My best friend, Denise Jolly stood on a subway train and disrobed, revealing all 311 lbs of her formerly hidden body in a black bra and panties. This was the culmination of a 30 day journey, in which she took photos of herself in various states of partial nudity at home and in her community. She called it the Be Beautiful project. Her nakedness in the photos was no more than what we might see on a Victoria’s Secret commercial or beer ad and yet it was revolutionary. In a society filled with weight stigma, that tells us that anyone with a body like hers is not worthy of love let alone visibility, her work was a reminder to herself and others that, “The active practice of loving myself exactly as I am, is radical self-love.” The photos were bold and powerful and I asked her to capture her journey in an essay for The Body is Not An Apology (TBINAA), an international radical self-love and body empowerment movement I founded almost 3 years ago.
The day after the blog went live the story went viral. Calls flooded in, Huffington Post, Yahoo, Inside Edition, Queen Latifah Show, Laura Engram Show and several more media outlets began requesting her for appearances and interviews. Her project had achieved what it set out to do, make her seen.
When the Huffington Post re-blogged the TBINAA article they included a slideshow of their ten favorite “Body Image Heroes”. Nine White women’s faces scrolled across my computer screen with the final woman on the slideshow being Asian. If I am being honest, I felt the ugly twinge of jealousy creep up my spine when the media outlets started calling; when I clicked on all these fair skinned faces. After all, The Body is Not An Apology started because of my choice to post a picture of my large body in just my undies on a social media page.
[Image consists of TBINAA Founder, Sonya Renee Taylor. She is standing in a hotel room mirror. She is a larger Black woman with dark skin. She is wearing a black corset. She has her left hand on her hip. Her right are is bent and she is holding a pink cell phone. Her hair is a large curly afro.]
I wondered, “Where was the Huffington Post then?” When I looked deeper at that ugly feeling it became clear it was not a personal jealousy about my gorgeous friend being seen in her brilliance. It was the bitter reminder of how often women of color, Black women specifically, are not seen.
The same day I watched the slideshow of body positive heroines, sans any black or brown bodies, TBINAA posted a clip from GLEE’s Amber Riley, dominating the cha- cha on Dancing With the Stars. There was nary a peep in the media about her beautiful example of movement, endurance and power in a large body. Several articles talked about what a great job she did. One article even mentioned she was “plus sized” but no one was mentioning television star Amber Riley as a “body image” heroine. Why? Because the social narrative is “she is a singing Black girl; she’s supposed to be fat.” Such an assumption renders her body an act of happenstance. Her body “just is” and therefore is not noteworthy. It would be like reporting she has a nose. “Of course she is fat!” the world says. And boldness in her particular body is nothing to aspire to. She is not Kirstie Alley, former Cheers star and DTWS alum whose fatness was such a novelty in Hollywood, that it garnered an entire HBO Series, “Fat Actress” and of course set the course for dramatic weight loss.
Gabourey Sidibe, the breakout star of the 2009 film Precious, defied all odds and persevered beyond most of the entertainment industry’s attempts to make her, the illiterate food addicted character she played in Precious. Her out loud, charismatic, ebullient personality and beauty continue to shine through and yet she is not touted as a hero of body positivity.
[Image consists of a black and white photo of Gabourey Sidibe. Her hair is black and shoulder length in loose waves. She is wearing a necklace that says ‘Baby Doll”. She has her face scrunched up with her mouth pursed and twisted to the right.]
Her large size and dark skin make her an outsider even in movements of inclusivity. With an internet full of vicious comments and health trolling she is rarely even given space to speak on her detractors. Her absence in the dialogue in any meaningful way is unsurprising but important given treatment of other White actresses.
The truth is Black women have always found ways to live in our skin with a dignity that the world has not afforded us. More often than not, when Black women’s bodies are acknowledged it is to pathologize them. A Google search of black women + body image leads to scores of internet hits on the “obesity crisis” in Black communities. Whereas, when the word “black” is removed, the same search generates article upon article of White women embracing body positivity.
More Radical Reads: If I Want to Lose Weight, Am I Automatically Anti-body Positive?
In Western culture, White womanhood is held as the epitome of beauty and desire. Part of the machine of size discrimination is stripping White Women of that status as punishment for fatness. There is a way in which body positive movements both reject the notion of the body as object while reclaiming it as beautiful by dismantling the definition. Black women’s bodies have always been objects in the social sphere but never exalted as beautiful. The fat Black woman’s body has been rendered an object of service whether for food, advice, care-taking etc., but never has it been a thing to aspire to, at best perhaps to fetishize, but not a thing of beauty. The mammy, a stereotypical trope born out of slavery validated large Black women’s existence only through their service to White women and White families, think Gone with the Wind, Gimme a Break or The Help. Our society tells us fatness is not beautiful. Blackness is historically, not beautiful. So even while battling weight stigma and reclaiming size diversity as beautiful, the presence of Blackness complicates the narrative. We don’t deal well with complication. This often means we don’t deal with complications, particularly in the realm of race. We simply don’t tell those stories. It is this unwillingness to wade through the murky waters of race that make Black and Brown women invisible even in the places where we say we are trying to make people seen.
More Radical Reads: Black Rage and Black Joy: Why We Must Learn to Balance Both
There is a reason women like Stella Boonshaft and Denise Jolly’s images have gone viral. Without question a great deal of that is about their brave declarations of beauty over their bodies, bodies that because of weight stigma, the world says should not be seen as such. However, their loud demands for a seat at the table must be mitigated by the reality that they have always been invited to the table, as long as they could fit in the prescribed seat. Being seen in our bodies, in our fullness and beauty is a birthright women of color have never had and what I thought was jealousy about a friend’s success was not that at all. What I was feeling was the aching reminder that the vehicle to even beginning to dismantle weight stigma is to be seen as fully human in this society. Far too often, that is a privilege that requires white skin and no matter how much I weigh or how naked I get, I will never have that.