Black women are expected to live up to conflicting beauty standards, which result in contentious relationships with ourselves, our bodies, and our food.
TW: discussions of eating disorders, fatphobia, and misogynoir
My grandfather was the first man I ever trusted. He taught me early on that my curiosity was to be rewarded, not punished. That my words would one day be my strength. And that my distrust of both authority and tradition were warranted. He went to great lengths to protect such qualities, even if that meant constantly butting heads with my parents and their idea of how I, a Nigerian girl, should conduct myself. But he wasn’t perfect. And this manifested in his unfortunate tendency to harp on my weight each and every time I saw him. He would express delight at my visiting him, but that delight was marred by concern-trolling that ended with him saying that I would be “perfect” if I lost some weight… at age ten.
It was a disturbing message that I internalized. I regarded fatness as my enemy, my body as the battleground to fight it out on, and food as a weapon often drenched in the blood of my own self-destruction. And whether it was right or not, the weight eventually came off and I naively assumed that the comments on my body would stop. Of course, that proved false when a trusted family friend went from treating me like a goofy kid to making highly predatory comments about my body and me “filling out properly” as soon as I cut the “excess” fat.
I could not have predicted it at the time, but these “loving” and leering contradictions about my body presentation would set the tone of my life:
My body as a Black woman is not allowed to exist as is.
It seems like an exaggeration, but really isn’t, considering how every body type you can imagine on a Black woman seems to inspire disgust. My idol, Serena Williams, has been regarded as ugly and “man-ish” for being “too muscular”, even though she is fit and “healthy”. One of my best friends was previously dogged out because her “boyish” and “too skinny” body lacked the perfectly proportioned hips and ass that are supposed to be factory settings for Black girls. Being “too fat” doesn’t fly either, but having the curves I am “supposed” to have invite unwanted fetishizing or stereotypes of being “fast” and “loose”. And this is all tied together by having witnessed my other idol, Janet Jackson, publicly struggle with “yo-yo dieting” and being constantly disrespected no matter what her body looked like. Janet’s example is perhaps the most damning, because it mirrors my and other Black girls’ relationship with body image. Which is to say:
Lifelong battles with multiple sets of beauty standards leave many Black women with no choice but to engage in disordered eating in an effort to correct our “fundamentally flawed” bodies.
Black women are expected to live up to conflicting beauty standards, which result in contentious relationships with ourselves, our bodies, and our food. And at the core of disordered eating is a fundamental discomfort with food that results in one eating too much or too little of it, usually as a way to “correct” weight and shape, but also as a way to regain control or even process emotions that one is not allowed to properly feel or voice. I know countless Black girls who have struggled with this in some way and even their mothers before them—who may then project onto them in kind. Yet we are omitted from larger mainstream conversations about eating disorders, mostly because our purported “strength” dictates that we should be immune to “weak” diseases like eating disorders. That suffering from an eating disorder is a “white girl” illness. And that any discomfort we display with food or our bodies is a personal failing rather than a tragic indictment of a world that hates our bodies, yet takes what it wants from them.
This omission—and the damage it causes—has been made even clearer since CupcakKe was involuntarily thrown into this conversation after re-emerging from Twitter hiatus, visibly skinnier and crediting the water fast she was on. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating, observing the reactions to CupcakKe’s bittersweet return was triggering and enlightening. I was happy to see that she was alive, but disturbed by the “oohs and aahs” at her thinner body, as it reminded me of all the positive comments I received at the height of my disordered eating in high school—when I was suddenly skinnier as a result of binge eating, starvation, and obsessive exercising. I was also angered by how eager people were to denounce her “bad behavior”, pick her apart for not being a good “role model” to others, and blast her for being a “danger” to children—the loudest denouement coming from actress and self-proclaimed activist Jameela Jamil. Still. The blatant finger-wagging CupcakKe was subjected to, despite her public mental health struggles was unsurprising for one very important reason:
Black women are not allowed to be fragile.
There’s an endless amount of history I could delve into about how “strength” became virtually the only emotion Black women were allowed to show. But the fact of the matter is that the functioning of our community and that of larger American society depends on the collective “strength” of Black women. We are the driving forces in our homes, even though we make the least amount of money and garner the least amount of respect. We are the moral compass of our country, even though no one cares to listen to us and our problems outside of an election cycle. We are everything. And nothing. Everyone sustains themselves with the metaphorical well that is “Black woman strength”. And as a Black woman, you are immediately cannibalized if you dare let that well run dry.
So, we are left with the humanity-suppressing choices of being a “cautionary tale”, a “lesson”, or a shining “role model” or arbiter of morality. None of these choices allow us to experience the full range of living… which should include the right to be fragile and at times, genuinely not okay. While CupcakKe is a rapper who is known for the seemingly boundless confidence and authentic grit she brings to her unapologetically, sexually explicit rhymes, she is also a human being who has publicly struggled with mental illness, suicidal ideation, and degrading comments about her looks—particularly regarding her weight and her dark skin. She has been incredibly candid in both word and action about the pain these things have caused her, how her fragility has been the outcome, and how said fragility causes her to act out in ways that are imperfect.
Which includes—surprise—possibly demonstrating symptoms of an eating disorder.
In a perfect world, fragility stemming from such symptoms would be met with compassion and empathy, and it would be if CupcakKe were a “fragile” white girl. People would attempt to hold space for her and what could potentially be a cry for help. Because these same people, assuming that they are aware of the incredibly complex nature of eating disorders, would obviously know that not only are eating disorders some of the deadliest mental illnesses known to man, but that shaming and humiliating the people who suffer from them is actually the cruelest thing you could ever do. When that happens, you isolate them, dismiss them as “bad” people, and encourage them to be silent about their suffering to avoid the public spectacle of humiliation. And we know all too well that silence, particularly for Black women, is a death sentence.
The public calling-out of CupcakKe was never about genuine concern for her well-being. It was an opportunity for people to whip out their metaphorical dicks and jack off to being what they see as morally superior to a down-on-her-luck Black girl. It was an opportunity for people to publicly drag a Black girl for her missteps because she can “take it” and because societal fetishization of “Black woman strength” says that her body, thoughts, and even suffering are not exclusively hers and only exist to be learning experiences for someone else. In Jamil’s case, it was an exercise in vanity and an opportunity to present herself as some leading expert on eating disorders at the expense and barbaric erasure of Black girls who suffer from them as well.
And that, along with our invisibility in such discourse, should end today.