On Weight and the Pathologization of the Black Feminine

After walking home from the bus stop, I threw my backpack on the kitchen floor, reached towards whatever was left in the pantry, and sat, for hours, in front of a large television screen as I did every day. Prioritizing Sister Sister and That’s So Raven re-runs over homework was obviously the responsible thing to do.

What I didn’t realize in elementary school was that each marathon I was invited to sit through threatened to color my world with a white-dominated standard of beauty and value.. Each episode of Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and The Suite Life reinforced the notion that eurocentrism was ultimately the standard by which beauty needed to measured and upheld. As time went on, I began sitting in front of the television less because I no longer saw people on the screen that looked like me. In their attempt to offset backlash, some networks hired one or two token non-white cast members. Seeing them became an occasion for me to think about how harmful inclusive exclusion is. It was never enough.

As I got older, I no longer searched for remotes with the same urgency and interest as I used to. When Precious was released in 2009, it became clearer to me that my disinterest in pop culture was, in fact, a disinterest in the anti-Blackness that undergirded every facet of mainstream media. But Precious was presumably supposed to provide nuance in an industry and world that was built on the subjugation and attempted erasure of Black women.

“My name is Claireece Precious Jones. I want to be on the cover of a magazine.”

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (2009)

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (2009)

The school bell sounded as the trailer began for the film. As Claireece walked out of stairwell she was stared at and pushed by other students. Not unlike the majority-white audience who purchased tickets to see the film, the students in the backdrop of the opening scene of the trailer had a desire to see and lay claim to a Black body that did not belong to them. The space that Claireece occupies is one that is imbued with violence and in the opening scene of the trailer Claireece makes it clear to the audience that the violence that the Black Feminine experiences does not render the Black Feminine nameless, silent, or invisible.

Claireece creates an alternative mode of life and sociality for herself by imagining herself on the cover of magazines. In the opening scene of the trailer, Claireece insistently acknowledges her own humanity while others fail to. She imagines a world in which she has full control over when and how she is seen. After several outfit changes, Claireece returns to a world that not only pathologizes her Blackness but also problematizes her weight. And after purchasing movie tickets to see the film, I realized that my presumption about the film was the furthest thing from true. I had anticipated seeing a move that sufficiently represented the nuances of Black sociality but instead, the movie seemed to trouble the binary of spectator and performance.

Every seat in the movie theatre was occupied. I sat behind rows of blonde and brunette white people who seemed all too eager to see Precious and my initial confusion turned into discomfort because I no longer felt safe. Although I was too young to articulate the convoluted feeling I had about sitting next to, behind, and in front of white people to see this film, I was certain that something was not right.

Precious was a box office success grossing over $63 million, receiving six nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards, and overwhelmingly good reviews from critics. The problem is that movies that cast non-white or, more specifically, Black actresses gross $63 million and receive numerous nominations at the Academy Awards insofar as they dehumanize Black women. Black women are consistently nominated for playing nannies, slaves, the sexually exploited…the critical acclaim of their movies is definitely tied to the excess of their on-screen suffering. That is to say that the hyper-investment and interest of Precious is a means by which the general public can continue to work in service of white standards of beauty and human value by reifying the notion that Black women are subjects that the world can dehumanize, commodify, and lay claim to as it wills.

Black women are told that we do not belong on the cover of magazines, let alone the concluding pages that are marked by advertisements. We are told that we taint spaces that are reserved for white women and when self-aggrandizing liberals decide to cast Black women in their films they tell us that we will be cast insofar as we assent to the violence that the role is imbued with. In this case in particular, Gabourey Sidibe is navigating an inclusive exclusion that welcomes her into a labor market that needs her and yet disavows her humanity because she is a plus size Black woman.

This type of inclusive exclusion is a guise that coerces people into believing that fat people and Black people are no longer being dehumanized by mainstream media. Yet their presence depends on their acquiescence to dictated, controlled space. Most of these women in popular culture are being told how and where to exist. When someone is both fat and Black, this becomes even more convoluted because every facet of their identity is denigrated according to white mainstream standards. . Nearly every film, advertisement, sitcom, magazine spread and commercial tells fat Black women that they are subhuman because they do not evoke the right kind of desire, and that they only deserve to occupy cultural space when they suffer.

The oppression of fat Black women through certain types of representation is something that deserves greater attention than it receives. What is often forgotten is the fact that there is nothing pathological about fat Black women. What is often forgotten is the fact that fat Black women exist. And this is the problem. Fat Black women not only exist, but do in revolutionary ways, and deserve to be the arbiters of their own lives, their own performances, and their own representation. That means that we do not have a right to determine for ourselves when it is and is not convenient for us to see and subjectivize fat Black women. In other words, the fat Black woman (the doubly pathologized body) should not just be valorized when an Oscar is on the line.

Gabourey Sidibe for French Elle

Gabourey Sidibe for French Elle

After purchasing movie tickets to see Precious I situated myself in a sea of white people and I felt suffocated by their desire to cathartically look at suffering Black bodies. Theorizing the relation between performer and spectator becomes even more crucial in these circumstances. The violence that was coupled with the collective gaze of the audience hinges on the type of violence Black women experienced in the 19th century when they were forced to be subjects of medical experimentation, sideshows, and museum exhibitions because the white onlookers in the movie theatre viewed Black bodies as propertied subjects to be possessed.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago, I attended The Vagina Monologues and witnessed a performer disavow the gaze of an audience that was eager to see and contain her. The performer, a plus size Black woman, was the arbiter of a story that fell on and through ears unwilling to listen to what her performance was imbued with—resistance .  The audience was made profoundly uncomfortable by the fact that the performer demanded to be humanized, but they were even more uncomfortable by the fact that the performer humanized herself and reconfigured what is thought to be a binary opposition between performer and spectator. Before one of the students in the audience began to capture the performance, the Black woman—in anticipation of this violence—unapologetically  embraced the space she occupied as well as her Blackness by centering herself on the stage and shouting.

Despite our intentions, we often find ourselves working in service of white supremacy when we assume the powerful position of the onlooker or arbiter of a performance. When plus size Black women move in violent spaces such as the one the performer moved through, they can choose to negate the ways in which people attempt to see them. So an attempt to capture plus size Black women without their knowledge or consent is an attempt to disregard the work that they do to create alternative modes of existing.

There is also a disjuncture between when, where, and how plus size white women and Black women are seen and “accepted”. While celebrities such as Adele, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, and Melissa McCarthy are subject to denigration and ridicule because of their size, Black women like Amber Riley, Monique, Jill Scott, and Rachel Jeantel have to resist a world that not only fails to see them but condemns their existence when it does. For instance, when Rachel Jeantel, 19-year old prosecution witness, recounted her final phone call with Trayvon Martin before George Zimmerman murdered him, the general public was eager to compare her to an animal because of her skin color, weight and speech. Because Rachel did not articulate herself the way everyone wanted her to, the general public delegitimized her testimony and dehumanized her by gleefully shaming her.

MZ 007

MZ 007

Women like Rachel Jeantel, Gabourey Sidibe, Amber Riley, Monique, Jill Scott and Mz 007 give us an occasion to deconstruct normative modes of existing and thinking about subjectivity. Despite the fact that mainstream media tries to control and regulate Black women whose bodies are “unconventional”, these women are among many who remind us what it is to live in, through, and beyond a world that tells us at every waking moment that plus size Black women do not deserve to exist.

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