Why Black Women are Fat

This week the New York Times published the article Black Women and Fat by Alice Randall, and it caused a huge stir among bloggers who write about black women’s issues. Randall argued that black women are fat because they want to be. She cited a Lucille Clifton poem as proof of fatness being an ideal in black culture. She also wrote about black husbands admonishing their wives not to lose “the sugar down below”. She also argues that black women choose to be fat out of rebellion to some fit slave archetype, an idea that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. Nevertheless, the article seemed to come from a good place of wanting to improve the health of black women and to address the prevalence of obesity.

Noble aims indeed, but Randalls logic seemed to escape many. Also her use of the image of Josephine Baker struck many as strange because Ms. Baker is far from fat

The ideal of the curvy woman is not the same as that of a fat woman. In fact, it should come as no surprise that black women are part of a culture that denigrates and pathologizes overweight people. To say that black women are fat because it is their desire to be fat is incredibly misleading and I have a hard time believing that Ms. Randall was not aware of that when she posted this article. She even writes:

“I live in Nashville. There is an ongoing rivalry between Nashville and Memphis. In black Nashville, we like to think of ourselves as the squeaky-clean brown town best known for our colleges and churches. In contrast, black Memphis is known for its music and bars and churches. We often tease the city up the road by saying that in Nashville we have a church on every corner and in Memphis they have a church and a liquor store on every corner. Only now the saying goes, there’s a church, a liquor store and a dialysis center on every corner in black Memphis.”

Yet at no point does she manage to draw any connections between the environments people live in and their health. She manages to avoid talking about class, and access to healthcare, and places the blame squarely on black women’s shoulders. Nevermind the multitude of experience black women have, and the complex relationship that all women seem to have with their bodies, never mind that obesity is prevalent in the general culture. Black women are pathological and think that getting fat is a good thing and are slowly killing themselves. This may be part of Alice Randall’s truth and speaks to her personal experience, but she needn’t try to speak for all black women because in that regard she gets it all wrong.

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