Why Are Black Women Fat?

11 May 2012

written by Carolyn


Alice Randall, author of the “Gone With the Wind” parody “The Wind Done Gone” and the new novel “Ada’s Rules,” set off a firestorm with this head-scratching pronouncement in an recent New York Times op-ed, “Black Women and Fat” (which also appeared under the title “Why Black Women Are Fat”):

“What we need is a body-culture revolution in black America. Why? Because too many experts who are involved in the discussion of obesity don’t understand something crucial about black women and fat: many black women are fat because we want to be.”

Erika Nicole Kendall, who writes about wellness, weight loss and body image at A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, more or less eviscerated Randall’s thesis on her blog and in an essay that appeared  the New York Times’ opinion pages. I’m not here to reinvent that wheel. But this notion that black women choose fat because we fear black men won’t want us if we’re skinny, is ridiculous.

There is a legitimate public health discussion to be had about blacks and obesity. Randall’s op-ed did nothing to further that discussion. Instead, her piece took us back to the pathological portrait of the tragic black woman. Just last year, “black women can’t get a man” was all the rage. One of the many reasons cited for black women’s perpetual state of loneliness was – you guessed it – that we’re overweight and unattractive. Yet, according to Randall, once a black woman gets a (black) man, he complains if she loses that “sugar down below” – which I guess is a euphemism for “big ass” that’s exclusive to Memphis, since I’ve never heard any man refer to my butt as my “sugar.”

The “my man won’t like it if I lose weight” argument is bunk. I have friends whose husbands expressed concern when they began losing weight – not because their cup of sugar was no longer full, but because the husbands didn’t like the way other men now looked at their wives. The women I knew kept working out anyway. They wanted to change their bodies for themselves. The men? They got over it.

It works the other way, too – men who become obsessed with making sure their wives don’t gain weight, even after birthing multiple children. A friend told me of being at a party where a man kept boasting to his friends about his very slim wife: “Four kids and size 4, man!” Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with a woman working her way back into shape after childbirth. There’s also nothing wrong with a man taking pride in having a wife he considers beautiful and sexy, although bragging about her size is beyond tacky. But a woman who stays fit because her husband demands it is no healthier, mentally and emotionally, than a woman who stays fat because her husband demands it. Yes, we want to look good for our partners. We want them to find us desirable. But each of us has to live within the skin we’re in and to be comfortable with ourselves as we are, even as we work to make changes. Contrary to popular media belief, black women don’t structure their lives around getting and keeping a man, or lamenting the absence of one.

I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life. I’ve never lost or gained weight to keep a man. I’ve never had a man leave or threaten to leave for any reason that was related to my weight. I’m sure women like the women Randall describes – women who don’t exercise because their partners like their bodies as they are – exist. But “some” is not “all,” or even “many.” We black women do love our curves – as in, our ample hips, thighs, buttocks and breasts – but curvaceous does not equal obese.

Obesity is a major issue for black Americans. Fitness and exercise need to become a priority for all. Writers can and should help raise attention and awareness to the issue in a way that may lead to positive change. Alice Randall’s New York Times op-ed not only failed to coherently address the issues surrounding black women and obesity, it was a turn-off to black women who might have  benefited the most from the themes of self-love and self-care in her new book.

9 Comments on Why Are Black Women Fat?

  1. Mark Robinson

    Carolyn, as usual, very well said. I cannot at all relate to the description of black men who demand that their wives stay fat (or thin) in order to satisfy their own flawed emotional needs. Indeed, I think that black women should respond to that behavior by saying “I refuse to be an enabler of your pathology and dysfunctionality.”

    On a sociological level, I am bothered by Randall’s suggestion (which is far too common and popular) that black people engage in collective behavior that is simplistic and irrational. Unfortunately there are many, both black and white, who promote the belief in stereotypical generalizations about black people. My own personal life experience tells me that we are a complex and nuanced people, that there is never one explanation that fits all and that generalities are intellectual sloth.

  2. keisha brown

    Contrary to popular media belief, black women don’t structure their lives around getting and keeping a man, or lamenting the absence of one <-!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  3. Monise Seward

    *Sigh* Where do I begin? I say ‘I’ because I want whomever reads this to understand what I took from her piece and how I can say that I understand what she was trying to get across, even if it did not come across to everyone else in that manner.

    First of all, I was a very lanky and leggy child; I took after my daddy’s family. The women on my mother’s side all have hips and behind; I got none of that. I was teased by my own family as a child for being ‘flat-back’ or having no assatall. I did not develop a shape until after I had my soon-to-be 17 year old son. My shape became more curvy after my second and third children. IN fact, after having my second child I believe I was in the best physical health ever. I started working out and got very, very toned. I weighed 160 but I was a size 6. I knew that I had more muscle than fat.

    Anywho….I have lived in the South for 10 years now. Although my weight has pretty much stayed within the 160-170 range, I have been referred to as ‘little’ or ‘skinny.’ I am 5′ 8″ and 170 is not skinny for that height. I guess because I am a former athlete (elementary-through high school and I coached for 2 years) I know that 170 is a sign that I need to start working out again because, by ‘my’ standards, it’s unhealthy…for ME. I don’t like having a muffin top or seeing my stomach when I sit down. To ME, it’s unattractive. I have overheard many women say that their man likes then ‘thick’ but here’s the problem: The lines between thick, overweight, and obese have been completely erased. Women walking around with their stomachs hanging out of their shirts is not thick; it’s the giant red flag of an epidemic. Not just an obesity epidemic, but a diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and whatever else epidemic. Yes, some people do not have access to healthier, fresh foods. But I have done many a cart-glancings at WalMart and seen people with 3 different kinds of chips, 4 different kinds of sodas/pops, and plenty of other snacks-no fruits- in their carts. Are we (my family) eating all the healthiest foods possible? No. But I do make an effort to buy fresh fruits and veggies as often as I can on my limited income.

    I think we have become very defensive about our body images because they have been the topic of many opinion pieces, blogs, books, etc. At the same time, I do believe we need to address the denial elephant in the room because a lot of us are in fact, fat. Or if that word is too harsh, we can say overweight. Last year we were too mean to be married, too Black to be attractive, or too nappy-headed..blah blah blah. It will always be something for people to dissect about us but I cannot and will not deny that our community has an unhealthy relationship with (bad) foods. Don’t believe me? Send a tweet asking how many people have been to Gladys & Ron’s Chicken-n-Waffles.

  4. Carolyn

    I’m not sure why you’re sighing, and I don’t understand how anything you said is contrary to what I said. I started off acknowledging that obesity is an issue that needs to be discussed and addressed in the black community, but this op-ed did little to advance the discussion. Alice Randall writes for a living. I can’t give her a pass for not expressing her thoughts in a way that would make people understand what she was trying to get across. As for your own weight experiences, while 160-170 may not be “skinny” on a 5’8″ frame, we have to stop focusing on pounds alone. Body composition matters greatly. You’re 170, athletic and muscular. That’s quite different from someone who is 170 (or even 120), sedentary, and with a higher body fat composition. If you’re uncomfortable when your weight approaches 170, and you choose to do something about it, that’s your personal choice. If another woman who’s 170 is comfortable with having a bit of a pooch or muffin top, then that’s her choice to make. If she’s not suffering from high blood pressure, high blood sugar, having heart palpitations, or experiencing joint pain from carrying more weight than her frame can handle, then there’s nothing wrong with her making that choice. As I said in my comment on Twitter, every body is different. The challenge is coming up with approaches to health and fitness that work for people across a wide variety of circumstances.

  5. Monise Seward

    I didn’t disagree with anything you said. My sigh was because people have taken to the blogosphere and turned the real issue (health and weight) into a debate, where a debate is not necessary; dialogue, yes. I am not saying that you are debating, but I have seen other people take the extreme. The point I was trying to make is that we as a community have become ultra-sensitive about any perspective/criticism because we have been the focus of a lot of (negative) media attention. Yes, she is an author trying to sell books, much like Steve Harvey, Toure, and the rest of them. We are not nearly as critical of those perspectives as we are of hers. I have seen this picking & choosing a lot when it comes to issues and voices that refer to/address Black women. But I digress on that one.

    Lastly, by mentioning my weight/height I was using that as an example of how we (as a community) have very different ideas of what’s healthy/skinny/or whatever you want to label it. I was speaking from my experiences and what I see/hear in the South, which I stated in my first response. But I guess that is not what got across. Anyway, still a great post.

  6. Carolyn

    “We are not nearly as critical of those [Harvey's/Toure's] perspectives as we are of hers [Randall's].” Really? Have you missed the nonstop roasting of Toure and Steve Harvey on Twitter? Toure would be lambasted for reporting the time correctly. For example, Toure wrote an article for Time examining whether or not President Obama would lose black voters because of his support for same-sex marriage, and was criticized harshly for it. Then some of the people criticizing him wrote similar pieces for other publications. Harvey’s comments have most recently been rounded up in a video called “Sh*t Steve Harvey Says.” People don’t normally think of Alice Randall as a voice that refers to or addresses Black women’s issues, but, as you point out, people are naturally suspicious, if not downright hostile, whenever anyone appears to be playing into the same old pathetic stereotypes about black women – whether or not any of their points are valid. Alice Randall inadvertently fell into a trap for the unwary on this topic.

  7. Foxy Brown


    i’m from a small town in georgia and people (men and women) want a woman with “meat on her bones”. growing up i was called skinny minnie. i’m all legs. even to this day, people back home think i don’t eat and am afraid of being fat. i wanna be healthy. i want my family healthy. like you said, i’m comfortable in the skin i’m in! it hurts when folks accuse me of trying to “be like white girls”. i have a family history that behooves me to watch what i eat, my weight, and exercise. i want as many healthy years as possible.

  8. Nic

    I have a couple of major issues with her post. She is playing into the fact that black women’s bodies, faces, and hair are typically used as synonymous with “fat and ugly.” And it is an attack on physical traits that are more common in black women. We don’t all have big butts on small, medium, or large frames, but I’m not going to pretend like on average we don’t have bigger, rounder butts. You should realize that when they say “fat” they include women with small waists and flat stomachs in that definition. They are attacking actual curves and not weight. And they are calling you ugly if you dare to have those no matter what your weight or habits. So don’t be too proud of yourself thinking that you’d pass muster.

    She is also ignoring the fact that issues of health and obesity in the U.S. are not the sole purview of black women. All of these articles always talk about black women as if black men aren’t ever fat, as if white people aren’t ever fat, etc. In states that have very high numbers of overweight and obese people, you’d better believe that it’s not the black people who are the bulk of the “fatties.” I’m from a state that doesn’t have a large black population but it definitely has a high percentage of fat people. If you have a lot of fat people in one place, they come in all colors.

    So all of the people who are feeling really superior b/c they take care of themselves and that everyone else is just upset for someone “keeping it real” should realize that if you are just “curvy” your big butt, thicker legs, and larger breasts are included in the definition of fat.

    It’s never been my experience that black men particularly like fat black women(they only accept fat women of other races), and I’m from the South. Everyone I know who was skinny wanted curves, but no one was aiming for riding a scooter around the grocery store. I DON’T have the same body type as my family but they were all skinny, long-legged, and flat-chested…and they were aiming for something a little more substantial, like a size 8, 10, or 12, and not a size 2 or 4.

    So we should ALL be offended that our bodies, faces, hair, and skin continued to be pathologized in this society that seems to be okay letting our black brothers off the hook for their flaws.

    If we want to have discussions about health, we should be talking about high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and truth be told HIV and AIDs but we need to look at lifestyle and diet and not try to police everyone’s bodies. We won’t all end up with the same physique just b/c we follow the same routines, but we CAN all be a lot healthier.

    As someone who started out a little chubby and later fat, I was shocked to see that eating right and working out hard did NOT turn me into something that was like the rest of my family. But I probably shouldn’t have been since I grew up swimming, riding my bike, being fed well (and my sister who was eating the same food, was skinny and long-legged). And I have cousins who have never seen the inside of a gym but who will always wear a single digit size. I always assumed it would be simple. But I am damn healthy, so anyone who wants to criticize that fact that I have a round butt instead of a wide flatt one is invited to kiss it.

  9. Blithe Minako

    I am an upcoming blogger and young black woman who is starting a health and wellness club at my university for multicultural women. Please check out my Youtube Channel, and help me kick off the revolution we call MOVEMENT! Here is Youtube Channel—–> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtmuVgtuO6I

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