by Nyla Sampson
For as long as I can remember, people have always felt very comfortable making comments about my body.
Strangers especially seemed to have no problem inserting themselves into conversations about my size. Teachers, classmates, friends, and co-workers have all put their spin on it, but it all boils down to one thing: my weight was clearly an issue for them. I’ve been given unsolicited diet advice and doctor referrals, told that the clothes I chose “weren’t appropriate” for someone my size, and taunted with notions that I would never find love being as big as I am.
Something else I noticed as I got older was the ways in which our society engages with fat Black people, and opposed to fat non-Black people. As I came of age, I became acutely aware of the intersection of fat, Black, and femme, and the racialized ideals people often hold when engaging with fat Black people. Even as I type this, if I were to think of my main aggressors when it came to issues with my weight, those people are overwhelmingly non-Black.
We live in a society where the “standard of beauty” is whatever white cis men decide they find attractive about white cis women. Because of this, Black non-men of all sizes and gender experiences are pushed to the margins of what is considered “beautiful”. Fat Black people often exist in a very strange place of both invisible and hypervisible under the white gaze. Either we aren’t seen at all, touted as unacceptable or unworthy of occupying the given space, or we are put under a microscope, a specimen to be poked, prodded, and dissected, all with the goal of finding out: What’s wrong with us?
Fatphobia has its roots in the same place many forms of oppression do: white supremacy and colonialism. For centuries, Eurocentric “science” placed humans into “biological” and social hierarchies based on physical attributes, including body composition and relative fatness or thinness. Thinness, and by extension, “health” became associated with whiteness, and anyone who had a body contrary to this, became associated with “sickness”, and by extension, non-whiteness. Additionally, fatness is often seen as a moral flaw that exists within a person, rather than simply a fact of that person’s life. White supremacy often positions traits it associates with Blackness as inherent moral corruptions, rather than deliberate products of oppression. For this reason, white diet and exercise culture has been allowed to run rampant, and dictate what bodies get to be celebrated (white, thin, able), while the bodies of Black people (which, generally speaking, tend to carry weight differently) are seen as “other”. This has led to the subgegation, hypersexualization, and marginalization of fat Black people that dare to exist in public space.
I wouldn’t call the home I grew up in particularly body positive. Everyone was fat, but no one seemed particularly happy about it. From an early age, I internalized that my size was a problem that needed “fixing.” I was put on diets that worked for a while, then became ineffective. I lost large amounts of weight only to gain it back, and stuffed myself into body shaper after body shaper all in an attempt to be “normal”. As I attended a performing arts school with a majority white theatre program, I became aware of the tropes that were applied to big, Black girls that sing. We don’t get story lines. We don’t get fully fleshed out narratives. We play mammy to the white protagonist’s fragile ego, and sing the gospel number at the end of the show.
On the rare occasion that there was a story about us, it was always shrouded in pain (I’m looking at you, Dreamgirls.) At least fat white girls had Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Problematic though she may be, her story is a complete one. She even gets to play white savior at the end on the back of Motormouth Mabel’s activism. For years, I watched as fat white and racially ambiguous women, especially in the acting world, became the face of “revolutionary body positivity”, while fat Black femmes remained invisible. I watched actresses like Alysha Umphress and Keala Settle “break barriers”, and for a moment believed that their success meant my success. I thought to myself “I can sing that role, and I’m the same size as her!” I soon realized this was not the case. The theatre world wasn’t ready for fully developed fat, Black women with multifaceted existences. I was told, usually covertly, but sometimes right to my face, that if I wanted even a chance at that success, I needed to look “fit”. “Breaking barriers” was a luxury reserved for white women.
In addition to struggles in my artistic endeavors, I and many other fat Black femmes have been consistently antagonized and overlooked by the medical community. It is still, in the year 2019, a widely accepted medical opinion that thinness is inherently connected to health. Even with more than enough science that proves the contrary, doctors and nurses are still literally prescribing weight loss as the catch-all cure to life’s ailments. This kind of medical fatphobia is dangerous for all bodies, fat, thin, or otherwise. It places the sole marker of “health” into the size of one’s body, rather than the functions therein. Think about it: we all have that one skinny friend. They don’t work out. They don’t drink enough water. Hot Cheetos and fruit punch is their breakfast of choice. And they don’t gain a single pound. Most board certified doctors would call this person “healthy” simply by weighing them. Meanwhile this person’s health could be in jeopardy. On the flip side, I’ve had several instances where upon voicing my medical concerns to a doctor, the ONLY solution they offered me was to “lose weight”. This lead to health issues going undiagnosed and untreated for years, and greatly affecting my quality of life. In both scenarios, people were endangered because the medical community still has yet to truly move beyond the dichotomy that thin= health and fat = disease. This is not to say that weight related health issues can’t exist, but correlation isn’t always causation.
Add in the layers of being Black and femme to the mix, and dealing with the medical community is a downright nightmare. Studies have shown that the wider medical community overwhelmingly believes that Black people do not feel as much pain as non-Black people. Additionally, the medical community has yet to truly diversify and customize the basis on which they build medical precedent. Too many medical opinions are still purely based on how disease affects thin, white, able bodies. It is unacceptable that in 2019 we have forms of birth control that cause people of African descent to literally die from taking it. It is unacceptable that in 2019 we have emergency contraceptives and heart medications that are ineffective if you are above 160 pounds. This begs the question: who is “health” really for?
I say all this to say: BACK THE FUCK UP. Don’t touch me. Don’t comment about my weight. My diet is none of your concern, and your diet doesn’t interest me. I don’t want your “good intentions”, I don’t want your advice, I don’t want your fatphobia masquerading as “concern for my health”. Stop asking me if and how fat people have sex. Stop asking me if I want to lose weight. And please, for the love of God, stop telling me to love myself after years of conditioning me to do the opposite.
Stop assuming that because I am a fat Black femme, I am automatically an altar for your troubles, at your service. I don’t exist to mother you. Stop assuming that you have unlimited access to my body, and unlimited license to gaslight my experiences. The fat Black femme will take up space. She will sit next to you. She will push past you on the subway. She will wear mini skirts, and crop tops, and too tight jeans. She will eat cheeseburgers, and cake, and 6 egg omelettes. She will eat vegan, gluten free, free range, organic. She will walk slow, run fast, dance, go to the gym, or not. She will wiggle and jiggle and shake. She will strut on the beach, bikini clad, stretch marks in full view, belly on display.
The fat Black femme will take up space.
And you will deal with it.