Each of us views the world through our own personal lens, shaped by our accumulated life experiences — including our family, friends, education, religion, where we live, and the outward appearance and inner function of our bodies.
Our society also has a collective lens, and the view of what bodies are “acceptable” bodies and what it means to be healthy — even what it means to have an eating disorder — as filtered through this lens is white, thin, cisgender, educated and at least reasonably affluent. The relative odds of feeling, and being told, that how your body looks or functions is OK depends on how many ways your body “deviates” from society’s parameters.
In her new book, “It’s Always Been Ours: Rewriting the Story of Black Women’s Bodies,” California-based registered dietitian Jessica Wilson writes about how Black women are told to have bodies. She draws on her experience of being a Black, queer woman managing a chronic illness while working in a predominantly white profession to illustrate why, if we want better health, well-being and body acceptance for all — not just a narrow, idealized version of those things available only to some — then it’s not enough to dismantle diet and wellness culture. We have to dismantle the larger systemic issues of racism and white supremacy.
I found Wilson’s book illuminating for two reasons. One is that she offers a glimpse of what the world, especially as it pertains to health and bodily safety, looks like through her lens. The other is that she offers keen insights and analysis that are unflinching in their honesty, yet not without humor.
One of the most disturbing facts Wilson brings up — and there’s no humor here — is how little eating disorder research includes Black women. And by little, I’m talking a drop in the ocean. And if you were to read those studies, you would assume that Black women don’t develop restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia. Wilson, whose clients include Black women with eating disorders, says not only is this assumption untrue, but when Black women do starve themselves, it’s not for the same reasons white women do. As one young, brilliant Black female college student tells her tearfully, “I can’t be the only Black person in my class and also be fat.”
Wilson writes about how Black women — herself included — feel the pressure to make their bodies, their appearance, their actions conform to what whiteness demands in order to protect themselves, and how this daily negotiation of their existence extends to “performing” health. The bitter irony being that the Black women will still have bodies perceived through society’s lens as unhealthy and less acceptable. To add further insult, not feeling free to be themselves without repercussions, instead endeavoring to be “strong” and “resilient” at all costs, can cost them their physical and mental health. It also mirrors the long, sordid history of Black women not having autonomy over their own bodies.
She offers her experiences of being a token Black woman in two white health and wellness spaces — one a Napa nutrition conference sponsored by a major university school of public health, the other a Goop Health Summit in Southern California — as additional illustration of how “health” and “wellness” have become performance pieces largely unavailable to those who are nonwhite, economically disadvantaged, in larger bodies, or already dealing with disabilities or chronic illness. Wilson’s anecdotes are darkly humorous while shining a spotlight on the disturbingly myopic view of both respected white nutrition researchers and popular wellness gurus, and I’ll let you guess which event she said was worse (hint: your first guess is probably wrong).
She touches on hypocrisies such as the fact that Southern food is generally pathologized when Black people eat it, but exalted when thin, white, affluent hipster foodies eat it. She also discusses the limited narratives imposed on Black women. For example, if a Black woman — even a Black professional woman just trying to do her job — isn’t deemed sufficiently nurturing (the “Mammy” role), she is cast instead as an Angry Black Woman.
While Wilson writes that her book is specifically for Black women, I would argue that it’s also for everyone who wants to be a better human while expanding their view of certain ideas they may have taken for granted as “truth.” Seeing things through Wilson’s finely honed lens is a necessary, and I hope welcome, wake-up call. I highly recommend it, and want to offer four more books to expand your lens:
- “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” by Sabrina Strings. Strings reaches back to the Renaissance to trace themes in art, newspaper and magazine articles, scientific literature and medical journals, making the case that fatphobic attitudes about Black women were entrenched in the culture long before the medical establishment began to rail about “obesity.”
- “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness” by Da’Shaun L. Harrison. Partly inspired by Strings’ work, Harrison’s perspective as a fat, Black, disabled and nonbinary trans writer is important, and not a viewpoint that’s frequently represented in mainstream publishing.
- “Fat Girls in Black Bodies: Creating Communities of Our Own,” by Joy Arlene Renee Cox. Cox draws on her own experience, stories from her community, and scientific research to explore the racist roots of diet culture and healthism, and how women who are both fat and Black are subjected to both healthism and misogynoir — a toxic blend of sexism and racism.
- “The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love” by Sonya Renee Taylor. Taylor doesn’t pull any punches about how feeling that your body is “too much” or “not enough” — and apologizing for it — stems from systemic and structural forces that have created an oppressive hierarchy of bodies. However, her voice is that of a compassionate friend who tells it like it is because she wants you to treat yourself, and the world, better.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.