My uncle says we come from good stock—that Black folks have been bred for a particular kind of physical labor. And while we are no longer enslaved, many of our bodies have adapted to the expectation of labor: thicker thighs, strong arms, large chests, quick feet. My uncle says it helps us in sports, but it also positions us towards various health crises and diagnoses, such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma and high cholesterol. He tells me to always keep an eye out for these things.
So I do. I learn to keep watch of my body, to mark the things it houses on a scoreboard of failures and successes. I learn to move the pieces and scales and narratives, careful of what might tip me over or backwards.
I learn to bury the unwell parts inside and smile, as I’ve seen so many family members do. Even if someone has been diagnosed with cancer or another serious, sometimes fatal health condition, comments on weight loss are always on the table, like bronze badges of honor. As if the poison from a disease were not eating them alive.
I have struggled to maintain a consistent eating schedule all my life. In adulthood, my habits got worse. First I started treating breakfast as if it were optional; then I started eating lunch at 4 p.m. Eventually I forgot to eat altogether, sometimes being woken up by my belly growling in the middle of the night and refusing to quiet until I put something in it.
I vowed to get it in check, not because I trusted my body to inform me of its needs but because not having things under control was a reflection of my character. And I desperately wanted character, wanted “goodness.” Also, my friends had started to make jokes about my being hungry all the time, and I wanted to impress them.
I do not know when “goodness” shifted towards “thinness” for me. I do not know if it was ever that explicit. What I do know is, all the women in my family are big and good. And that this world is explicitly killing so many of them, while blaming them for their deaths.
Last year, when I was sick for more than two hundred days of the year, people constantly remarked on my appearance. I got everything from “You don’t look that sick” to “At least you look good” to “You look tired.” But none of those folks inquired about how I was really doing.
Some people do not care if you’re well. They care about you not making them uncomfortable with your unwellness. They care about you fitting their idea of physical beauty, regardless of how much you are struggling and in pain. They care about you performing whatever version of that standard is in their heads, and it is important to them that you never deviate from it.
All the women in my family are big and good…. The world is explicitly killing so many of them, while blaming them for their deaths.
I am working toward loving my body. I am working to be in it and let that be enough. And I thought I had it in check. I threw away my scale. I committed to becoming stronger, not fitter. I started seeing a trainer who encouraged me to be fascinated instead of frustrated with my body. I recited mantras about how appearance does not determine my worth.
Then the coronavirus hit, and all the things I had been working on disappeared.
Fitness companies moved their services online in response to stock market plunges, and I became inundated with diet and workout propaganda, all under the guise of a need to “emerge from social distancing in the best shape” of my life. Suddenly, all the things I’d been working toward—consistency, support, honesty and confidence in eating things that feel good—became less possible, more abstract.
In response to the $94 billion dollar “fitness” industry’s moment of transition, companies are rushing to offer creative digital opportunities for folks who want to maintain or “improve” their weight during shelter-in-place. Fitness stock is now on the rise, due to gym closures, stress eating and limited physical activity.
My trainer encouraged me to be fascinated instead of frustrated with my body. Then the coronavirus hit….
Strangers have become digital weight-loss instructors and coaches who spout the importance of avoiding weight gain. Weight gain is then presented as one of the worst consequences to social and physical distancing, further supporting the stigmatizing and disposal of fat folks and/or folks who’ve gained weight.
I want to say that it doesn’t get to me, but the truth is, even the ways we self-regulate are impacted by fatphobia and this idea that our best selves are our thinnest, most “fit” selves. I’m told in various ways that I have to earn what I eat, whether it’s a pastry, a slice of cheese or a bowl of ice cream.
For those of us with overlapping mental health needs, the pressure to emerge from all of this in the best shape of our lives can be fatal. That’s not an exaggeration.
Multibillion-dollar corporations profit from avoidable escalations of illness when Black folks are not believed to be authorities on the experience of living in our own bodies. The rigid but perpetually inaccurate correlation between thinness and health continues that harm, often using that rhetoric to pathologize and demonize Black bodies, especially if they are also fat. These extensions of anti-Blackness find homes in the violent socialization that teaches us to crave thin bodies, even in the midst of potential fatality. And the constant vitriol, surveillance and attempts to control the eating habits of poor, fat and/or Black folks need not continue throughout this pandemic.
My Black body, my Black life, is worthy of love and safety just as it is. And in these moments, these many moments of fear and uncertainty that demand I conjure the grit and joy of the folks I come from, not dying is enough. It has to be.
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