Binary Thinking About Body Image Hurts Us All

“They say that white has might And thin is in, well that’s just bull. Cause ladies, big is back And as for black, it’s beautiful” -Hairspray: “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll surfaced earlier this year finding that black women have overall higher levels of self-esteem than women in other ethnic groups. In the face of impossible standards of female beauty propagated in the media, this news has been welcomed and even celebrated by several women in the black community. The poll compared weight and self-esteem against each other, finding that black women who were heavier than their white counterparts reported having significantly higher levels of self-esteem. It claimed that only 41% of average-sized or thin white women were found to have a high self-esteem compared to 66% of black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese. The poll emerged just after the widespread anger in the UK at Satoshi Kanazawa’s report titled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” The London School of Economics psychologist claimed that despite being “less physically attractive” and “much heavier than non-black women,” black women “subjectively consider themselves to be far more physically attractive than others.” While these claims from an academic at a leading British institution led to outrage, they did also open up the question of body image and how different women respond to the media’s definitions of beauty. For instance, in 2008, a University of Florida professor named Heather Hausenblas conducted a study that supposedly uncovered the differing responses between white and black women to the media’s influence on beauty. Commenting on the negative impact that images of the “ideal” skinny supermodel had on other white women, Hausenblas claimed that black women “are just not comparing themselves to these white models.” Supporters of the “Black is Beautiful” campaign and several others similar to sought to redefine beauty in ways that both included and uplifted black women from what Princeton professor Imani Perry describes as the “generally degrading and unattractive, or hypersexual and less feminine” images of black women in society. The message was clear: as Bill Cosby famously put it, “It isn’t a matter of black is beautiful as much as it is white is not all that’s beautiful.” Could it be that black women ignore the dominant images of beauty and instead dance to their own tune, or have we simply flipped the coin and replaced one set of controlling images with another? Being skinny was never a crime. Yet somewhere along the way, African American pop culture took over and a binary standard of beauty once more became dominant among black women. In a classic two-steps-forward-one-step-back scenario, the Washington Post announced what watching any rap music video will tell you: skinny is out, “thick is in,” and having some extra meat on your bones is a virtue (cue the parade of “fiercely real” women with curves, because “real” women obviously come with curves.) One self-proclaimed “real” woman is the British TV and radio presenter Mica Paris, who, with her less-than-real hair, claims that black women are happier with their appearance. Paris wrote in the UK’s Daily Mail in 2012: “I don’t know any black women who aspire to be skeletal, and even if we did, nature decrees that we shouldn’t be. We’re made with breasts, bottoms and well-developed quads.” It doesn’t take a genius to know that aligning black women to the supposed naturalness of a fuller figure is not only incorrect but also horribly subjective. In addition to this, despite being a regular in British tabloids for her yo-yo dieting, Paris went on to trump “Flat chests, skinny midriffs and size zero” as “boyish” and undesirable. She bluntly insisted, “I apologise for reinforcing a stereotype, but it’s a fact.” This is a slap in the face for all women, black AND white, who naturally possess these features without crash dieting. What’s even more alarming is the fact that had the roles been reversed and a skinny, white woman had dismissed bustier and fuller frames as undesirable and unnatural to white women (and then decided that it was “fact”), it would be no less limiting than the Eurocentric, masculinist beauty aesthetic that black women have fought against for so long. Not to mention, her demeaning assumptions about white women and their response to the standards of beauty in the media are as ignorant as her suggestions. As The Guardian’s Lola Adesioye put it, “Black girls have body issues too.” She even dares to admit, “Not all of us like being bootylicious” and “Eating disorders aren’t just for white women.” Mica Paris’ most sweeping generalization – “Look around, and you won’t see many skinny black women” – left me even more puzzled. Zoe Saldana, Chanel Iman, Cassie, Kelly Rowland, and a heap of other famous, slim (beautiful) black women immediately come to mind. In what world are skinny black women such as these both a rare sight and unattractive to other black people? So long as women continue to adhere to binary and reverse-binary thinking, our sense of beauty will be dependent on how undesirable we perceive the next person to be. “Fiercely real” women can only be celebrated where thin women are discredited as “anorexic” and “unhealthy.” Equally, “black” is only beautiful where “white” and the features that come with it become unattractive. On top of this, binary oppositions, sadly, continue to plague women from within the black female population in the form of “team-light-skin” vs. “team-dark-skin” and, more recently, “team natural” vs. “team-relaxed.” Women’s positive body (and hair) acceptance campaigns will continue to fall short of their aims so long as they fail to get rid of this binary thinking altogether. Photo credit: Discover Rwanda via the Creative Commons License.

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