“To take much pleasure in a world filled with many kinds of beauty is a joy in life to which all women are entitled. To support only one kind of beauty is to be somehow unobservant of nature. There cannot be only one kind of songbird, only one kind of pine tree, only one kind of wolf. There cannot be one kind of baby, one kind of man, or one kind of woman. There cannot be one kind of breast, one kind of waist, one kind of skin.” - Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, Women Who Ran With Wolves (HT Dalili)
It is not surprising that most American women deal with beauty insecurities. Women, more than men, face intense scrutiny regarding how we should look. Beauty, for women, is closely tied to how much we are valued. Criticism of female appearance is, sadly, part of the language we use to speak to and about each other, as well as to and about ourselves. Yes, even black women.
There are few of us who don’t have some feature we don’t prize, some area of our body we deem a “problem.” Our legs may be healthy and strong, but we fixate on our “saddle bag,” because the current aesthetic tells us they are unsightly. And it doesn’t matter if our mama and our mama’s mama were built just like us, and we thought they were lovely, we still hate the body we inherited from them. Indeed, we may hate and punish our bodies, in part, because of the ways they hated and punished theirs.
A 2008 study, “Maternal effects on daughters’ eating pathology and body image,” conducted by Western Oregon University, found that daughters who felt pressured and criticized by their mothers around eating and body image issues were much more prone to report eating problems and figure dissatisfaction.
Hopefully, by now, most mothers (and fathers–unless we’re talking about Rihanna’s dad) understand that being critical of a child’s physical appearance is abusive and can leave permanent scars. But what we too often overlook is that the negative talk we direct at ourselves is not only bad for our own psyche but it can take its toll on our daughters, too.
The Western Oregon University study also found that daughters’ eating patterns and body dissatisfaction reflected perceptions of their mother’s concerns. Young girls are intensely clued in to the behavior surrounding female bodies that is modeled for them. If a girl experiences her mother being dissatisfied with her body and adopting dysfunctional ways with eating, that girl is likely to mirror her mother’s behavior.
You may remain silent on your daughter’s appearance, but if you, say, constantly lament your broad hips–the ones that are but older versions of her own–your message will nonetheless be received loud and clear. If you spend time deriding other women for their ample, thin or cosmetically-enhanced bodies, you communicate that women can rarely win when it comes to the beauty game; a woman will always be too something for societal tastes.
A mother’s internalization of media messages about body image and thinness played a role in her daughter’s eating symptoms. Mothers may be conveyors of societal values, serving as a window into society at large. Mothers who are more accepting of societal values (by internalizing them) may be more likely to expose daughters to these influences, and may be more supportive of the influences. It is also possible that these mothers are more overt in modeling their own attitudes and behaviors.
Increasingly, black women are being challenged for not conforming to mainstream societal beauty norms. Make no mistake, much of this conversation about black women and fatness is all about policing how we look. When has the world ever given a hot damn whether black women are healthy or not? It is true that our community is plagued with chronic diseases that may be handled with changes in diet and activity. But it is also true that individuals are rarely inspired to make lasting, healthful changes as a result of being denigrated and bullied about their appearance.
In response to my recent Clutch article, “The Black Beauty Standard,” a commenter criticized a woman for calling her granddaughter “thick,” when the commenter assured us the young girl was “FAT.” By speaking gently around her, it was implied, the grandmother was contributing to the problem.
But I think we should be certain, as black women, that we can separate health concerns from fat phobia and that we do not tyrannize young black girls in response to mainstream criticism of our bodies. Taking care of future generations of girls–our daughters and granddaughters and nieces and cousins–also means taking care of ourselves. One way to raise a generation a strong women who feel good about themselves and make healthy choices is to be women who feel good about ourselves and make healthy choices–women who do not bow to arbitrary standards nor inflict them on others.