When we look at our society as a whole, we tend to view important issues like anti-blackness and anti-fatness as separate entities, each needing differing solutions to solve our systemic problems. But as Sabrina Strings points out in her novel, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, any real progress cannot be made until we widen our scope. Strings looks at these subjects from an intersectional lens, and the results she finds are startling at the very least.
By researching the beliefs of the Renaissance period, examining the hierarchies during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and assessing our modern medical practices, Strings argues that the origins of fatphobia have always been rooted in racism rather than health. If you’re interested in learning how these two sections of oppression work in tandem, keep reading! To truly be a Black ally, you have to understand the many nuances of marginalization, even when the discussion is difficult.
Fatness Used to Be the Beauty Standard
Before we get to work on dissecting the racist origins of how we view and talk about weight, it’s important to take a step back and see if this has always been the societal norm. In Strings’ research, she found that fatness wasn’t always demonized. During the Renaissance period, particularly in Italy and France, fatness was something to be proud of. Holding more weight on your body were signs of status, wealth, and success. In contrast, thinness used to be attributed to poverty, sickness, and inferiority.
Being heavier was the ultimate beauty standard. You can see this from artists like Albrecht Dürer, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jacopo Palma. They depicted heavier-set–mainly white women–in beautiful gowns, shining light, and radiating power just from their bodies. Doctors even believed that having extra weight would help your body fight off potential diseases. Overall, fatness was seen as something to be admired and desired.
Where the Root Takes Hold
Unfortunately, these ideals quickly changed as the trans-Atlantic slave trade gained traction in the Americas. As colonizers continued to enslave the people of Africa, they developed multiple ways to set whiteness at the top of the hierarchy. Initially, slave owners would use the difference in skin color to set themselves apart. But as the slave trade continued, race alone wasn’t enough to distance themselves from the enslaved. Over the decades, the rise in biracial children would break down the way that owners saw Blackness and whiteness. To combat the hypocrisy they created, owners invented new ways to dehumanize the enslaved population.
They made a calculated decision to start putting more value on white physiques versus Black ones. In her research, Springs found that Black women’s bodies were otherized even more than Black males. For colonizers who hadn’t seen diverse body types before, they quickly categorized the Black female figure as “deviant,” “greedy,” and “overtly sexual.” The fact that we still use these terms to describe fat bodies today is all the evidence we need to understand that fatphobia is directly linked to racism, not health.
This mindset was also strengthened by Protestantism. Slave owners looked for any way to prove their power over the enslaved people, and they frequently used religion as “proof” of their racist superiority. Additionally, Protestant belief encouraged various ways to become closer to God, which included eating as little as possible. This would resonate the most with white women. They had as much to do with perpetuating fatphobia as their husbands. White women were desperate to show their own power against Black women on the plantation, and the difference between their bodies was the perfect rift. And so began the centuries-old belief that thinness is beautiful, and fatness is ugly.
Modern-Day Medical Lies
Looking into the history of fatphobia was only one aspect of Strings’ book. An even more revealing section takes place in the 20-21st century and criticizes the way modern medicine is still derived from the racist origins of how we view weight. Anti-fatness survived long after the slave trade and segregation. The ideals simply evolved to become hidden in plain sight and extremely dangerous. We began seeing the rhetoric of race scientists and the eruption of eugenics directly impact the Black community, especially fat, Black women.
All of our country’s institutions are intertwined, so it was only a matter of time before fatphobia and racism made their way into the medical field. In our modern day, we can see these ideals in systems like BMI testing and how we talk about the “obesity epidemic.” Strings states it plainly, these medical practices have no scientific basis and rely on the racist founding of eugenicists and race scientists, and there’s data to prove it.
Misleading BMI Reports
According to the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois Chicago, there is no way to assess a person’s health based on body size, especially when calculating BMI. The Body Mass Index was created by Adolph Quetelet in the 1830s. He had no professional medical training, and his only objective was to find the “perfect human,” an inherently eugenic goal. In his study, his sample size only included European, cis-gendered men. Not only that, but BMI doesn’t account for bone density, muscle mass, or genetic and environmental factors. Yet, we still use this flawed system to categorize people as “unhealthy.”
“The bottom line is this: BMI is a poor measure of health outcomes. Rather than trying to make people conform to a (flawed) weight standard, we can do much more to improve health outcomes in our communities by addressing systemic issues such as food security, neighborhood food availability and access to potable water.”Sabrina Strings, UCI
This false data from BMI findings in the U.S. and the stigma about weight gain has led public health organizations to propel the idea that we should be thinking of ways to end the “obesity epidemic.” But what that translates to is, “how do we eradicate bodies that are outside of the set standard?” Sabrina Strings makes a vital point in her novel to go against this hateful message, fat bodies can be just as healthy as thin bodies. Any movement that prides itself on making people thinner and healthier only plays into the racist roots of how we view bigger bodies, specifically Black ones.
We’re All Affected
When examining these issues, a point that not many understand is that anti-fatness doesn’t just affect only fat individuals, they affect everyone. Thin and white people are still pressured to maintain their figure, while also being told to partake in diet culture. Even though the root of racism and fatphobia originated from the white race, modern conventions dictate that those same white people must conform to these rules, otherwise, they’ll be outcasted. In layman’s terms, we’ve created a system that hurts everyone.
“What about fat people who aren’t black? What about men? My response is that fat phobia affects everyone. Even if black women have historically formed the center of concern, the goal of race scientists, Protestant reformers and, later, doctors was to convince all Americans that being fat was a woeful state of affairs that all should shun. In this way, regardless of racial or gender identity in America today, we are all encouraged to avoid becoming fat. The stakes are evident: Thinness is privileged, and fatness is stigmatized.”Sabrina Strings, UCI
How do we combat anti-fatness and anti-blackness?
After centuries of fatphobia and racism, finding solutions to these systemic issues can seem like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But in reality, there are many different solutions to take, it’s just knowing how to utilize them all at once. In her novel, Strings points out that there isn’t one way we can fight back, we have to attack these norms from multiple angles. We must keep educating ourselves and accepting more than one opinion.
Listen to the voices that are directly impacted by these hateful movements. While white women activists have only just started to scratch the surface of these intersectional matters, fat, Black women activists have been shouting this information from the rooftops for decades. Women like Roxane Gay, Evette Dionne, and Sonya Renee Taylor have been leading this fight for years. The least we can do is take the time to heed their words.
If you hear something wrong or offensive to fat and Black people, don’t sit in silence. Say something! Systemic hate like this isn’t going to go away with a snap of our fingers. It will take an organized effort from people of all races, all body types, and all backgrounds to make beneficial changes that will make fat and Black people finally feel welcome in this world.
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