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.”
Explore the full poll data
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In African American pop culture, ‘thick’ is in
Polling director Jon Cohen and polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.