I remember the first time I saw the kind of body I wanted to have.
I was about six or seven years old. I was only in the first grade,
barely able to tie my own shoes and dress myself, and I thought
I knew what kind of figure I wanted. My idols were the women on
Charlie’s Angels and Daisy Mae Duke from the Dukes of Hazard.
The first half of my adolescence was spent in an all-Black neighborhood
situated on the edge of a predominantly White township in Northeast
Ohio. Until the fifth grade, I attended two consecutive schools
where I was one of only two Black girls in my grade. We both mingled
with all of the other girls in our classes, sometimes feeling the
awkwardness of having different hair and heavier voices. During
gym class, I especially paid attention to how different the other
girls looked. I noticed their smaller frames and thinner, straighter
legs when we stretched before calisthenics and cartwheeled around
Constantly comparing myself to these girls caused me to question
my own adequacy and led me to make some changes. I believed I had
the most power over my body through what I put in it. While lunchtime
had always been my favorite part of the day, that quickly changed.
More than half of the White girls around me carried packed lunches,
complete with baby carrots, celery sticks, peelable cheese, or
things I couldn’t imagine willingly eating. They sometimes
bought a granola bar or just ate their salads and drank all of
their milk. This was a pattern I not only noticed, but committed
to my psyche. Eating was apparently not a “popular” habit.
A 1990’s survey done by Essence Magazine (with 2,000 respondents
tallied) reported that Black women are equally concerned about
body image as White women. I knew this. However, I read in another
magazine feature that Black girls “are more tolerant of being
heavier.” According to a fact sheet produced by Body Wise, “cases
of eating disorders among diverse racial ethnic groups, including
African Americans, are often underreported because studies typically
do not include ethnically diverse populations.” Body Wise
asserts that after White women, Black women and girls are the second
group for which most studies on eating disorders are available.
Much of the initial research into eating disorders in women of
color leaned toward the perception that the greater the acculturation
the greater of the risk of developing disordered eating behaviors.
However those beliefs are steadily being dismantled. The National
Eating Disorder Screening Program estimates that 15 percent of
ALL young women have substantially disordered eating behaviors — despite
their ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
Making My Way
Over the years I have read several case studies, eating disorder
reports, and magazine articles that detail the differences between
Black, White, and Hispanic adolescent and teenage girls’ self-perceptions.
Each piece concluded that Black girls generally have a more positive
outlook about their bodies. While I don’t doubt that Black
women 30 years ago struggled with issues around images of beauty,
I am positive that Black girls and young women today are delving
deeper into negative self-analysis than ever before. With this
I am reminded of my family’s move from the “White school” district,
to the side of town where the bulk of the Black kids I knew went
to school. On my first day at my new school I was culture shocked.
The girls who invited me into their group got pumped about lunchtime,
and no one packed food from home. They even smuggled big chocolate
chip cookies back to class. Even though I looked more like these
classmates and friends, I didn’t know what to do. I was smaller
than a lot of them in height and build. This is what I had wanted,
and somehow I was still unable to feel adequate amongst girls who
talked, walked, dressed, and even wore the same hairstyles as me.
The days of The Dukes of Hazard and Charlie’s Angels were
long gone, thank goodness. But by then we had music entertainers
to mimic in style and image, and I was an avid fan of Teen magazine.
In short, I was intent on keeping my size minimal to imitate the
images that had become so compelling.
By the time my junior high and high school years started to come
and go, Blacks made up about 35 percent of the student population.
There were more girls who looked like me, and it was not uncommon
to notice them going up and down in weight and doing whatever it
took to be in style, whether this meant not eating, running track,
stuffing bras, or just refusing to buy the next size up when their
jeans got too tight. All of sudden my Black girlfriends were skipping
their lunch periods or buying a la carte. Lunch consisted of some
type of small snack, and chocolate milk, fruit, salad, or nothing
at all. I didn’t change very much at all during those years.
My weight was consistently between 110 and 115 pounds. Fifteen
years later, I realize that being able to skip lunch and ignore
the subsequent hunger is not normal. Now, at 28, I see and hear
about teenage girls in my community experiencing the same concerns
over body image, like not looking like their favorite entertainers
and more importantly like the thinner girls around them. Just recently
one of my friends told her 13-year-old niece that eating too much
salad could make a person’s stomach swell. She immediately
spit the lettuce from her mouth back onto her plate in the middle
of the conversation.
A 1997 Commonwealth Fund Survey on the health of adolescent girls
found that White, Hispanic, and Asian-American girls were more
likely than Black girls to believe they were overweight. This statement
agitates me. It misrepresents many of the Black girls who do suffer
from eating disorders. It leads people to believe that young Black
girls do not share in the same body image problems as other women.
I think it’s safe to say that few young women today also
realize that being fit and healthy during the teenage years is
imperative to future well being. More importantly, however, is
for young women to understand that concepts of beauty are socially
constructed and the push for all women to look a certain way denies
the simple fact that we all look different.
One of my mentors and all of my male friends tell me repeatedly
that a full behind, hips, and thighs are good things. Even while
I try to pass on that message, I’m not ashamed to say I am
still trying to reprogram myself with this statement in mind. Talking
about this subject with people who know me and who believe that
I never really fit the profile of a young woman with an eating
disorder is a constant eye-opener. The notion that I never had
the willpower to completely turn my disgusted introspection into
action is definitely a shortcoming that I am thankful for. However,
I am not so different from the young women who struggle with appreciating
the uniqueness of their physical selves.
My 2003 New Year’s resolution was to stop criticizing my
body. My shape has hardly ever looked quite right to me. However,
as I study the way society has come to understand what is “good” and “bad” (favorable
and unfavorable), I am even more driven to talk about the destructiveness
of this rationale. I am tired of hearing about the sexiness of
Jennifer Lopez’s big booty, only to turn the channel to the
voice of another criticizing Serena Williams’s black, one-piece
spandex short set as too revealing for her robust shape. I didn’t
read about anyone striking back against the worn ethnic notions
responsible for much of that talk. Nevertheless, when Williams
was questioned about the outfit, her reply, in a roundabout way,
spoke to the issue at hand: “It really sticks to what type
of shape you have. If you don’t have a decent shape, this
isn’t the best outfit to have,” she said. Her response
gives me hope.
There has been a steady increase in Black women in the media.
While this helps to represent the true diversity of our communities,
there is also a down side. As young White women and girls aspire
to be like thin and beautiful White celebrities, many of us Black
women, when faced with thin and beautiful Black celebrities, will
also struggle with the same physical preoccupations. Thus, we must
begin to educate ourselves and our girls on how to take ownership
of our minds and our bodies. I am determined to resist taking it
out on my body and I won’t be silent. Black girls have to
hear that they are beautiful in all of their variations. It seems
almost far-fetched that women could be taught on a large scale
to really love themselves and understand that being unique is being
beautiful. But it is possible. The way to make a lasting impact
begins with teaching girls to see and respond differently, and
by teaching a belief system that corrects our thinking about body
image. We can take back the language that defines us, beginning
with our friends, our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters -— each
one teaching one. Realizing one generation of women enlightened
will be worth the journey.