“What shall I tell my children who are black? Of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin? What shall I tell my dear ones, fruit of my womb, of how beautiful they are? Where everywhere they are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black…?” — Dr. Margaret Burroughs, 1968.
Growing up it seemed as though race and gender had always been a part of my consciousness. However, at that juncture in life I understood identity in the most simplistic terms. I was poor, black, a girl, a bit rounder than most, but that’s where the observation ended. There was no evaluation of how those identities influenced who I was or who I was going to be. Hence, the multiple social identities of being black, large, and female were always present, but not contextualized.
Through a simple game of make believe, I would come to understand my expected place in the world. I never cared for the idea of being a princess. In every book I’d read they were either locked away in towers, being abducted, persecuted by evil step-mothers, or simply lying comatose while life raged on. I never wanted any part of that but one day out of boredom I thought it would be interesting to play with a different group of girls during recess. These girls played princess regularly and approached it with an uncanny degree of formality. As a circle of girls clucked on about the hierarchy of princesses, I interjected, “Can I play? I could be a princess, or maybe more like the queen!” The blonde ringleader said, “Okay, you can play, but you can’t be a princess. Princesses are blonde and pretty and you’re black and fat, so you can be a wicked witch.” I decided not to play.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, commented in her book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, “The issues of emerging sexuality and the societal messages about who is sexually desirable leave young black women in a very devalued position.” The initiation into this devaluation was truly an American creation, a methodology that conceptualized a social structure of race and gender based on a sexist, white supremacist model.
From that playground experience, I began to learn that as a female I should desire to be pretty, and that being black and overweight nullified any possibility of achieving that desire. I became acutely aware that society would attribute every failure or character flaw to my race and size, which would be used as a measure of my inferiority. My experience as a human being would be limited to the restrictive stereotypes paraded within various forms of media. In addition to navigating the difficulty of racial discrimination, I was expected to conform to beauty ideals that shared no cultural resemblance to who I was. Black women who looked like me were at best asexual mammies, muted and stable best friends, or sassy, glorified ghetto cooks who lusted over ham hocks and the men who’d never part their sheets. These grotesque images of black womanhood are starkly juxtaposed with images of blonde bombshells, pale, rail thin supermodels, or simply your typical lily-white, girl next door.
Most media images serve as indicators of social status because one learns what a society values and what it does not through media representation. The black female body has historically been debased by the intersecting atrocities of racism and patriarchal oppression. My black, large, female body was being offered up as a sacrifice to the contemporary “cult of thinness,” which socially sanctioned my body as unfit to truly be feminine. In a grossly sexist and racialized society, a black, fat woman is not valued, and therefore eclipsed. I questioned, as Sojourner had, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
During my young adulthood, I caved into social pressure. I obsessively straightened my hair and began binging and purging food. I dare say I alternated between states of anorexia and bulimia, which is of course absurd because black women do not have eating disorders, and fat people cannot be anorexic.
Depressed by years of relentless stigmatization, it was only when I chose a form of self-integration that would take place outside of the confines of white culture, that I began to realize my worth. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Lou Hamer cast stones against the patriarchal, white supremacist power structure. They strived to enhance the plight of their people, and their black femininity was soundly intact. These remarkable women were the catalyst for the formation of my womanist aesthetic. This womanist aesthetic would guide me to stop demonizing my unique characteristics, and engage in healthy behaviors.
I no longer chemically processed my hair nor consumed nutrient poor foods that were introduced into the African American palate by oppressive forces. These changes resulted in a healthier physical and mental state. I reclaimed the power to redefine beauty and femininity on my own cultural terms. Just as the warrior women before me did not submit to the prescribed societal notions of their value or existence, I too have chosen a cerebral and substantive beauty to define the majesty that is my black female body.
Anitra Winder is a queer, crafty, Afrofuturistic, writer, and social justice advocate. She has a degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Health Care Administration/Public Health. When she’s not focused on social justice issues, she’s battling her comic book addiction…she’s not winning. Find her on Twitter @donitocarmenito.