Weight Stigma in Diverse Populations: Angela Mensah, PhD

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

Angela Mensah

Dr. Angela Denise Mensah, nee Prater, Ph.D. is a communication professor, a published author and has spoken at national and international conferences.  She is currently working on the book Fattening House: A Narrative Analysis of the Big, Black and Beautiful Body Subjectivity Constituted On Large African American Women. 

Dr. Mensah is a feminist critical theorist who believes that oppression is oppression and no one group of people are affected by it more or less than another. Because oppression is a human experience, we all have be reminded when we are being oppressed or being the oppressor (all humans experience both roles whether we like to admit it or not). Body image is one of the ways in which we still experience overt oppression. 

Dr. Mensah holds a Bachelor of Science in Television Production from Ferris State University; a Masters of Arts in Communication from Western Michigan University and a Doctorate of Philosophy [School of Communication Studies with a cognate in Media] from Bowling Green State University, 2008. She enjoys nature photography, contemporary Christian music and loves to cook! 

Dr. Mensah is an active fundraiser for MentalFitness, Inc. (formally Normal in Schools) because as children we absorb all the negative messages in society and have no defense against them unless there is an adult that intervenes in a positive way to help them. She believes that working with children to develop health mentally, physically and emotionally can eventually create a better society. She chose to work in the community college instead of the research university in order to reach a wider group of people that are in the margins fighting to make a better life for themselves and their families.


The Fat “Other”

The “Mythical Norm” typically begins with “thin” or “trim”, which means FAT is never ‘in’ for certain individuals


Oppression is oppression and is multiplied and complicated when Weight Stigma is added to identity markers, no matter what they are.  To oppress is to pressure a person to be something or someone they are not simply because you can’t identify them based on a social category.   As such, when critical cultural researchers and body image experts refer to the “mythical norm” or simply put, the highest person in American society’s social spectrum, the mythical normal or perfect person is typically defined as a trim, tall, White, wealthy, heterosexual, intelligent, Christian, male.   This means that the farther you are from these identity markers, you are considered to be in the margins of society.

Unfortunately, we cannot deny that one’s economic status, social class, gender, ethnic, sexual, religious or political affiliation, as well as ones height, mental health, ability, age, dialect (which can be regional or international) can complicate every life.  (I am sure to miss others so forgive me if you fall into a category I fail to mention because an individual considered different in any way can face similar experiences.)  However, the point that I would like to make is that, no matter which category you fit in, fat is usually not “in”.   In fact, it could be argued that the fatter a person is the farther outside the margins and the more they are subject to prejudice in their everyday lives and that is why I am proud to be invited to participate and help educate about Weight Stigma during this event.

My point of view is one of a critical cultural feminist influenced highly by thesis and dissertation advisors Drs’ Ford, Addison, Park, Mascaro and Warren as well as authors such as bell hooks, Stuart Hall, Foss & Foss, Robert Entman and Jean Kilbourne.  They, along with many other talented authors, informed my way of thinking about body image, however, my deep understanding comes from personal experience and the wonderful women I have had the pleasure of interviewing both formally and informally.

This week, I would like us to consider certain ways in which oppressive experiences of large and obese African Americans are often ignored in academic literature and popular culture.

Contrary to popular belief, not every large African American woman professes the Big, Black, and Beautiful, Body (B4) narrative surrounding her body image; instead, this form of Weight Stigma complicates the life experience of some large and obese African American women.   This article calls for academic researchers to refocus their quantitative questionnaires and reformulate their approaches to measuring the body satisfaction for large and obese African American women.  In other words, stop pressuring large African American women to conform to the B4 narrative by pushing this generalized narrative through media, body image experts, academic journals and the like.  The B4 narrative is America’s construction of their “ideal” large and obese African American female prototype by juxtaposing, recycling, realigning and reconstructing the Mammy, Jezebel and Hottentot body images.

Larger and obese African American women are not only ignored but also oppressed when unrecognized as a group that suffers the consequences of size oppression or Weight Stigma.  Popular culture and academicians often project the same generalized view of the large African American female, which I named the Big Black Beautiful Body (B4) narrative after being immersed in body image literature, race, class and gender studies in the media as well as the narratives of large and Obese African American women.  I explain this as fundamental brainwashing by utilizing a mythical American fattening house that demonstrates how the B4 constrains the everyday lived experience of some large and Obese African American women.

One way to notice limitations of large African American women is to look at mediated representations.  Often media teaches us what is beautiful and acceptable, depending on our specific identity markers as discussed earlier.  Every group in the margins is either limited or erased by showing a very narrow depiction of their humanness.  bell hooks calls this a “represented imitation of life” because these representations are limited based on the imaginations of those creating media where the bottom-line and ratings rule.  This also means that the imitation of life is recreated not only by the ones who have the power and means to control media, but also by those of us that view and use media.

Several years ago, I pieced together the photo below through Google Images as a visual to explain my analysis of how the large and obese African American female body has been re-commodified and naturalized for modern day consumption using B4 narratives.

These narratives were created by old racial stereotypes pre and post antebellum but also sustained and maintained through media images that change with society yet still rely on Weight Stigmas.  Therefore, the following is simply my way to give voice to these women even if only a few, because sometimes, size matters.

B4 Graphic

Even today, years after my research, I am discouraged that I still do not recognize a significant change in media portrayals and academic research of the large and Obese African American women struggling with Weight Stigma.

Such narratives are oppressive to some large African American women.  Sometimes they may feel pressured to use the B4 narrative as agency to have basic human needs met or simply because individuals have no clue how to relate to them otherwise.  The truth is that, no one group is monolithic and not every large and obese African American woman cares to be a nurturing figure, funny, fat and jolly or freaking aggressive, loud and mean.

Imagine if you will that some are not so funny or aggressive but fragile with low self-esteem especially because of her body image.  Some large African American women feel incredibly pressured and thus conform to the stereotype because of these narratives that are so strong and easily digestible due to America’s historical “fattening house” roots.  These narratives are ingrained in the minds of the American psyche.  In fact they are so ingrained that even some large and obese African American women do not realize their own subjugation and the ways in which she they too contribute their own oppression by living up to the expectations of B4 narratives.

If you are still reading this article then you are clearly one of those making positive steps forward in the fight against weight oppression.  Continue to support Weight Stigma Awareness Week and pass along the information you have learned.

Through campaigns such as this one we can learn to be free of Weight Stigmas.  But, we also have to pay attention to our own communication with the fat “other”.  I am speaking about the large and obese African American women that may not be comfortable in their own skin and need help; support and resources just like anyone else dealing with body image issues.

When you meet anyone that you consider too fat or obese, consider whether your expectations of him or her are based on their weight.  We can all begin by admitting our own prejudices and realizing that they are naturalized through mediated and social conditioning.  We can take time to make contact with a wide variety of large or obese individuals in multiple contexts, not just because we have to at work, school, church, grocery store, political function or the like.

Also, we must know that life is an act of personal reflection instead of fault finding in order to “prove” the stereotypes and justify our prejudices and Weight Stigma.  We must be committed to feel the uncomfortable feeling that comes with getting to know the “fat other” for real and not through our socially constructed lenses created based on old stereotypes.   We must silence those stereotypes instead of struggling to find way to silence the “fat other” or any other for that matter.  Remember the words of Marian Anderson, that “as long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.”