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How racism plays a role in body standards

A closeup of a beam scale. (Patrick Sison/AP)
A closeup of a beam scale. (Patrick Sison/AP)

There’s a lot of focus in this country on body size — whether it’s on Instagram, in advertisements or in Hollywood.

And there’s also growing awareness of the harm caused by our nation’s obsession with slenderness. New scholarship is underscoring the racist origins of some of these unrealistic ideals. 

Writer Carvell Wallace began to understand the world’s view of his body around age 7. Recently, he wrote about the different ways his Black body has stood in the way of his happiness. 

“My earliest memories are of having a lot of problems with my body,” he says. “As a kid, I was chubby, and then there was this phase when I look back at it in my early 20s where I was very slim and muscular. Then I lost a bunch of weight, then gained a bunch of weight back.”

When Wallace was in 8th grade, he held a knife to his stomach, contemplating the ways he could surgically cut off the rolls of fat from his body.

“This kid from your 4th grade class can run fast, this kid’s good at basketball, this kid is good at football, this kid can fight,” Wallace says. “You don’t have a body thing that you can do. It’s in the way of my freedom and liberation.”

With abs, he thought, came power and respect, the ability to be unbothered and seen as human. 

Sociologist Sabrina Strings agrees Black people have been denied these things. 

“It really comes down to a question of, do we get to experience our full humanity as Black people?” she says. “And that’s largely denied to folks who are deemed to look inappropriate for white spaces.” 

Strings’ interest in researching the way fatness is racialized started with watching her grandmother.

“My grandmother was herself a slender woman, but she didn’t find thinness something that should be celebrated in the Black community,” Strings says, “and it wasn’t necessarily something that she wanted to be.”

But when her grandmother moved from Georgia to Los Angeles, she noticed that all of the white women were on diets. It was perplexing.

Strings went on to write the groundbreaking book, “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” which traces our country’s emphasis on the perfect body back to slavery.

“Slavery was an incredibly lucrative enterprise and so it was so important to race scientists, who were invested in slavery, to keep a hierarchy in which Black women were not deemed to be the equivalent of white women,” Strings says.

A focus of that hierarchy became a white obsession with body size. Strings says it manifested in the medical industry in the origins of the body mass index, which imposes white male body norms on the world. 

It’s also present in the fashion industry through waist trainers and body shapers that sought to emulate the Black body while at the same time constricting it. 

“Whiteness always includes an element of desire for Blackness,” Strings says, “even as they’re trying to distance themselves from us.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.