I am curious. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I am curious on how women of color view their bodies and their media reflections.
I’m curious on how women of color relate to beauty. In what ways are we free from Eurocentric airbrushed ideals? In what ways do we struggle?
I recently attended an Endangered Bodies NYC meeting and got into a conversation with one of the founders. I expressed a qualm I’ve had regarding body positivity and the woman of color, namely black and Latina women for some time now: do we even need body positivity? Are we indeed more secure in our body confidence that a movement centered on our body/beauty experience and media portrayals is really a waste of time?
I discovered words like “fat acceptance” and “body politics” about six years ago when I graduated from college. It felt like a new world opened up to me. I was so impressed by the scholarship, passion, and fun that was involved in body positive movements. But, I was also a little sad/angry/annoyed when I saw how the perspectives of women of color in this movement were assigned: oftentimes they were not featured or at times they were “included” as some kind of pat on the head.
Thankfully, I found a way to women of color who were talking unapologetically about their own bodies and the self-acceptance involved in the journeys. They were business owners, activists, actresses, and more. Here are the top 8 women of color (who are in the public eye) who have inspired me in my own body acceptance journey.
But these glib surveys and one-dimensional studies tell me nothing about how Latinas or Asian women feel about their bodies. They give no insight into what kind of disordered eating habits affect women of color. They fail to explain the body-centered conversations I’ve had with non-white friends all my life.
For the past two years, I’ve been working on building Endangered Bodies NYC’s community on social media. And this morning, I was greeted by a flurry of hate speech, slurs, and vicious threats from men. Men of different ages. Men of different sizes. Single men. Men with young daughters. It made me angry at first, and then it just made me sad.
As I hid the vitriol from photos of empowered members – my friends and mentors – holding #FatisNotaFeeling signs, I realized that fear was behind this. Strong, powerful women who create change scare men. Women with a voice scare men.
Over the years, I've faced a lot of backlash for choosing to call myself a cripple. I've had people flinch every time I say it. I've had people try to convince me to use all sorts of alternatives. I've had people act like the word was a personal insult to them. To them, mind you. Not to me.
And here's where we get into the root of the problem of language policing: When you are a member of an oppressed minority, privileged people run your life. Privileged people decide where you go, how you're going to get there, and if you'll be allowed in once you're there. Privileged people make decisions that can quite literally end your life. Oppressed people have very little power to determine their own lives. The one area we DO have power in is in the language we use to refer to ourselves. And when you refer to yourself with a word like "cripple", you take it back from the privileged. You are refusing to let them control you. That is a daring, subversive, political act. It may just be a chink in the walls that surround us, but it is a chink, and we can expand that chink, stick our fingers in it and pull until the walls come tumbling down. When you police our language, you are not an ally. You are helping to build the very barriers you claim to help dismantle.
Though from outside appearances, it may seem like I did. I am the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. We have some interesting relations to our natural hair. When I was about five years old, my mother started perming my hair. The reasoning? The hair then becomes “easier”, more pliable to twist and braid at will. Saves time from combing. Looks “neater”. You know the drill.
I took after my mother and always had thick, wide-teeth comb resistant hair. When I grew my hair natural, it looked like one of those topographic shots of the Amazon forest. After Good Hair and other mainstream discussion, it was supposed that all black women hated their hair, were obsessed, and eternally vexed by their hair. The reason that black women were buying Indian (or Persian or Brazilian or Columbian) hair was tied to an ever-present self-hatred. Of course, there are women who truly did (and do) hate their hair. There were women who saw the lack of nappy or kinky hair in mainstream magazines as testament to their own hair’s ugliness.
This year, Endangered Bodies honors Danielle Sheypuk, a prominent disability rights advocate, licensed clinical psychologist, and fashion model. Wheelchair-dependent since childhood, she specializes in dating, relationships, and sexuality among the disabled. We had a chance to speak with Dr. Sheypuk about her groundbreaking work as an activist and model and why Indwelling is so vital for women today.
Caitlin Boyle is a fellow-body positive change-maker. Her initiative, Operation Beautiful, originally featured on her site, Healthy Tipping Point is as clever as it is subtle. The idea is to leave encouraging posit-it notes with body-positive messages, like 'you're beautiful inside and out' or 'scales measure weight, not worth', in public places for other people to find. Caitlin says, “I was inspired to start Operation Beautiful after having a really bad day at work; I wanted to do something small and simple for someone else to make me feel better! Turns out she's made thousands feel better.
I got an email from one of those extremely popular TV shows that no one I know actually watches. I was trying to feed myself with one hand and spooning sweet potato into the baby’s mouth with the other. The email had come up on my phone and I thumbed over it messily, unable to resist.
Would I be interested in coming on the show, the email asked, to talk about my experience as a real woman?
I was interested! Yes! I will talk about being a woman on national television! It’s a powerful, sometimes difficult, confusing, meaningful experience! For me, personally, there is this big question about yoga—is it possible to go through life as a modern woman without doing it at all?
But wait. There was a little more.
They were looking specifically for someone size 12-14, who isn’t comfortable with her appearance. This, succinctly, was the working definition of “real woman.”
So, how about it? The emailer was obviously in a hurry, but she was friendly.
People like to make things into battles, with two opposing sides. You know, like in the Mommy Wars where breastfeeding is sometimes misinterpreted as a battle cry and formula feeding is re-packaged as a ferocious counterattack. Oy vey. (I love how I automatically capitalize the “mommy wars” in my head, like it’s a real war, because it feels like I might be about to become a casualty).
Sometimes, in the world of conversations about body image, it seems like heavy women get pitted against thin women. There are a series of memes that have been endlessly cycling through Facebook with pictures of skinny, currently famous women alongside previous pinups with voluptuous breasts and hips. One caption reads “When did this … become hotter than THIS?” suggesting that our thin-obsessed culture has lost its way.
“EEWWW! She’s just skin and bones!” say the commenters. Some guys proudly declare that they wouldn’t bang those scrawny girls.
“What the hell is wrong with people??” yell relieved women unthinkingly. “REAL WOMEN have curves!!” And then thin women get understandably pissed. They are, after all, real women, too.