“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.
(CHAT, 10 a.m.: Discuss body image and race)
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.
(Post, Howard University to host ‘Black Women in America’ panel)
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.