stance, much less joining the size acceptance movement (Daufin, 2016). I outline five myths that create these impediments in The Politics of Size (2016). Included are the non-intersectional notions that racism is the primary or only oppression Black women have to confront in mainstream society; that Black women don’t face weight discrimination in the Black community; and that issues of fat acceptance and sizism are narrow, apolitical concerns that diminish the “more important” concern of racism.
In a study of collegiate journalism faculty (Daufin, 2001), women of color were often the only female faculty of color were men. Compared to males of color, women experienced such disprivilege that they often volunteered that they identified sexism as a greater factor than racism in their job dissatisfaction (Daufin, 2001). However the those women didn’t really know if White women would experience the same type of disprivilege as they did in the department. In another study, Asian Americans were unable to determine if the disprivilege they suffered from non-Asians was from racial prejudice, or assumed immigrant status (Kim, 2007).
White fat women in fat activist movements notice fat discrimination because they see clearly that thin White women in similar situations enjoy privileges that fat White women do not. White people and Black men have posed to me and other Black women the non-intersectional question of whether we are more oppressed by our gender or our race. The problem with this question is that when one is at the intersections of oppressed identities, absent the context of the treatment of others with the exact same intersection of gender, weight, race and all its signifiers (skin color, kinkiness of hair, etc.), rarely can one pinpoint which of the oppressed identities is being targeted. One thing is clear: the fat Black woman is more likely to be on the disprivileged end of the stick than those more privileged at each intersection.
Using media representation as well as intersectional critical theory, with an applied autoethnographic focus, this chapter explored the disprivilege of women at the intersection of fat, Black, and female. I examined how Black women and girls face fat stigma and social injustice on interpersonal (familial), disciplinary (in the educational and criminal justice systems), structural (language and research) and cultural (media representations and effects, and publishing) levels. Using intersectional media literacy examples, particularly those using the actress Dana Elaine Owens/Queen Latifa in the television series Living Single, and analyzing their effects on audiences, I have illuminated some of the reasons why Fat Studies is still predominantly a White space. Internalized oppression plays a part in why some fat, Black women may deny experiencing weight stigma. These examples display the need for more truly intersectional research, clarifying whether subject groups and results are based on White women, or racial minority men or women of color, and a greater consideration that weight stigma may present differently in some ways, but no less importantly for Black, fat women and girls.
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About the Author
Rev. Dr. E-K. Daufin, former Multimedia Journalism professor and Campus National Organization for Women founding advisor at Alabama State University; (AEJMC) Commission on the Status of Women MaryAnn Yodelis-Smith Research and Minorities And Communication Division Outstanding Officer awardee, remains a National Popular Culture Association, Fat Studies scholar and private consultant.