What would be evoked in you, readers, if I said said the women photographed here—Grammy winner Chrisette Michele, 33; R&B chart topper Jazmine Sullivan, 28; Orange Is the New Black actress Danielle Brooks, 26; and plus-size blogger and swimwear designer Gabi Fresh, 26)—and I were sitting around a steakhouse table selecting from family-style options including filet mignon, roasted chicken, mac ‘n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, creamy spinach, salad and, eff it, cheesecake? Would you frown in disgust? Shake your head? Cheer us on? Think nothing of it?
Those of us who identify as chunky, curvy, plus-size, big, ample, full-figured, BBW, big-boned, thick, voluptuous, heavy-set or fat are fully aware of the obsession-rejection, push-pull, love-hate relationship society has with our physiques. What others may think about what we do or don’t eat doesn’t matter; the greater judgments, regardless of whether they are favorable, come from within.
Although African-American women have the dubious honor of weighing in as the most obese of any group in the country (recent national data finds that 80 percent of Black women are considered overweight or obese), it’s worth noting that nearly 70 percent of Black men are overweight or obese as well, compared with 71 percent of White men and 63 percent of White women.
To be a “brick house” or “thick” has never been a sin in Black America, and not surprisingly, overweight Black women are also reported to be happier with their bodies than White women across the weight scale. The perceived White women’s coveted “skinny” status is not a universal goal for their Black counterparts; some of us who wear size 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 and up actually like ourselves as we are.
But there is also the issue of health. With nearly 80 million obese adults—and in 2008, more than $145 billion spent on related medical costs—the relationship between weight and deadly health conditions (e.g., type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease) likely loomed large in National Consciousness Raiser-in-Chief Oprah Winfrey’s decision to purchase 10 percent of diet company Weight Watchers last fall.
It’s the career-long personal war with weight the media powerhouse has waged against herself that best underscores why the topic of Black women and body image remains salient. In a 60-second Weight Watchers TV commercial released in 2015, Winfrey reflected on her fluctuating size over the past 25 years against a video backdrop of her at her heaviest and later sweating it out on a hike, declaring, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.”
The commercial set off many critics, including MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, who called the 62-year-old’s failure to completely accept herself because of her weight in the face of all she’s achieved, “distressing.” Indeed, Winfrey’s declaration stands in contrast to the “body-positive” movement that has entered the cultural zeitgeist. From Dove’s diverse bodied ads and Lane Bryant’s “#ImNoAngel” lingerie campaign (a voluptuous counter to Victoria Secret’s ever-thin “VS Angels”) to fashion magazines featuring more plus-size models, the megasuccess of larger women such as Adele and Amy Schumer and the slew of social media players play up the idea that bigger is better.
The questions persist: Does Winfrey set a good example by wanting to be thinner or a bad one for implying there is something wrong with the way she looks now? Does having issues with your weight mean you don’t love yourself?
The five of us are dining on just what I mentioned above; I left out only the wine. We are all Black women who have had varying struggles with weight, food and body acceptance. Unlike me, my dining mates lead public lives. In this exclusive conversation, you will be privy to their raw emotional honesty and sound intellect, and whether you are someone who could have joined us for the meal or someone who has never engaged in the body image battle, you will learn how critical, complicated, contradictory and sometimes completely satisfying the relationship between big Black women and their bodies is.
Photographs by Keith Major
Styling by Marielle Bobo