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.
Rev. Dr. E-K. Daufin is an educator, social activist performance, fine artist and writer who earns a living as a professor of communication at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama. Her research and writing specialty is exploring weight stigma in the media and its effects. The best way to contact her is to follow her to her “home country” (blog) Daufination, where all the definitions are “Daufinitions.” She also writes for the ASDAH Blog. Dr. Daufin is a HAES® expert, an Association for Health Care Journalists past-member, Spoken Word poet, Reiki Master, belly dancer, EFT Practitioner and consultant. You can read more about her workshops on her webpage.
Combating Weight Stigma in the African American Community
Yesterday I was part of yet another interview where a woman interested in fighting weight stigma was shocked that most African American women don’t have what she called “a sense of protection from weight stigma.” I am an African American woman who was forced into what became a (first-half of a) lifelong yo-yo dieting problem by an undiagnosed bulimic African American mother. She put me on a weight loss diet at 5 years-old and would punish me for sweating which made my hair “turn-back.” That means the sweat makes pressed and even chemically straightened hair kink up, as chemically straightened hair must be dried on high heat, with a lot of tension, to become straight at the root.
My African American father, brother and extended family joined my mother in shaming me, criticizing and demoralizing me for being fatter than they thought I ought to be. My peers at the predominantly White K-8 schools and multi-racial New York City high school I attended agreed with my mother, even as I slowly rebounded from a sickly too-low weight loss goal that a national company had set for me right before I entered puberty. As an undergrad at the HBCU Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, my peers and their families chastised me for not losing weight and straightening my hair more because they said I was “so close” to being pretty.
While I was in grad school, my White best friend adamantly counseled me that in writing my singles ad, I needed to warn potential male suitors that I was “significantly overweight” or they would feel I had deceived them and walk away. I was then, and this friend had only known me as, a size 14/16. A size 14/16 is the size I still wish I were when I occasionally succumb to the depressing weight of weight stigma too much to bear in these bigger bodied days of now.
I have always been African American. I have lived in this (USA) country’s Northeast, Midwest, West, West Coast, Deep South and Gulf of Mexico and I have been the victim of race AND weight stigma, harassment, and discrimination in all those places. I studied in Paris, France, at size 14 and faced weight stigma there not only from Parisians, but also from the only other African American woman (from Manhattan) in the exchange program in which I was participating.
Should you think that all this weight discrimination in the African American and integrated communities was in the ancient past, let me disabuse you of that fallacy. I returned from a blissful size acceptance, easy intuitive eating weekend at the Association for Size Diversity And Health (ASDAH) Biannual Conference outside of Chicago this spring to Alabama State University Montgomery, Alabama, where I am a professor of Communication at the HBCU. The next day, I attended rehearsals as solo djembe drummer for a theatrical production of the iconic Black woman’s play by Ntazake Shange “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
The women in the all-African American cast, including the director and thin choreographer — most of whom would be considered by BMI (that really means Bulls–t Measuring Instrument,) to be “morbidly obese” — had all expressed worry about their weight being too high and criticized themselves for being too fat and for “being bad” for eating what is considered non-weight loss diet food. The day I returned, the choreographer was handing out her business cards. The cards invited us to “pole yourself thin.” That’s right, a thin Black woman who has never been fat wanted higher weight African American cohorts to pay her to teach us how to do stripper dancing and promised that it would make us thin. She expected us to eagerly take her up on the offer. Most of the women did. Their only concern was the cost.
I chose not to do any activism at that moment. I didn’t want to deal with the burdensome education and coaxing. I didn’t want to invite more rejection, criticism and beat down for being fat and not dieting, or even pole dancing, to be thin. I was trying to experience the feeling of belonging and hoping to make some Black female friends, which I have been unable to do in this Deep South, birth place of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the last couple of years, the dearth of female friends of any race, including African Americans, may largely be because of my work to accept myself at any size, eat intuitively versus weight loss dieting that only has made me fatter, and exercising for other benefits, not for weight loss. Out of their own self-hatred, most women who are not already on a Health At Every Size (HAES®) path, attack me for my healing path rather than support and love me. Most of all, I didn’t do any activism at that “pole yourself thin” moment because I was grieving the return to a weight stigma reality after the almost magical time of spending about 25 hours with people, only one of whom was also African American, who didn’t assume I was greedy and lazy because of my size – who didn’t give me grief for being alive.
The type of harassment the lead character Precious in the feature film based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire is a reality for fat Black women in America today.
I and others have had African American and other race men calling us offensive names based on our higher weights, similar to what the title character endures in the film Precious. Some of my harassers have even been women and/or college students currently enrolled in my classes. Don’t think though that this Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry produced film was an entirely or even predominantly anti-weight stigma film though. Precious depicts a lot of inaccurate, weight stigmatizing stereotypes. For example, in one scene, Precious eats a whole big bucket of fried chicken at one time, by herself.
To fight weight stigma in the Black and broader community, I often submit editorials to the one daily paper in the midsize capital city in which I live and to national African American and mainstream forums such as The New York Times and NPR’s Morning Edition. My article topics have never been accepted with open arms by mainstream editors. In the past even fat acceptance editors have been unwilling to believe Black women deal with weight stigma. Now mainstream gatekeepers are even less likely to accept HAES oriented topic.
Part of a course, I teach at the HBCU Alabama State University twice a year on how the media affects society has a section on the impact of weight stigma in the media. I don’t allow my freshmen public speaking students to do “obesity”/weight loss speeches because I teach them that never-fat or still-fat students have no credibility for speaking on “obesity” or weight loss. The one’s who have never been fat haven’t lost significant weight and kept it off for 5 years or more by the weight loss dieting and exercise they recommend in their speeches. The still-fat students haven’t experienced following that weight loss dieting and exercise advice to be helpful in losing a significant amount of weight and keeping it off for five years or more.
When health science faculty send around cruel pictures of headless fat children advertising for guest speakers ranting on “the child obesity epidemic” or exhorting us to join prayer groups where the fat among us are supposed to walk around campus and pray to be thin, I post back replies illuminating the unjust weight stigma and inaccuracy of such messages.
The university no longer allows faculty to post to the university listserv, or to self-made large lists of university colleagues. Instead, I hold public seminars and workshops about improving body image and adopting a Health At Every Size (HAES®) communication model. When the local daily news outlet actually listed one such on-campus seminar celebrating the National Organization for Women’s Love Your Body Day, we got readers’ comments that inferred, and praised us for doing, a class on masturbation. You of course know that we were talking about positive body image at every size, not sexual self-love.
Fighting weight stigma in the Black community has never been easy. However now it is even more painful and I experience more hostility and less success in the process. The HAES® model is so foreign to both African American intellectual and broader communities. It doesn’t help to be in a worldwide economic downturn that uses higher weight people as scapegoats for diminishing resources (rather than focusing on the often very thin 1-percent who are the ones really hogging most of the world’s riches. One “can never be too rich or too thin,” right?)
It doesn’t help to have an African American first lady who has alternately been accused of being “too fat” herself and her campaign to “end childhood obesity,” that only increases weight stigma. Yet if she were the size of the average African American woman her husband probably would not have been elected president.
It doesn’t help to have an African American president who is ultra slim after being a chubby little boy and under whose landmark Affordable Care Act (that doesn’t allow people to be denied healthcare for pre-existing conditions) will allow higher weight people to be subjected to further stigmatized by draconian, invasive “preventive health” programs based solely on their BMI (and you know what that acronym really stands for now) as well as be punished with higher premiums if they don’t change that pre-existing condition and lose weight. Yet if President Obama had still been as chubby as he was as a little boy, or say Bill Clinton at his higher weights, Obama would never have been elected president.
Too many thin African Americans clasp furtively at some unearned thin privilege as they are denied so much in the inaccessible White privilege.
Most thin African Americans are as unaware of unearned thin privilege as most White Americans of any weight are of their unearned White privilege. Weight stigma activism in the Black community is, as we say in my culture, a “tough road to hoe.” However as the Late, Great Professor Derrick Bell Esquire says in Confronting Authority, Even though the protestor may be persecuted, speaking up saves the psyche. I’m going to keep fighting weight stigma in the Black community and wherever I go because I don’t have another option that will allow my fat, fine psyche to survive.