Josephine Baker, in March 1951 at age 45, singing into a mic which conceals her hand-held corsage onstage at the Strand theater in New York during her US tour. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
It just so happens that I've been reading Alice Randall's latest book, "Ada's Rules: A Sexy, Skinny Novel," on my daily commute for the last few days and, lo and behold, she writes an op-ed in the New York Times with the incendiary click bait-ish title "Why Black Women Are Fat." And, she dares to answer that question: "Many black women are fat because we want to be."
I wasn't too surprised that Randall would go there. After all, this is the author behind the infamous The Wind Done Gone and the iconoclastic Pushkin and the Queen of Spades. Ada's Rules is like a diet book inside of a novel (it's better than it sounds so far). The protagonist is Ada Howard, a fifty-ish preacher's wife who is inspired to start losing weight when her 20th college class reunion (Hampton) comes around and she doesn't want to face her first love "way over 200 pounds" (Matt Mason was jazz and funk and hip hop. He was spare and spacious and modern.... He practiced capoeira... He liked skinny women.) especially in light of her "old school" husband Lucius (called Preach) and his recent weight loss, new car and constant absence which she suspects is due to an affair. Preach "dismissed Mason as a "colored internet-ual" or a "wonky black nerd" and magnanimously "forgave" Ada for sleeping with Matt before she met him. But I digress...
I understand the weariness with the apparent "open season" on Black women. It seems like there is a new This Is What Is Wrong With Black Women article every week, hotly debated on Twitter and Facebook, promising to solve the mystery of our fat thighs, big mouths and lack of dates/husbands/femininity/decency/common sense/humanity. I also understand that Alice Randall has a new book and, believe me when I tell you, I am not mad at her for promoting it. Writers pen op-eds that relate to their latest books all the time but, damn... I am a little surprised that she (purposely?) didn't add a bit more context. I honestly can't imagine that a woman of Randall's considerable intellect and versatility would say that "many black women are fat because they want to be" without also saying that "many black women" are fat because we are like any other human being. We may be fat because of unresolved emotional issues like past sexual abuse and choose to self-medicate with food. We may be fat because we are working (and commuting back and forth from work) and taking care of our children (and our husbands, parents and/or other people's children) and don't have the time to exercise properly. Maybe we are too tired to exercise by the end of the day. Maybe we live in a dangerous neighborhood and are afraid to walk outside for exercise. Maybe we just like to eat.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, non-Hispanic Black women are more than twice as likely as Non-Hispanic White women to be overweight and, even in models adjusted for age, education, income, marital status, self-reported health, and self-reported medical diagnosis of overweight, Blacks were 70% more likely than Whites to misperceive their weight. Black people, not just women in that instance. The same was true for Hispanic men and women. There are countless other studies that have come out over the years that have come to similar conclusions, including one that has a disturbing statistic Randall chooses for the opening of her op-ed:
That information comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health. What is not being discussed is that many Black women are not only aware of the problem, they are addressing it (see The Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss and Black Women Do Work Out for starters). There are Black women who know that there is "curviness" and there is obesity that can not be explained away by BMI. I think our generation is savvier and more educated about taking care of ourselves, from sunscreen to ordering sushi instead of greens and fried chicken when we get together with our girlfriends.
And, this line right here?
But I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight. My lawyer husband is one.
No, no, no! I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it. Maybe it's a generational thing again, but when I hear a Black man say, Please don't lose too much weight! I hear Please don't lose that ass! That is the literal translation. That is what they are really saying. Randall speaks of growing up in the '60s and praying for fat thighs. I grew up in the '80s bulimic. Her successful lawyer husband may have worried about her losing weight, but men in my generation and younger will, by and large, cheer you on the closer you get to that slim (not skinny) ideal. I can't speak to gay relationships here (many have noted the heteronormative tone of the piece and noted that not all Black women are seeking relationships with (or losing weight for) Black men. But many are - and that's not always so terrible. You need to find what works for you and do it.
Chaka Khan recently lost a lot of weight and, when I posted a vintage shot of her and mentioned her weight loss on Vintage Black Glamour's Facebook page, some people bent over backwards to say that losing weight does not equal looking good. That is true. Losing weight does not always equal looking good - but sometimes it does and it's okay to say so. I think we should be allowed to compliment people on weight loss without attacking anyone else or falling into the body policing trap. We can have real conversations about finding balance, eating better, exercising for real and slimming down without getting too skinny without moralizing and attacking people.
Randall states at the outset that "we need is a body-culture revolution in black America," but, curiously, the picture that accompanies the article is standard-issue Josephine Baker. Young banana-skirted Josephine Baker. In all likelihood, the New York Times - not Alice Randall - selected that photo. There are countless, amazingingly diverse images of Josephine Baker available, including the one that opens my article, so it kind of annoys me to see banana-skirted Josephine out of context. In the opening picture, the great beauty is clad in Dior, three months shy of her 45th birthday, curvaceous with a bit of belly and beautiful. A far cry from the twenty-something in the banana skirt. Considering Randall's reference points: Lucille Clifton's "Homage to My Hips, Andrea Elizabeth Shaw's The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women's Unruly Political Bodies and Joe Tex for crying out loud (Randall says one of the lines from Tex's "Skinny Legs and All" haunts her to this day, but when I think of Joe Tex, I think of my dad playing his song, "Ain't Gonna Bump No More With No Big Fat Woman (If you wanna dance, find you a big fat man! Y'all go on and get on down, Y'all go on and get on down...) let's just say that I'm a little disappointed that a picture of a more seasoned Baker wasn't used. There are some Ernestine Shepard's out there but, for the most part, I think using young Baker as the ideal here was a misstep.
So far, Ada's Rules is pretty good. I think I'll enjoy it tonight with a glass of wine and continue reading it on the elyptical at the gym this week.
Black Women and Fat [New York Times]