‘Have Black women ever really had agency over their bodies?’ I was asked this rhetorical question during a brainstorming meeting for this blog topic. Without thought, I shook my head as I typed my notes. I didn’t have to think. No, Black women have never had agency over their bodies in this country. From the moment that Europeans stole Black women from the shores of West Africa, they were viewed and treated as objects. And not valuable goods, but ones that are for particular purposes — anything less was easily disposable.
‘Have we, as a community, decided what we accept in terms of our bodies?’ Again, no. Though not enslaved and in shackles today, different parameters exist in a different environment. I hold a firm belief that it’s tough to think of authentic thoughts and create original material from those thoughts if your mind is cluttered. Women in general, and Black women in particular, barely stand a chance to objectively observe their bodies before being choked with largely unrealistic images, comments, comparisons, and expectations. Transitioning from a young adult’s body to a woman’s is organically challenging enough without societal roadblocks like social media, misogyny, diet culture, cultural/bodily appropriation, and corporate America. Escaping those expectations is complex, and sometimes it seems that the younger you are, the thicker those roadblocks become when exposed to an excess of stimulus and media. How are Black women supposed to think of their bodies in an authentic, unfiltered way when they have never been able to do so?
The Black woman’s body has cycled through criticisms and backlash. Time and time again, it was declared that curvy bodies aren’t “in,” to then more recently literally being created (think some of the Kardashian/Jenner sisters). The Black woman’s body continued to be recreated on white bodies and appropriated as something that is now desirable and flattering. This act probably doesn’t come as a shock to many Black folks who know that the overwhelming majority of what’s cool and trendy in society originated from Black culture. However, there is one caveat: many of the bodies recreated are not accurate representations of a body (cue a big booty with a teenie-tiny waist and thigh gaps all while surviving on protein shakes — huh??). And so, the cycle of misinformation and consequent shame continues round and about. Black women cannot escape. I cannot escape.
On top of plastic surgery, the norm is a hypersexualization that many Black women have faced based directly on their body type. How Black women dress, especially in professional settings, may quickly be labeled as inappropriate when really, what those labels say is that the body itself is inappropriate and wrong. Generally speaking, America has long fallen short in treating women as human beings and not sexual objects (think about sexualizing breasts, for example). Unfortunately, that bar is even lower for far too many Black women.
Let’s get to the meat of it: no one should take the mental health implications of this pattern lightly. Black women becoming genuinely comfortable with themselves is a near-impossible feat when we consider all of the hurdles. To be clear, mental health concerns can develop in a person, whether confident or not. The consequences of dealing with impossible standards are concerns like anxiety, body dysmorphia, disordered eating and eating disorders (what’s the difference?), and depression. Avoiding all of these perimeters may be a stretch of the imagination. However, there are ways to lighten the burden.
Call out myths and digest accurate information.
According to The Atlantic, widespread dieting existed before the Kardashians and Victoria’s Secret catalogs. This obsession with losing weight is absolutely nothing new to our culture. You may have heard the term before: “everything that glitters ain’t gold.” In this instance, the glitter is diet culture and — you guessed it — it’s not gold either! Nutrition is the real gold. Rather than focusing on restriction, nutrition values the quality of food and balance of the various food groups that we need to function, including carbs and protein. Nutrition is a more well-rounded way of approaching health. If we don’t properly feed and nourish our body, we can’t expect it to function correctly. Your body has been with you from the moment you took your first breaths — it deserves more compassion than mainstream media gives.
The information that you take in is part of wellness, too. You can call out myths about diet culture and nutrition by only giving your time, energy, and resources to people or places that embrace nutrition over dieting. Who you follow on social media, for example, is impactful. Social media can hinder you from radically loving yourself or aid you in getting there. Instagram accounts like @thenutritiontea — a Black, Brooklyn-based registered dietician nutritionist who has a non-diet approach — both educate and hype you up to feel your absolute best. Most importantly, accounts like these remind you that no food is “good” or “bad” — eat all colors of the rainbow, like broccoli and Skittles.
Practice mindful eating, and beyond.
Despite the push of diet culture, many of us tend to eat too quickly as we navigate our fast-paced lives. The act of mindful eating is just what it sounds like — using mindfulness to reach full awareness of experiences, like what your food tastes like and when you’re full. Mindful eating is a critical way to develop a healthy relationship with the food you eat and help you cope with any anxiety, shame, or guilt around food. You can practice mindful eating in small but impactful ways, like simply attempting to eat more slowly, putting your phone down, or turning the TV off when you eat or focusing on how the food itself makes you feel. Mindful eating allows us to connect with the food that we eat positively.
Extending mindfulness beyond just eating will continue to help foster a healthy relationship with you and your body. Practicing what I like to call a “mindful moment” is a great tool to reduce acting impulsively and briefly reflect on what our thoughts and feelings are communicating to us. Why are you eating that salad, for example? Is it because you are craving a salad or are attempting to be a bit healthier? Or is it because you are punishing/depriving yourself? Let me be clear that nothing is wrong or harmful associated with making decisions that feel better to you or because you really want to make that decision. However, that decision can be detrimental if the motive is out of hate or dislike for our bodies.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall.
Press pause on reading this article and, if you feel comfortable, find the nearest mirror and look at your reflection. What do you see when you look in the mirror? Intentionally focus on the thoughts that are your own, not things that your mom or your grandma said about your body, not about your Instagram feed. What do you see? What do you feel about what you see? Your opinion should always and forever be the one that triumphs all others. If what you see in the mirror inhibits negative thoughts, refer to Episode 204 of the Therapy For Black Girls podcast back in April for further guidance on embracing your own body in all its forms.
We all should be able to do whatever makes us feel the happiest and content. This means how we eat, what we eat, what we don’t eat, what we wear, what we don’t wear, what makeup we wear, what makeup we don’t wear. This means getting injections or surgery done if that makes you the happiest or flaunting your natural body if that’s what floats your boat. There is absolutely no shame in doing what the f*@! You want to do with your body.
You are beautiful. I repeat: You are beautiful. All beings and all bodies are beautiful, and nobody is right or wrong, regardless of what any person or celebrity or commercial or ad tells you.
The reclamation of your body begins here and now.