In the pre-dawn darkness, the gym doors close, and the black women start to move. House versions of Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” blare from speakers as the 30 or so women, most with curves, not angles, grab their jump ropes at the L.A. Fitness club in Capitol Heights. They double-time it as fitness instructor Michelle Gibson counts them down from the front of the class.
“Four more, three more, two more, one!” she yells, twirling her rope. She jumps faster and faster until the rope and her sneakers blur on the hardwood. Her ample bosom strains against the top of her sequined half-camisole.
“Show-off!” yells a woman from the back as Gibson laughs. She demonstrates hinge-kicks high above her own head, and sweat darkens the waistband of the fitted black pants that cling to the uber-roundness of her bottom. “Fight for your sexy!” she commands her class.
No one in this boot camp works out to be model thin. And nearly to a person, they reject any notion that they should, or that that standard is even cute. Or realistic. Or mentally healthy. That’s especially true of Gibson, 41, who has been a fitness instructor for 12 years, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at her.
Like many black women, Gibson describes her 5-foot-4, size 14-plus physique as “thick,” and considers herself ultra-feminine — no matter what the mainstream culture has to say about it.
She’s one of the most full-figured women in the gym, but she’s in love with her body. And it’s a sentiment that syncs perfectly with a recent survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation that focused on African American women. The poll found that although black women are heavier than their white counterparts, they report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.
This is not news to Gibson or the other women in her morning boot camp class. They grew up listening to songs like the Commodores’s “Brick House” and hearing relatives extol the virtues of “big legs” and women with meat on their bones.
The notion that all women must be culled into a single little-bitty aesthetic is just one more tyranny, they say. And black women have tools for resisting tyranny, especially from a mainstream culture that has historically presented them negatively, or not at all.
Freed from that high-powered media gaze, generations of black women have fashioned their own definitions of beauty with major assists from literature and music — and help from their friends.
At this gym in Capitol Heights at the crack of dawn, and in myriad other places, that thinking has made black women happier with their bodies than white women in many ways. And in some ways, it’s put them on the slippery slope toward higher rates of obesity.
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“So Cosmo says you’re fat
Well I ain’t down with that …
Give me a sister
I can’t resist her
Red beans and rice didn’t miss her”
* * *
Gibson, who grew up in Prince George’s County and works full time as a National Institutes of Health contractor, is a personal trainer and teaches 10 aerobics classes a week.
“I’m a full-figured woman who would run circles around the average person, and I know it,” she says. “I kind of think it’s my secret weapon.”
Gibson, who says she’s over 150 pounds but under 200, has been plus-sized most of her life. And it took time to come to terms with that.
“High school is where I started to realize I was different,” said Gibson, who was captain of the cheerleading squad at Suitland High School. “My quads were big, I had these boobs, and I had a butt. Not only that, I was dark with short hair. That’s when I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Either I’m going to go with it, or I’m going to go against it.’ I always went with it.”
Doctors have long told her she needs to lose weight — 30 or 40 pounds, according to their charts. She’d be cool with 15. She tried weight loss programs such as Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem in years past, but “I came to realize that I have to have some freedom to eat.”
Instead of fixating on shedding weight, she focuses on being fit and healthy and finding her joy in that: “This is how I’m genetically designed, and I’ve accepted that.”
And though she’s never married, she contends she never lacks boyfriends, black and white. “Men have always said to me, ‘You’re not fat, you’re p-h-a-t fat.’ And when I’m not teaching, I’m all girl.”
She takes time with her makeup, sometimes adding lashes. She keeps her short hair groomed, and her jeans, boots and turtlenecks neat and form-fitting.
According to the Post-Kaiser poll, which offers the most extensive and nuanced look at the lives of black women in decades, 28 percent of black women say that being physically attractive is “very important,” compared with 11 percent of white women. White women were more likely than black women to say being attractive was “somewhat important.”
For African American women, that desire often gets defined in ways the mainstream culture doesn’t recognize.
Princeton professor Imani Perry teaches interdisciplinary classes in African American studies and notes black women have conceptions of beauty that are “not just tied to the accident of how you look as a consequence of your genes.” They include style, grooming, how you present and carry yourself, and “how you put yourself together, which I think generally speaks to the fact that we have a much broader and deeper conception of beauty.”
Gibson’s mission is to get women to embrace their size but to work toward being fit. She preaches acceptance but says white fitness professionals often seem almost resentful of her confidence.
“If I were this plump, meek person doing the same thing I do, I think they would embrace me.”
Her rule: “Do you,” Gibson says, “and be okay with me being me. I can never be mad at this thin person. I say, ‘You’re sexy, you’ve got it going on. But don’t think for one minute that I don’t feel the same about myself.’ ”
It’s an attitude with long roots. Perry remembers relatives calling her lucky growing up, “because you’re little, but you’ve got big legs.”
“Historically, [self-esteem] research on black girls and women has always been the highest among all groups,” Perry says. “It’s really a powerful statement about our resilience given the dominant images of black women present in American culture, which have been generally degrading and unattractive, or hypersexual and less feminine.”
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“It is very interesting to note that even though black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women, black women (and men) subjectively consider themselves to be far more physically attractive than others . . .
“What accounts for the markedly lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women? Black women are, on average, much heavier than non-black women.”
“Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?”
May 15, 2011
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Althea Cuff, a medical technologist from Largo, has been a regular at morning boot camp for years. She lingers after class with the women who have become part of her fitness community. She’s tall, and her blue sleeveless tank shows off well-toned arms. Cuff grew up overweight but lost 64 pounds more than two decades ago.
“I wanted to get healthy,” says Cuff, who is 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds.
In the Post-Kaiser survey, 90 percent of black women say living a healthful lifestyle is very important to them, outranking religion, career, marriage and other priorities. Yet two-thirds report eating at fast-food restaurants at least once a week, and just more than half cook dinner at home on a regular basis.
For Cuff, being healthy doesn’t mean being a size 2: “That’s not what I grew up seeing. It wasn’t in my makeup. It’s not about trying to identify with somebody else.”
Even when celebrities such as Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson have touted dramatic weight loss in magazines and commercials, they have largely retained their curves. Among black women who want to lose weight, having model proportions is often not the goal.
For 10 years, Joseph Neil has worked with people of all races across the Washington area as a full-time trainer and certified nutritionist. Black women usually come to him with a body-mass index (a measurement of weight to height) of 29, while for white women it’s usually 22 or 23, he says. Anything over 25 is considered overweight.
He attributes the higher BMI among African American women to work demands, which he says lead to fast-food lifestyles, less exercise and fewer healthful eating options in majority-black places such as Prince George’s County.
Among Neil’s clients, white women “are self-conscious about the numbers. They say I want to weigh 110, 115, 120.” Black women, who always say they want to keep their curves, “give me sizes — 6, 8, 10, 12.”
“White women are not coming to a trainer saying I want to be a 12. Every white woman who wants to work out and train wants to be petite, petite, no curves, no hips, no butt, nothing, just toned,” he says.
In 2008, Heather Hausenblas, a University of Florida professor of exercise physiology, co-wrote a study looking at the role the media played in body image among white and black women. Both groups were exposed to the ideal tall, thin white woman’s physique, and their moods were compared before and after. White women felt badly about themselves after viewing the idealized physique; black women were unaffected.
Black women “are just not comparing themselves to these white models,” Hausenblas says. Caucasian women are internalizing the images; black women are not.
And it’s the internalizing that damages women’s self-esteem. Right after Adele won six Grammy awards, Vogue sparked an uproar by Photoshopping an image of the buxom British singer to make her appear thinner for the magazine’s March cover. It’s the kind of falsehood and manipulation that makes women and girls starve themselves, experts say.
New York-based writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis calls it the “one act of cultural violence that we didn’t endure” — the one way that black women “being ignored by the media and all things glamorous worked for us.”
Is that lack of pressure changing as young women — black and white — aspire to look like Tyra Banks, Halle Berry or Beyonce? Possibly. There is anecdotal evidence that the number of African Americans seeking treatment for long-hidden eating disorders is on the rise.
Meanwhile, for young black women, the hunger to be seen, to be part of the beauty conversation, has often meant accepting even demeaning portrayals, says Daphne Valerius, 30, who produced an award-winning documentary in 2007 called “Souls of Black Girls.”She points to the proliferation of images of gyrating, scantily clad black dancers and models in music videos, social media sites and elsewhere as particularly poisonous.
“I have cousins who are 13 and 14,” Valerius says. “That’s the image they are seeing of themselves in the media.”
Still, the range of what’s considered beautiful for African American women remains more elastic. Black women were excluded for so long, says Davis, “we got to judge ourselves.” And cultural supports sprang up to help.
Essence and Ebony magazines offered their own visions of black beauty. The Ebony Fashion Fair took black glamour on the road.
“There was no Anna Wintour saying yes or no. The aisles at church were a runway, ‘Soul Train’ was a runway, the first day of school was a runway,” Davis says. “Jet magazine began offering its beauty of the week — aspiring dental hygienists, complete with measurements — and skinny women need not apply.”
Every generation had celebratory songs blasting from the radio. “I have a very clear image of hearing the Commodores playing ‘Brick House,’ and all my cool aunties in high-waist jumpsuits got up to dance. It was an anthem for them to shine.”
In the lexicon, women weren’t fat, they were “thick,” “healthy,” “big-boned.” They had “nice futures” behind them. Food was love, rituals around food were bonding and thinness held limited appeal for people who had bone memories of privation and scarcity.
But Davis acknowledges that with fewer cultural deterrents, black women are more likely to slip into obesity, and that’s not celebrated. In 2009, black women had an obesity rate of of almost 43 percent, compared with 25 percent for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, African American women suffer from higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and other serious health problems.
“We’re not saying its super fly to be super fat. We’ve never said that,” Davis contends, but unlike in white culture, “black women are not criminalized for it.”
At morning’s first light at a gym in Capitol Heights, Michelle Gibson is exhorting her class. “You’re athletes,” she tells them, as long as you work it, no matter what size you are.
“The thing about black women is we’re all these little diamonds and each one of us is different,” she says later. “You’re not shaped the way I’m shaped, but you’re still a diamond.”
Once you realize that, “the sky is the limit.”
Once you realize that, “you can come into the room and own the room.”
Polling director Jon Cohen and polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.