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.