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Unraveling The Fatphobia Behind The Criticisms Of Lizzo

To suggest that Lizzo needs to be “put down” is to recapitulate this trope about the “beastliness” of fat Black people.

By Sydneysky G

Let me start first by saying this: it’s because she’s fat. If I make nothing else clear, know that the reason for all of the vitriol Lizzo is experiencing is because she is fat.

Lizzo is this year’s breakout artist. So much so that she was even named TIME’s ‘Entertainer of the Year’. From dominating R&B, Pop, and Hip-Hop charts; to breakout performances at the BET awards, the AMAs, and the VMAs; to her music taking over television, film, and commercial soundtracks. She collected the most Grammy nominations this year of any artist; her album peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 200; her single “Truth Hurts” peaked at #1 for seven weeks; she landed the cover of British Vogue, performed at Coachella, and starred in the critically acclaimed film “Hustlers”. 2019 truly has been the year of Lizzo.

However, following her BET performance in June, conversations about Lizzo have become much more frequent. And not in celebration of her accomplishments. Both she and her music has become a part of a debate; one that seems to happen every time she wins an award, does something on social media or takes another step toward greater success. While it’s expected that with her rise to fame she would be talked about more, the problem is what is being said about her and why. 

In an all-white leotard, twerking on stage next to her Black fat dancers, she makes her fearless happy presence known in a Black space on a TV channel that has been known to not be so open to women who aren’t desirable. Lizzo’s BET performance made people uncomfortable in a way that opened her up to a lot of the anti-fatness she experiences now large-scale. We’ve had fat women like Mo’Nique shake her ass on BET before, and it was amazing! This was different, though. This time, unlike Mo’Nique’s performance, it wasn’t something intended to be comedic relief.

People were forced to take notice of a fat dark-skinned woman happily taking up space in a place that does not welcome people that look like her. This has seemingly been people’s problem with Lizzo all along. The world does not like nor does it want fat Black people taking up space so loudly—and with pride—because it is not our place. We are supposed to minimize ourselves as much as possible because our body size and skin color already take up too much room. So in order to remind her of her place, and make clear that she’s not welcome to be her proud fat self, people disguised their-already-thinly-veiled disdain for her body with “critique” of her artistry.

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It started with ”she’s not a rapper” which eventually turned into “she’s too pop”. This then grew into saying that she makes “white music” to appeal to a “white audience”; that she doesn’t make Black music. I strongly disagree with all of this and have been hella vocal about the fact that these unfair criticisms are because she is fat. It’s an attempt to erase her talent, Blackness and success under the guise of “not being about her size”.

Black artists have always defined Pop music; we created it. I don’t define Pop music only as a specific sound or just one genre, but also as a sound that is trendy at the moment. Can we consider Lizzo a Pop artist? Sure! Lizzo is a Pop artist, not only because she is a popular artist, but also because her music does—in many ways—employ the historic sounds of Pop music that has propelled Black artists into the mainstream. Her music and lyrics are memorable, full of quotable lines and Instagram captions making each line so catchy that they stick with you. They are uplifting and relatable. But being a Popstar doesn’t make her music any less Funk, Hip-Hop, R&B, and Soul. Which is to say: Lizzo’s music does not separate her from her Blackness despite how many fatphobes try to suggest that it does.

Recently, Lizzo took home a win with the Soul Train Awards and it didn’t go over well with many people online. After Ari Lennox lost album of the year to Lizzo, people attacked her saying that Lizzo wasn’t a soul artist and that her album wasn’t a soul album (even though the category wasn’t soul album of the year). I felt as though this was really just another attempt to make clear that people find Lizzo undeserving of being awarded for her work. I also feel as if folks were bothered by a thin woman losing to a fat one. Lizzo won Soul Album of the Year and she deserved to; her album was soulful. But the people saying that Lizzo isn’t soul or that her album isn’t soulful haven’t actually listened to it. Which brings me back to the fact that this outrage is because of her fatness. It’s not because she’s not delivering as an artist, it’s not because she’s not meeting the standards to be awarded, people just don’t think fat Black people deserve to be recognized and appreciated.

The entire moment made her out to be the big fat bully—an ugly old trope—who stole something that Ari deserved. And throughout the next few days, I watched people comfort Ari and encourage her to stay in music while they also filled up Lizzo’s comments saying she didn’t deserve it with endless threads on how Lizzo isn’t soul. But not once in those few days of comforting Ari did anyone comfort Lizzo. They didn’t congratulate her. No one was concerned for her. Because nobody cares about the feelings of unconventionally beautiful women. Fat women are rarely offered emotional support, but we are usually the ones who are expected to give and care for thin people and their feelings. Ari got to be sad and receive support while Lizzo was left with harassment and violence over an award she deserved and earned fairly. 

Non-Black musicians like Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and Ariana Grande gain access to Black music and spaces all the time, yet Lizzo must prove she’s worthy of being considered a Black artist because she’s fat. Justin Timberlake gets to perform a tribute at the BET awards, but Lizzo winning a Soul Train award is a problem? Bruno Mars makes his success off funk music, but Lizzo being the most nominated artist of the year isn’t a win? Non-fat Black artists like the aforementioned are given artistic space, and non-Black fat artists—like Adele—are given space in Black music, but when it comes to Lizzo she is having to constantly battle what it means to be a fat Black woman in an industry that would much rather she be thin, white, and/or a man.  

It is impossible to say that the criticisms Lizzo encounters don’t have to do with her size because how society engages her and her body (of work) has a lot to do with her Black fat identity. Even if you consciously feel like your negative opinion of her isn’t informed by your fatphobic and anti-Black biases, it most definitely is. It is impossible for thin people and non-Black people to separate how they have been socialized from their judgments of fat Black people. It is embedded in ALL of us, as we each live under white supremacy and have been taught to hate fatness and Blackness—even if you’re fat or Black. So, yes, how you engage Lizzo’s visibility and success is a reflection of your feelings about fat Blackness. 

The most recent example of this is assgate (corny, but I’m calling it that). At a Lakers game, Lizzo was wearing a black t-shirt dress with the ass cut out in the back with a thong and stocking. The response to this was outlandish. Lizzo is not new to showing her ass. In fact, she was nude on her album cover. As we have seen time and time again, people are upset with the kind of space Lizzo takes up. And this time, the way she took up space was so much more bold. It was an act of defiance, even if that wasn’t her intention. Lizzo’s ass has become a major topic of discussion only because fat Black bodies are not acceptable in society. We are not supposed to exist in public spaces and we are not supposed to bring attention to ourselves or to our bodies. Anyone who argues that it’s not because she’s fat and Black are denying the long history of the policing of our bodies. 

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What she wore wasn’t inappropriate for a Lakers game. This wasn’t explicitly a family event. And even if it was, there’s nothing wrong with kids seeing fat bodies in non-sexual ways. Fat Black bodies are seen as explicit and inappropriate no matter what we are or are not wearing. If Lizzo was lighter or thinner, people wouldn’t have a problem with this. It wouldn’t be a problem because people would find her more visually appealing. They would find her more sexually appealing. But instead, we are seeing people go as far as to say she needs to be tranquilized. This statement is not only fatphobic, but it is also anti-Black. Tranquilizers are largely intended to be used to incapacitate (mostly large and dangerous) animals. To suggest that Lizzo needs to be “put down” is to recapitulate this trope about the “beastliness” of fat Black people. There is no in-between. 

Lizzo isn’t a fat activist. She hasn’t labeled herself as one. But her presence this year has brought fat Black activism to the forefront. Her presence has upset those who are invested in the teaching of fat hate where the idea that success, happiness and confidence can only come in a thin and/or white body. And when you poke holes into that indoctrination it crumbles the foundation on which people have built so much of their fear of and hate for fatness. Lizzo represents Black feminine fat sexuality in a way that hasn’t been shown on such a large scale. She dares to live her life out loud no matter how many people ask her to be silent. 

I’m not saying you have to be a fan of her music, but I am saying that this is bigger than her. You don’t have to like her music to support her and what she stands for. And anybody who isn’t supporting her or defending her against misogynoir and fat hate supports it. 

So again: the hate Lizzo is experiencing is because she’s fat.

Sydneysky G. is a Fat Black writer & activist from Detroit whose writing is centered around fat identities & pop culture. Along with writing, she is a Jazz musician, cosmetology student, and makeup connoisseur. She likes to spend her time watching movies and  listening to podcasts. You can find Sydneysky on Twitter at @blackfatqueer and Instagram at syddskyy.

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