Culture — September 19, 2020
What’s It Mean To Be A Fat Girl in a Black Body?
Dr. Joy Cox is a body justice advocate, researcher and leader who addresses the intersections of race, body size, accessibility and “health.” She holds a PhD from Rutgers University and serves on the Advisory Board for the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). She is also the cofounder of Jabbie, a body inclusive, identity affirming fitness app.
In her upcoming book, Fat Girls in Black Bodies, Dr. Cox contends with the systemically harmful treatment of fat Black girls and womxn and the methods through which belonging, resistance and acceptance can be cultivated.
by Jackie Cassidy
What is healthism? And in what ways is it frequently used as a method to police fat Black girls?
Healthism is an ideology rooted in ableism that posits that "good health" (whatever that is) is the gateway to a successful life. Healthism as we know it impacts everyone as this is often the reason people who have varying abilities or bodies that do not fit into the spectrum of what society has been taught to believe are healthy are denied access to some of the most simplistic resources this country has to offer.
In the case of fat Black girls, the complexity of holding two hyper-visible identities complicate interactions with others and access to resources as the narrative written about them is layered with anti-Black sentiment. When we consider the anti-Black sentiments about Black girls and womxn, they are loud and rowdy. They are seen as mammies and/or hyper-sexual. They are uneducated, mean, lazy, and undeserving of the successes that life has to offer.
How are size and health policing and body-shaming frequently disguised as “concern”? How does one push back against these tactics?
Concern trolling is something that has been practiced since fat was labeled bad and negative. Oftentimes, people will use concern as an opportunity to "intervene" or vent their fatphobic ideas about someone's body. By framing their thoughts as concern, there is less push back to their opinions. It basically allows them to say whatever they want about bodies while also saving face.
Education and ending the conversation are two of the most effective tactics I know to stop this type of behavior. Education may take a good bit of emotional labor so it is up to the individual and the relationship they hold with the person inquiring to decide how much they want to engage. Asking individuals to present you with evidence of their claims and dissecting their biases may not help to change their minds but will give you peace in being able to defend yourself. Exiting the conversation sends a clear sign that you are not interested in having the conversation. There are varying ways to do this. How one feels most comfortable is up to them, but I am a fan of simply stating that I am not having the conversation, getting up and walking away.
What do you see as the limitations of current fat liberation movements?
In short, racism and miseducation. For decades now the fat liberation movement has struggled to be inclusive and understand the lived experiences of those who are not white and cisgender. There has also been this weird influx of straight-sized, thin, white women in professional positions that flood spaces for fat people with their voices. When you consider this along with the fact that much of what is done in fat liberation is also online, there are barriers to in person meetups and relationship building that limits the movement's reach.
“Every time you step outside wearing something that society says you shouldn’t, every time you practice joy, every time your body shows up in a space not deemed for it, you are actively resisting the idea that you do not belong.”
In your book you say “... [T]here is also this notion that fat people are not allowed to be comfortable.” Why do you think our culture has such a problem with fat people being comfortable?
I think in society there are prescriptive behaviors and states of being that people are "allowed" to be in given the majority's expectations. For example, poor people are not given the "permission" to look like they have money. They are not "allowed" to be educated beyond the expectation of the narrative prescribed [to] them says. When this expectation is violated, indignation swells and the majority speaks out about it. This is the same with fat people. The narrative written about us for so long has been negative. We are not supposed to like our bodies. We are not supposed to have a flourishing life. Healthism preaches against this. Society concurs. Thus, seeing a fat person being comfortable in their own skin warrants indignation from the majority because according to society we should not be ok with who we are, let alone comfortable with not wanting to change to be something else.
You also talk about how others’ biases around fatness are often projected onto fat people, which takes an emotional and energetic toll. Do you have strategies that you recommend to others for practicing self-care and resisting toxic social norms around weight?
Be mindful of the information you take in. If it speaks against your truth, turn it off. Switch friends, change who you follow on social media. Take note of spaces where you can and cannot speak your peace. Embrace communities that embrace you. Live your truth. Take up space. Unpack internalized ideas about you and your body. Get free and find other free people.
Can you talk about the connection between self love, resistance, and activism?
I think if you live in a fat Black body and do not hate it, you practice resistance which is a form of activism. Every time you step outside wearing something that society says you shouldn't, every time you practice joy, every time your body shows up in a space not deemed for it, you are actively resisting the idea that you do not belong. You are pushing up against societal norms that have upheld views and practices that speak to your erasure. Showing up is a form of self love and acceptance. Showing up is a form of resistance. Activism is present as a result.
You talk at length about the lack of fat acceptance within Black community and a misconception that Black communities are comfortable with fatness. Can you say more about this and the ways this misunderstanding does harm?
Sure. There has been a long standing idea floating around that the Black collective accepts fat people. The misconception is that ALL fat people are welcome which is categorically false. Shapely women are accepted (i.e., full hips, slim waist, big breasts), but generally speaking, not fat women. The term "thick" exists for that very reason. Women who have more fat than can be considered sexually arousing or physically attractive are dismissed. Fat men are accepted with greater variability but even then, at some point, their body size becomes a site of ridicule and shame. By saying the Black community accepts fat people it erases the voices of those that are rejected regularly. It silences their voices and gaslights them by denying their stories.
Dr. Joy Cox
“If you will stand beside us, do so in the capacity we are requesting. Take time to actually build rapport before you run to put your hands in things. Believe us. Listen to us. Amplify our voices.”
You are the cofounder of Jabbie. What is Jabbie? Where can people learn more about that project?
Jabbie is the identity-inclusive, body-affirming community wellness app currently being built to encourage people to move their bodies in their own way. One of the reasons me and Bunmi Alo (the other co-founder) came up with the idea was because as a fat Black woman, I have experienced first hand the setbacks that fat people have when attempting to be active in public spaces. I wanted to create something that spoke to the need of having community when we and other marginalized populations are active, quelling the negativity we may face. With Jabbie, users can take the app anywhere they take their phones, exchanging encouraging messages, sharing workouts, and promoting community that creates a safe space no matter where they are. People who are interested in learning more can visit jabbieapp.com for more information.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to build fat Black community? Do you have tips for those who are looking to connect with others in person or online?
If you are looking to start your own community, I'd say start by following those already doing work in fat acceptance and liberation. Surprisingly, I found so much once I started looking and so many people willing to welcome me. Some recommendations I have would be spaces on Facebook like Magical Fat Black Femmes. On Instagram, Sonya Renee Taylor is a great source of inspiration, Fat Mermaids is great for merch. Amapoundcake does a lot of work around fat Black visibility and Ivy Felicia runs a practice promoting body peace for individuals looking to free themselves from the pressures of diet culture and all of its practices. By checking these people and groups out and then following who they follow, you'll find so many gems!
Do you have suggestions for allies? In your experience are there any common pitfalls that self-identified allies frequently fall into?
I'd like to start with the pitfalls. I think the biggest issue allies have is that they want to "help" the way they want to and if it doesn't exactly meet the needs of those they are seeking to assist, well, too bad. There is a lack of really understanding our lived experiences because they are too busy trying to do work no one asked for, apologize, or talk over us.
The remedy to this is simple. If you will stand beside us, do so in the capacity we are requesting. Take time to actually build rapport before you run to put your hands in things. Believe us. Listen to us. Amplify our voices. Be willing to make the sacrifice that we have made 10 times over to be heard. Call out BS every time you get a chance. Give your time, your money, your resources. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.