Written by Camille Michelle Gray
One morning this week I found myself on The Huffington Post, as I most often do to ease myself into the workday. I clicked on an article titled “11 Body Image Heroes of 2013.” This article cataloged all the women in 2013 who spoke out against fat shaming, conducted brave social experiments, and created provocative art, amongst other things.
When I read these women’s stories and quotes my eyes kind of glazed over suspiciously. Starlets like Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley condemned the media’s treatment of famous women. Plus size supermodel Jennie Runk and pageant queen Elena Raouna spoke out against restrictive norms in the beauty industry. Many others, artists and advocates alike, shared their own stories and projects that aimed to tackle down and suffocate the notion that only skinny women are attractive.
Though I appreciated these brave women for taking a stand through the medium suited best for them, by the time I reached the end of the article I was shaking my head. Only ONE of the “heroes” was a woman of color. How is it that those who promote body image diversity (in this case, the writer of this Huffington Post article) fail to realize that they’re not being diverse at all? You cannot be for body diversity and then only use white bodies.
Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley are the norm. They are white and thin. Forgive me when I say that I throw up a little when I hear a blonde hair, blue-eyed woman lament beauty culture while simultaneously failing to acknowledge that this beauty culture has deemed her aesthetic to be the most attractive. Most of the women featured as “heroes” were white and while some were heavy, that still doesn’t mean they can speak succinctly or even accurately on what it is to be oppressed by beauty norms. Their pale and ivory skin has shielded them from fully experiencing the short side of the beauty culture stick, yet they speak as though they understand the pain, and are celebrated as martyrs and mavericks.
It reminded me of that Twitter hashtag that went viral: “#solidarityisforwhitewomen.” We can celebrate bodies, but they can only be white bodies. I’m sure the women who play into this seemingly positive meme don’t have exclusionary intentions, but the fact that no one seems to notice the homogenous nature of it all is disturbing. The masses are so used to only digesting white women’s bodies (they appear more in print ads, television ads, television shows and movies than any other type of woman), that the obvious absence of women of color is not a red flag. The painful irony of being pro body diversity and then, in turn, not being very diverse at all is a great cosmic joke.
Everywhere I turn on the Internet, there is some project or Tumblr page or advocacy group dedicated to honoring larger women, and the pictures are all of white bodies. When I mentioned this discrepancy in the comments section of the Huffington Post article, it was quickly favorited by many, but I had to put up with one retort that I found particularly depressing. A white woman responded:
“I think the body image problem is far more prevalent within the white female community than within other backgrounds. I think females from other ethnic backgrounds are far ahead of white females when it comes to this issue…”
What a dangerous thing to think. So because I am black, I am automatically immune to all societal conditioning, and am a beacon of self-confidence and worth? So because women of color are somehow so much stronger and resilient, our bodies don’t deserve to be celebrated as well? (On a tragic side note, since it has become a collective misunderstanding that women of color, namely black women, are not vulnerable to body image demons, medical professionals routinely misdiagnose and ignore symptoms of eating disorders in us. We are left untreated and uncared for.)
This is why the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag was created. Some white women actually think (unconsciously or not) that empowerment is a fight to be fought amongst themselves, rather than a journey to be experienced by all, for the uplifting of all. The body image heroes of 2013 do not look like me and cannot sufficiently make me feel better about myself, speak on my behalf, or be a source of empowerment because they only tell one side of the story. When will my story be told too?
There are many women of color who are hurting when it comes to how they look. Some of us think we are fat as well. To see ourselves being embraced by body image movements could be such a great point of pride for us. To see body image heroes that not only mirror our size, but also our complexion is a surefire way to expand the story of body diversity, normalize different colors and shapes, and validate ALL of our struggles.