A/n: an adaptation of this article was originally published on Not Another Wave in January 2011.
There’s a lot of publicity given to the “majority” culture pressure that is put on White women to be thin, which has a whole field of feminist research devoted to it. As one blogger rightly puts it, “This is about power. It’s about wanting women to be small in the world, to take up less space, literally and metaphorically.” It also relates to sexuality. Twiggy became popular among White women during a period of time when White women’s sexual options were expanding drastically, thanks to advances in hormonal birth control and the emergence of the second wave feminist movement. While everyone’s figure is different, the overall effect of weight loss is a body that’s contained, restrained, and thus- depending on your build- significantly de-sexualized. This feeds directly into an ages-old series of assumptions about White women- particularly that they shouldn’t be “overly” sexy.
What I’m trying to get at is that the whole “thin is in” movement really is a very White-centric movement. While pictures of women laughing alone with salad– one of the trademarks of the weight loss movement- occasionally include a woman who’s presumably of African descent, the vast majority are White. And those who are Black have been, for lack of a better term, “whitenized,” with light skin, controlled hair, and Romanesque features. Essentially, they are the Other as the European colonists wanted them to be: under control, “saved” from themselves, and “just like Us.”
This brings me to the topic of another, less marketed-by-health-companies body standard: the standard of Thick. We’ve all heard it mentioned, either by rappers (especially in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”), activists, our friends and families, or our partners. The Thick movement is the idealization of a body that’s slender (but still curvy) through the breasts and waist, and flares into a round, perky set of hips and bum connected to a pair of muscular, curvy legs. Is it a hard ideal to live up to? You bet. The ideology of Thick has become a high-held standard for many women, particularly Black women, instead of the skinny White body. And while I’m thrilled that women of any race could reasonably look to that shape as an example of how many body types are sexy, I’m also concerned about the cultural influences, both from Black and White sources, that have given shape to the Thick ideal.
Latoya Peterson on Racialicious gives a great breakdown of the idea of Thick and the meanings and validation it can carry for the women who identify with it. The valorization of a large butt, for those whose basic body shape involves one, is hugely liberating in a world that’s dominated by images of bodies with flat or hardly existent butts. At the same time, however, I have to wonder how much influence the earlier European readings of Black female bodies has had on the current uplifting of Thick. If large breasts on a White woman still read as a measure of her sexual appetite and ability to consent, does the size of a Black woman’s butt get interpreted that way, too? If so, is the valorization of a Thick body type simply a marketing scheme designed to re-sell the image of the Other? One of the authors of Colonize This!, Serina Riley, addresses the same problem:
“As much as we get praised for loving our full bodies, many young white women would rather be dead than wear a size 14. They nod their heads and say how great it is that we black women can embrace our curves, but they don’t want to look like us. They don’t adopt our presumably more generous beauty ideals. White women have even told me how lucky black women are that our men love and accept our bodies the way they are. I’ve never heard a white woman say she’s going to take a cue from black women and gain a few pounds, however. In a way it is patronizing, because they’re basically saying, ‘It’s OK for you to be fat, but not me. You’re black. You’re different.'”
For me, the fact that Thick is so strongly associated with Black women and Black identities is the part that’s concerning: while I understand the desire to have ideals and cultures separate from those of the White hegemony, I also have a hard time believing that the Thick ideal in particular is really all that liberating.
The counterargument, of course, is that many cultures in the US find great pride and power in reclaiming images, ideals, and vocabulary from their discriminatory pasts. Words have all been re-appropriated by cultural movements to confront the bigotry that used to dominate them, and there’s merit to the argument that the current chart-toppers of hip-hop, who valorize overindulgence in sex, drugs, and violence, are manipulating stereotypes about Black men to gain power over the White imaginations that created them. In theory, if the stereotype is being used and evolving in the hands of the people it’s supposed to harm, its creators- the ones doing the harming in the first place- lose their weapons. Whether or not it actually works that way is a different debate.
The point remains that the “ideal body” that’s promoted in magazines, billboards, newspapers, TV, and movies that are marketed towards the hegemonic culture is really only intended to be ideal for a specific group. The current popular ideals for White women and Black women, I think, retain a lot of the racist and sexist assumptions that were prolific during Europe’s imperialist years, and contribute to a culture that still believes Black women have uncontrollable sexual appetites as compared to White women. Furthermore, the notion that anyone from any culture should be expected to live up to a standard based on a small percentage of the population is offensive in its own right. Even if it were unproblematic to assume that Black and White women should have completely separate body goals, the fact remains that not all Black women are built to be Thick any more than all White women are built to be skinny. Instead of idealizing bodies based on stereotypes and minorities, we should be idealizing the people who are happy and comfortable in their natural shape. Instead of buying into a diet industry that’s upholding racist ideals about bodies and appetites, we should be investing our time and energy in other ways to improve ourselves, such as challenging the idea that self-fulfillment comes in wearing a particular dress size. Let’s do away with the Madonna vs. Hottentot Venus dichotomy once and for all.