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A while back I saw this comic strip.  Can’t remember the name.  The setting was white suburbia, a family, which as my friend Sara points out “really narrows it down.”

The female lead of the comic strip (let’s call her Wilma) has a black friend of, shall we say, “a certain size.”  Wilma spends three panels hinting around about an exercise class to her black friend (let’s call her Joyce).   Telling Joyce the time, the location, the cost, how much fun Wilma’s having taking it.  “How very nice for you,” Joyce responds, walking away with wobble lines emanating from her large rear-end.

In case you missed it, that’s the punchline.  The joke is, see, Joyce is fat, but she doesn’t realize that about herself.  Poor Wilma is trying to help Joyce help herself, but Joyce is so deep in denial, so far up that river in Egypt, that she simply can’t be helped.

And as I read this I’m thinking, okay, what’s wrong with wobble lines?  This woman looks good to me.  Maybe she looks good to herself.  Maybe she already has an exercise program that she likes just fine.  I do.

I look a lot like Joyce.  Larger breasts, though.  I weigh more than 200 pounds.  I’m pretty sure.  I haven’t weighed myself in three weeks, but that sounds about how I feel.  I’m maybe 5 feet, 8 inches tall. 

At the Y in April, I was on the treadmill, doing my 40 minutes, all of it uphill.  The man next to me asked how much I weighed, and seemed deeply shocked at my answer.  “But you are fat!” he exclaimed.  “And you are always here, working out so hard!”  Well, yes.  I am.  I do.  And I would say I’m in shape.  Round is a shape.

I’ve subscribed for a few years to an online dating service.  I read the ads for entertainment, even when I’m not interested in meeting the men that posted them.   In the singular they’re funny; “Satisfaction guaranteed EVERY TIME,” says Marv’s headline.  There’s a man with the user name “Tumbleweed Heart,” and another whose user name is “Asslicker.”   En masse, the profiles I read are pathetic and provoking.  There are canned phrases one can use to describe both one’s physical type and the physical type one desires: “Slender, Average, Athletic, A Little Extra Padding, Rubenesque.”  I have chosen to describe myself using the ALEP option.  By far the most widely sought qualities, though, are “Slender” and “Athletic.”

Very few subscribers advertise for a specific ethnicity, but there are some of those, too.

Then there’s the men who are asking for skinny black women to email them.  I raise my voice and wave my arms at the computer screen in exasperation.  Skinny!  Black!  They exist, of course, but statistically speaking?  So do microscopically small black holes.

I think black women in the US are far more likely to be fat than women of other races.  Women are more likely to be fat than men; we’re built to store it up, cause we might need it to support a pregnancy.  And in the US blacks are often the descendants of survivors of slavery, which tilts the genetic pinball machine in favor of holding on to that fat for dear life.  Dear, dear, sweet, sweet life.

There are some who want me, right now, the way I am, so round, so firm, so fully packed.   So brimming with dear life.

25 thoughts on “Fatology”

  1. Bindicated says:

    I am a big fan of your use of the word “fat” in this post. Fatphobics have hijacked the word “fat” and turned it into a bad word, a mean word, a word that they throw at people and expect it to hurt. But “fat” isn’t inherently a bad word, and I love hearing/reading people use it in the neutral and positive ways that you did here. A world in which women could be left alone to accept our bodies, whatever size or shape they happen to be, would be revolutionary. And I always think, when I see men with usernames like “Asslicker,” that at least they’ve spared me any need to waste time on them at all. If only every fool would label himself so clearly… :)

  2. Monique says:

    Ah. That word “athletic.” You’ve reminded me of a blog post I keep meaning to write. See, I’m pretty sure I’m athletic. I play indoor soccer at least twice a week. I ride my mountain bike on challenging trails, I hike, I play paintball, and I rock climb indoors at least once a week, preferably more. But I’m also pretty sure that when people use the word “athletic” to describe women, they don’t mean 5’5, 170 pounds, size 14. I don’t see anyone who looks like me in the Title 9 catalogs. It’s hard to find hiking pants that fit me at REI. (Oh, there are a few that claim to be my size, but they seem to be designed for people without hips.)

    I know this is just an aside to your overall post; it’s just what struck me.

  3. maevele says:

    I’d rather read it that the joke is on Wilma. That what’s ridiculous is how Wilma if she’s unhappy at her own size, Joyce would be more unhappy, but Joyce knows better .
    of course, i haven’t seen the strip, I’m just reconstructing it how i wish it’d been.

  4. Elusis says:

    yeah, “athletic” threw me for a loop when I was doing online dating. I set up some profiles at a time when I was dancing 6-8 hours per week at an intermediate/advanced level, including doing public performances, but I also weighed about 185 or 190 at 5’1. So… “athletic”? Sure. Thin and muscular? No.

    This NY Times slide show calls any umbrella definition of an “athletic” body time into question quite well, I think.

  5. Sami says:

    I’m not sure slavery accounts for it, entirely – it’s not really long enough/sufficient generations for a major evolutionary difference, though it’s quite possible that the aid to survival did lead to a certain amount of natural selection. But it’s very common for African women to be built like you are, and steatopygic tendencies are strong.

    Which is to say: skinny black women being a tiny minority is not because black women are fatties, it’s because black women are designed by nature to stock a healthy load of body fat (and muscle). Time was, this was recognised as appropriate and beautiful. Miriam Makeba was renowned for her music and her kindness and beauty of spirit, but she was also admired for her physical beauty.

    Mama Africa was a stunningly beautiful woman, but she was never skinny.

  6. Sami says:

    Also, re: “athletic”: I submit to you Vilimaina Davu, who is athletic enough to represent two different countries at netball, including playing in the team that won the 2003 World Championship, and who is definitely on the round side. (And lists her favourite food as “all”, is 190cm tall and doesn’t slouch to hide it, and I think she’s awesome.)

  7. Sparky says:

    That bugs me and it is offensive. So her friend decides to drop hints about an exercise program? Well, one assumes that if Joyce WANTED one she was more than capable of finding one herself.It’s one thing to give advice – but it has to be sought after. Trying to prod people in a certain direction is condescending – people make their own choices for themselves

    We’re so damned obsessed about a set shape for people – and an unobtainable one at that! – that we’re blind to the idea that other shapes can be beautiful, can be healthy can be what people want

  8. Momsomniac says:

    A bit of a tangent (maybe), but this puts me in mind of when I dated briefly through the personals ages ago. My post for a man with a 3-digit IQ, age 21- 101, skin any color landed me several calls from several very LOVELY men – the ages varied as did the ethnicities, and nice handsome men all of them.

    I didn’t end up “dating” any of them more than a few times (mostly because they were all looking to get married and I was just trying to start dating again) but my stated refusal to list limitations (other than the IQ one) seemed to attract some very NICE, very ATTRACTIVE men. I found that interesting.

    And round is indeed a shape! Too funny. I am loving these post, Nisi. This is one of the few blogs I fit into my crazy life, and I want to express how much I enjoy your writing style! Thank you!

  9. Godheval says:

    I think African-American women are disproportionately overweight more because of diet than biology. Diet extends from culture, and AA culture extends in large part from the legacy of slavery.

    Soul food, while delicious, is a disgrace. There are more McDonalds and other low-quality fast food restaurants in poor AA neighborhoods than anywhere else. There is a veritable culture of bad diet that has become pandemic amongst African-Americans, and one that has to be fixed.

    I’m more concerned with the causes of obesity than the aesthetic – and the poisoning of African-Americans with terribly unhealthy food borders on a conspiracy (ever notice that the potato chip flavors like “Hot Ribs and Cheese” only get released in poor AA neighborhoods?)

    However, I contend that if you are healthy and happy and still “overweight” (by society’s standards), then that’s just fine.

  10. cccH says:

    I’m pretty much disappointed with too many black (especially American) women using all kinds of labels and excuses to pardon the fact that way too many are overweight, because in my opinion and observation that’s mainly because of lack of exercise and the foods they eat. Just to point out, Jennifer lopez also carries a sizable derriere, so does Beyonce. They both work out to fight the extra flab. Don’t make excuses that those who are genetically so inclined can’t work at it to maintain it. Sorry, but I find 200lbs (over 90kgs!!) on a 5feet8inches person to be fat.

  11. Maria says:

    Fatphobia in the guise of promoting “health” makes me sick. Perhaps the OP, who certainly sounds like she undertakes a healthy amount of physical activity, dares to have self-worth at 200 pounds. Why on Earth should a healthy, physically active woman spend her life “fighting the extra flab” when her physical and mental health would be much better served by abandoning such a fruitless obsession? Is it more important for a black woman to make an attractive backdrop to important people’s lives than to enjoy her life?

  12. Nisi Shawl says:

    Hey, cccH, sorry you’re sorry.

    I describe myself as fat. I don’t doubt you’ve got your opinion as to whether or not that’s a bad thing.

    However, I do doubt your powers of observation, because your post reads as though you missed what I was saying. I work out. Four to six days a week. My motivator is a persuasive one: pain. I have a chronic medical condition that responds primarily to exercise. If I don’t exercise, I hurt, so I do it all the time. As for my diet, it’s quite a reasonable one. But enough of attempting to describe my lifestyle to you. Not going to change your mind, I think. Thanks for letting me know what it is.

  13. Monique says:


    Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce make their livelihoods in part by maintaining a certain body shape. They would likely not have made it to where they are had they not had bodies inclined toward certain conventionally desirable form. You can’t seriously be suggesting that women who do not have careers that depend on being “hawt” spend as much time, effort and money on their looks as those who do?

    Maybe in some alternate universe, someone’s telling a performer that she really needs to brush up on her differential equations and string theory because she just can’t keep up with those rock star physicists.

  14. xander sly says:


    I’m sick of the pressure on people to be something they aren’t and feel shame for who and what they are. If you are fat, great. If you are skinny, fine. It’s up to the person to feel good about themself and judge what they need to do or not do to be happy.

    As for us on the sidelines, yeah, I do wish fat folks were given more credit for fitness and athleticism. And on the flipside, there are incredibly unhealthy and unfit, unathletic skinny people. I just wish we’d collectively get over it and accept ourselves and others.

    Perhaps if we ditched consumerism this would be easier.

    Fat women are beautiful!

  15. Vitamin A says:

    Monique, thanks for the great deconstruction of the “athletic body” concept. I had never thought of how poor a body descriptor “athletic” was until you pointed that out. (At least, a poor descriptor in the context of personal ads, since it indicates a much wider variety of body types than the people using it tend to be looking for.) Anyone who practices athletic behavior logically must have an athletic body, but that body isn’t necessarily thin or muscular.

    Nisi, your personal ad story reminds me of Wendi Muse’s piece on Racialicious a while back about craigslist personals. At best, gross ads can help weed out the people you’d never, ever want to date.

  16. Momsomniac says:

    Mm, yeh – on the “athletic” build and anti-fat thoughts here.

    I have an “athletic” build; I am descended from farmers and am naturally very muscular. I weigh more than I appear to because I am compact. I am NOT, however, athletic. I try to be; I am just not.

    I have been in races, etc. – had to train year round just to FINISH a sprint distance triathlon several years ago (second to last, thank you). I walk and used to “trot” foot races from time to time (this is all normal where I live – people do this kind of thing to “hang out”).

    I finish any such event with women 30 years my senior. I once pushed myself to pass a VERY large man so as not to come in LAST in a race, and found out he was termally ill. He died 2 weeks later and I kind of wish I had NOT tried so hard to pass him(plus, it HURT me physically).

    See, I look athletic. I TRY to be athletic. But I am not. And based upon Ms. Shawl’s post, I have no doubt that if we were friends “running” together, she’d just have to leave me in her dust.

    Seriously, size isn’t a great indicator of health. Or anything else, really.

  17. Bindicated says:

    I haven’t tried any of the internet dating sites (yes, I know, I live under a rock), but do I understand you all correctly? You can only choose one of these words to describe your body type? It’s like a drop-down menu or buttons or something where you can only choose one? When I first read the post, I envisioned that it would be a series of boxes to tick and then you could say that you were both, say, ALEP and athletic. Or whatever. I wonder why they don’t do that. Also, just curious, but does anyone know if they offer the same list of words to describe both men and women?

  18. m. says:

    if one doesn’t exercise at a high enough level to basically kickstart metabolism, the exercise will serve some general benefit, but one will still be fat. if your heart rate isn’t getting up beyond 130bpm, you can exercise for hours a day and not lose an ounce over time.

    exercising at all is good and certainly better than not doing so, but low/moderate intensity exercise that doesn’t really get the heart rate up never leads to weight loss.

    and you can break a pretty good sweat and still not be exercising hard enough to cause weight loss.

    my own family members were full of ‘it’s genetics’ when i started to pick up extra weight. believing that BS kept me away from the high-intensity exercise i needed to get back to a healthier weight for months. and then i started doing that type of exercise and the pounds flew off.

    also, i suspect many people have no idea how many calories they really take in vs. expend daily.

    the truth is that people used to be stronger and smaller than current averages. people also did a lot more activity that revs up the heart rate.

    being a smidge less active and eating a touch more (the actual numbers are incredibly small amounts of change in calories consumed over time) creates larger people who would not have been as large 50 or 100 years ago.

  19. HoneyBear says:

    I met my husband on Yahoo Personals and he knew exactly what he was looking for: a big woman. He adores Black woman, especially large ones, and he is proud to publicly acknowledge that fact. The dismay that the public shows to big woman seems to be a Caucasian problem. Most big Black and Hispanic women I know walk around with a confidence that is sexy in and of itself. I am a big woman and I wear that label proudly. If a man can not look past his hang-ups about race and size, then I do not need to waste my precious time dealing with him. He has the problem, not me. When and if I lose any weight, it is for my benefit and health, not what is dictated by “society”. This is the same society that wants me to have blonde hair, blue eyes and light skin to be beautiful… yeah right….

  20. Nisi Shawl says:

    M. said: “if your heart rate isn’t getting up beyond 130bpm, you can exercise for hours a day and not lose an ounce over time.”

    Right. Which is why I look for heart rate monitors on the exercise equipment I use. I keep mine between 126 and 155 for 30 or more minutes per session.

    I agree that exercise and diet have something to do with how much one weighs. I don’t think they’re the whole story, though. Truly.

  21. Elusis says:

    M – Fat Girl on a Bike used to blog about being a 300+ pound triathlete, but she got enough abuse from people who liked to lecture her on how she just couldn’t be doing what she said she was doing because if she was really doing it she wouldn’t weigh 300 pounds.

    Sounds kind of like your comment, for that matter. The whole “calories in, calories out” thing is such old news, and the “well if you’re really eating right and exercising, you’ll be losing weight, and if you’re not, you must be lying is pretty tiresome.

  22. m. says:

    well, most people lose weight that way, and pointing out a single, solitary anomaly is not really disproving the basic point.

    if numerous people were 400+ pounds and triatheletes, then you’d have a point. but instead you have one anomalous data point.

    you have a woman who did very problematic things to her body with bulimia, at the least (which is a whole separate set of issues), and then you hold her up as ‘proof’ that exercise and reduced calorie intake never ever, ever, ever work for anyone, ever.

    i am of all things a recovering anorexic, and yet when i got actually fat (by conventional standards) and gained large amounts of weight, i still heard a bunch about ‘slave genes’ and i wondered how that worked when i was barely able to hit 90lbs.

    and i further wondered what was going on when i exercised 4-5 hours per week at moderate intensity and ate less than 1500 cals daily as a norm, and lost very steady amounts of weight (at least 1 lb/week, sometimes much more).

    i’m actually pretty interested in the OP now doing 30 mins plus of 130+ hr exercise “per session”. my experience is that i lose weight almost too fast at such a pace of exercise. but then, i have never really eaten much overall, and dropping to 1500 cals/day or less is actually within my non-diet norms and thus not a withholding of normal food intake.

    ‘slave genes’ don’t make people fat. i don’t know why any individual fat person is fat, but in my case, it was very much eating a bit more per day and having a bit less in physical activity per day. mainly because the weight fell right off when i ate less and exercised more.

    i fully guess that my anecdotes will be assessed at a lower value than anecdotes supporting a view that increased exercise and reduced caloric intake lead to no change in weight.

  23. Elusis says:

    It’s funny, M, but “most people” don’t.

    I mean, I could tell you my story about exercising 4-5 days per week for an hour, at least 2 of those sessions with a personal trainer, and eating 1700 calories per day, and not losing an ounce in 6 months, but then we’d just be at a standstill again, story for story.

    So when I say “most people don’t lose weight from dieting?” I have data.

    They really really don’t.

    And that’s data, not anecdata.

    Look, believe what you want. Just stop criticizing and judging other people based on those beliefs, please.

    Have a good day.

  24. My2cents says:

    First, let me start by saying that I’m not fat but I’m not skinny either. (Is there a word for the in-between?) I’m a size 12 up top and a 14/16 below and I am tall. When people find out that I weigh 200lbs they never believe me. I exercise as therapy for a condition I have. I dont give a whit if I lose weight because that is not the only point of exercising. Non weight-loss motivated exercise is beneficial. But if you are trying to lose weight make sure you recognize the difference and are working out effectively (according to your goal). (This is where the majority fails. Black, white, female and male)

    Secondly, I would have to agree with the author that skinny black women are not the norm. My guess is that it is more cultural than genetic but that each person is different. However, anyone on a quest to find their slimmest version should be mindful that as women, as African-Americans and as Americans (hello, 2nd fattest country) we are (for whatever reasons, nature or nurture) predisposed to more shapely figures. That just means work a bit harder if you are trying to slip to the other side of the bell curve.

    These predispositions (which, by-the-way are correlations not causes) should not be seen as excuses but as spotlights on where to focus when creating your map to your happier selves. And if you are happy (and medically healthy) were you are then that’s cool. If others think I’m fat or crazy or lazy that’s cool too. I’m happy and healthy, and my Dr isn’t complaining so the rest doesn’t really matter.

    That’s my 2, nope 3, cents

  25. Nisi Shawl says:

    Sorry to have dropped out of the conversation for a few days there. I had food poisoning. I lost a few pounds, but don’t recommend this method. Nasty and humiliating. The worst part was that the only food I could eat (when I was able to start eating again) was starches and sweets. Bleeah. Bananas, rice, applesauce. For variety graham crackers. Vitamin water. Yesterday and today I was finally able to add fresh veggies again and protein. And apples, peaches, pears, pineapple.

    “m,” I wonder why you put “scare quotes” around the “words” “‘per session’?” Are you saying I wasn’t talking about real sessions? I get that you were being sarcastic, but not what you were being sarcastic about.

    And I’m not sure everyone reading me is quite clear on what I’ve been trying to get across. I actually believe that diet and exercise do make a difference in one’s weight. My contention is that they’re not the sole factor, and my opinion is that they are not the primary factor. Diet and exercise are why I weigh 200 pounds, not 265. But sans serial food poisoning I doubt I’ll weigh less than 190 any time soon, no matter how healthy and athletic my lifestyle.

    I don’t have any data to back up my hypothesis that there’s a genetic reason for the preponderance of fatter black women. All I have is an experience of my own, and a rather anomalous one at that. I was crying in the bathroom about some interaction I’d had with the man I was married to at that time, which was about 20 years ago. And as I leaned my head on the toilet seat and took a break from my sobbing, I heard a voice in my inner ear saying, “Oh, my, look at her–she’s way too thin!” At the time I weighed 165 pounds.

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