The Politics Of Fat In Black And White

May 15, 2012
Originally published on May 16, 2012 9:13 am

"Many black women are fat because we want to be." With those words in a New York Times op-ed, novelist Alice Randall sparked a controversy. Touching on flashpoints of race, weight, politics and gender, her contention prompted a debate and raised serious questions about health, culture and race.

"I speak and write as a novelist from my own experience and what I observe," Randall tells NPR's Neal Conan. As her own weight passed the 200-pound mark, she started to analyze why. And it wasn't just about the food she was eating or the amount of exercise she got.

"I realized that part of the reason was that I wanted to be, for a very complex set of reasons, starting with identifying with my absolutely beautiful, big-as-three-houses grandmother," she says. "And when I thought about strength and beauty, I thought about her."

Since then, Randall has been exploring why some black men and women value a rounder look. "One of the things that has been a foundation of African-American life, particularly in this last century, is a culture of overwork, particularly for women," she says. And she says black culture, which she acknowledges is not a monolith, has defined standards of beauty in opposition to "a culture that values white skin as a basic ideal."

So Randall is using her piece to call for a body-culture revolution in black America. She has started with herself. "The decision for me to be able to go into the weight room was ... hard ... because to me that seems to be .... something you have to be a skinny white girl to do," she says. But she did it, and invites other black women to follow suit.

"I think we have some wonderful roots in jump-roping and hula-hooping and things ... that I want to reclaim as a woman," she adds. "Part of reinventing our culture is finding traditional things, whether it be the sweet potato and the peanut ... to claim our own roots."

Tell us: How is fat perceived in your culture or community?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In a New York Times op-ed, Alice Randall wrote that many black women are fat because they want to be, that part of the reason is political, an act of resistance to conventional beauty norms, and another part, she wrote, is cultural: Black men prefer curvaceous women.

The controversy about all of that tended to obscure Randall's main point, that the health effect of black fat is no different than white fat, and her challenge to black women to overcome these cultural and political perceptions: get healthier and lose weight.

Is there a politics of fat, and how is fat perceived in your culture or community? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an argument that the only way to save the Chicago Cubs is to raze Wrigley Field. But first, the culture and politics of fat. Alice Randall is a novelist and writer in residence at Vanderbilt University. She joins us today from member station WKNO in Memphis. Nice to have you with us today.

ALICE RANDALL: Neal, it's great to be with you.

CONAN: And you certainly did not shy away from controversy, and let me begin by that phrase: Many women, black women, are fat because they want to be.

RANDALL: I speak and write as a novelist from my own experience and from what I observe. And I realize that in my own life I'd gotten to be way over 200 pounds, and I realized that part of the reason was that I wanted to be, for a very complex set of reasons, starting with identifying with my absolutely beautiful, big-as-three-houses grandmother. And when I thought about strength and beauty, I thought about her.

And so I chose in this new novel, "Ada's Rules," to explore those connections as I was trying to create a new body culture for myself and also explore and model with my character Ada some of the changes that other black women might want to invite into their own lives to change our body culture and shift the shape of the nation by shifting individual bodies.

CONAN: And beginning with your own. How are you doing?

RANDALL: I am under 200 pounds and very proud of that. And most importantly, I'm working what Ada calls the 8-8-8, which is walk eight miles each week, drink eight glasses of water each day and sleep eight hours each night.

One of the problems in our culture today and one of the things that has been a foundation of African-American life, particularly in this last century, is a culture of overwork, particularly for women, a culture of exhaustion, a culture of making things possible for ourselves and mainly others by working the double shift: working, you know, in your own home but then being a domestic servant in someone else's home or, as Ada does in the novel, running a daycare center and helping with elderly parents and helping with the church and helping children in the neighborhood.

This leads to exhaustion, and we're beginning to see that there is a direct correlation between lack of sleep and obesity, and there is even stronger correlation between lack - once obesity has been established, difficulties in losing weight.

So part of it, when I say that black women, we are overweight because - some of us, some of us are overweight because we choose to be, it's because for example in my life, I do make the hard choice or the choice to not get eight hours of sleep all the time, even when I know that that's necessary for weight because I think there's some important things I want to get done that don't seem to allow that.

CONAN: But you also talk about some conscious reasons. How many white girls in the '60s, you wrote, grew up praying for fat thighs? I know I did.

RANDALL: Now that is actually - that's true, and I think that that is a complex issue that - as I said, when you identify with older black women who were heavier, and when there is a cultural aesthetic in some of our community. Now, there are many cultural aesthetics in our community. We are not - African-Americans are not a monolithic culture. We are a very complex patchwork.

And there are young black women today who are being - growing up in integrated environments who are subject to many of the same pressures that majority culture European girls have experienced to be very thin. However, I was born in 1959, and the place where I was born in Detroit, Michigan, a skinny - I was a thin little girl, and people referred to me as a mosquito in a wrestling jacket.

So I personally, when I got to be 225 pounds, I realized that part of it was a complete cultural difference. When I began to lose weight - and I've just come - I traveled this morning from Greenwood, Mississippi; I taught yesterday in Ruleville, Mississippi, the home of Fannie Lou Hamer, who I dedicated my book to, a large, beautiful black woman who I said carried more than her weight more times than was acknowledged - that in Ruleville, Mississippi, today, in 2012, when my daughter, who is a sort of a size four, six, kids are - her students often tell her she looks too thin, Ms. Williams. You need to gain a little weight, or don't be drinking that water, Ms. Williams. I actually witnessed it yesterday.

But in 1960s Detroit, I also witnessed this, that the women who were prized had, as they called it, a little meat on their bones. And the first time - now I will say, and I want to say for my own self-respect, I did say to my wonderful husband, who's a lawyer, a green lawyer in Nashville, that if I could not lose 30 pounds being married to him, I was going to divorce him.


RANDALL: And it wasn't - because I have, I think all women have to take responsibility for their health and their beauty together, and to me, health is beauty, and that is also true for Ada in the novel. But I think what is exciting is we have to make these decisions for ourselves, not based on what anyone else wants.

But I do recall that when I was at Harvard, there was an African-American graduate student who I was interested in dating, and I lost a little bit of weight, and I was thinking I would even be - and he said, you're too small for me to date, you know, to date anymore. What happened to your - you know, he said it much sweeter than this, but essentially, what happened to your behind? You know, you've gotten too skinny.

So I have noticed that in parts of our culture - now this is not all of our culture - that we have different aesthetics going on. Some of it's regional, some of it's economic, but some of it is complex and Oedipal, that one of the reasons - and my husband, for example, may have bonded with his mother, who is not a small woman. And so his ideal of beauty is based on his mother and grandmother and what he saw as a boy.

And so I think that there are these cultural nuances, and as we engage the complex problem that is weight in America, right now we are spending about $174 billion a year on diabetes-related illness in America. Now, that's not a white problem or a black problem, that's an American problem. But we cannot afford not to be culturally competent when we start examining this.

Now, part of the problem is it's a multifaceted problem that needs a multifaceted solution. And one of the things that I want to bring to the table as a novelist is looking at the complexities of psychology and culture that go into decisions about weight to the purpose of creating an environment in the time of reading the novel where change, positive change, is more possible because no matter how much I might love, and I do love, I loved my large body when it was large, and I want everybody to love their body every shape it's in.

I loved my body, but with one out of every four middle-aged black women having diabetes, I had to start contemplating learning to love something very different and seeing something very different as power. And I am inviting my sisters to keep loving their large bodies while we shift them into more healthful shapes. And I want to applaud the sisters who are already there.

And this message is for all of us because obesity is becoming, you know, a - it's a dominant issue in our culture, period - black, you know, for all races. We are approaching 51 percent, depending on - the numbers vary. But it is a dominant problem in our society today.

CONAN: We're talking with Alice Randall, the novelist and writer in residence at Vanderbilt University. She discussed the politics and culture of fat in an op-ed in the New York Times. She does also in a forthcoming novel, "Ada's Rules." 800-989-8255. Email us, Let's begin with Tracy(ph), Tracy with us from Birmingham.

TRACY: Hello, I love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

TRACY: I wanted to comment. I live in the South; I live in Alabama. And I'm originally from Indiana, but I've lived here for 20 years. And there is really no pressure as an African-American woman to lose weight because, you know, I would have to agree with the (unintelligible) in our society, that in the South, that is what black men like.

I've been married for 20 years - well, almost 20 years, 19 years - and I recently had some digestive problems where I lost about 25 pounds. And I've noticed a difference in the way that my husband responds to me as an African-American woman. When my girlfriends see me, they say, oh wow, you look great, and even some of his friends that are of another race say that I look great.

But with him, he's just not as excited about the weight loss. I'd have to say that in certain areas, I'm not as excited about the weight loss either, but I feel great. I mean, I just - you know, and I'm feeling better more health-wise, too. But I do kind of miss the way that I used to look, you know, before.

CONAN: Do you think this is, Tracy, a product of region in the South, as we were hearing from some people, or is this African-American or what?

TRACY: I think it's African-American. I think it's just what we visualize as what looks good to us. We like curves, and so it doesn't bother us because, you know, we kind of get the attention, you know, that we like, but at the same time we're not as healthy as we need to be.

But there's just no pressure. I think that for white women, it is more pressure to be smaller, to be, you know, thinner.

CONAN: Sure.

TRACY: Even though they like curves, too, but I just think that in African-American, you know, culture, it's looked upon as a plus to have, you know, lots of curves. So there is no real pressure to lose the weight unless you're, like, maybe really, really, you know, obese or something like that.

CONAN: Alice Randall, the expression in the white community is you can never be too rich or too thin.

RANDALL: And I think there's an opposite expression in the black - no, community that we have always tried to find our treasure differently, frankly, that I think that our treasure - and being realistic about inner value, I think that's one of the things that black people, we come out of poverty. We come - so you cannot have a community - our community does not value money over other things.

Our community values character, and it values our women being who they are more than some ideal because if you think about it, in a culture that values white skin as a basic ideal, to be a proud black person is to be transgressive in the first place.

In a culture that said you could be owned, we even have to have oppositional ideas about law, that if the law - my grandfather said that when I was a little girl, the law said it could own my great - my grandmother. I can't but so far respect the law. And so these are - we come from a culture of a kind of defiance when we come from a culture of survival.

CONAN: Tracy, thanks very much for the phone call. More with Alice Randall on the culture and politics of fat when we come back from a short break. Stay with us, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with Alice Randall about the cultural perceptions and the politics of fat. Her opinion piece that ran in the New York Times, "Black Women and Fat," in it she called for a body culture revolution in black America. You can find a link to that piece at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

She's also the author of the forthcoming novel "Ada's Rules." Is there a politics of fat? How is fat perceived in your culture or your community? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Alice Randall is a novelist and writer in residence at Vanderbilt University, and I wanted to read this email we got from Monica(ph) in West Hartford: I'm a black woman, age 50, and I simply don't think that we are of a collective mind on issues of weight. My mother is 79 years old this week. She was born in Mississippi, raised in Indiana. She was raised on soul food, but she had a healthy understanding of moderation and exercise.

Growing up, we always had vegetables with our meals. I think that our wrong turn came with salt intake, big hypertension in our communities, and letting men define how our bodies should look for them. We did not need to get fat, it's simply a ridiculous notion to me, and I would never pass on this thinking to my eight-year-old daughter. And to be fair, Alice Randall, you said many, not all.

RANDALL: Yes, and also we have to deal with the fact that four out of five African-American women are seriously overweight. So clearly there is something complex going on. And although all Americans share this problem today, it is disproportionately represented in our community.

But - so we are also disproportionally targeted. It is a multifaceted issue. I think that, you know, the body as political expression, body as political resistance, are issues, but also the economics and the issues of being targeted economically are factors, as well as aesthetics and exertion.

I think that the unacknowledged culprit - and this was a central piece that people have not focused on in the op-ed I speak of - is exertion, over-exertion, lack of sleep.

CONAN: Let's go next to Christine(ph), Christine on the line with us from Portland.

CHRISTINE: Hi there, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.

CHRISTINE: Thank you very much for having this topic on the air. I'm a physician here, and it comes up all of the time in my practice. When you're talking to somebody about their weight, and you calculate their BMI, something we do routinely, and people are often pretty surprised to know that they would be considered obese by the, you know, by the standard - by the health standards.

CONAN: Once their BMI is over 30?

CHRISTINE: Correct, which we see all the time, and among black Americans - and I guess actually in the developing world, I would say, as well, it seems like there is an issue of poverty and class that you guys have already mentioned, and I mean I think it's something that we have to consider in the poor people especially: How do we get them healthy food? How do we get them to places where they can exercise?

And I mean, it's all about a lifestyle, a healthy lifestyle that some people are introduced to at a very young age and some people just aren't put in a position to make healthy decisions for themselves or create healthy opportunities.

CONAN: Is this more difficult across cultures?

CHRISTINE: Well, yes, I think so, I do think so. I think so in that - I mean, I would think across - I mean, I think of poverty as a culture. So you know, that wouldn't, of course, speak specifically to black Americans, but yes, I mean across a culture of poverty, yes, it would be extremely difficult to change that perception and to start suddenly transforming themselves into a healthy lifestyle. I mean, I think it's quite a challenge.

CONAN: I think - I wondered, Alice Randall, if this is your perception as well: Most people who are overweight don't perceive themselves as being overweight, as Christine was pointing out. People are startled to realize that by their body mass index they would qualify as obese.

RANDALL: As a novelist, I can only write from my own experience, and I can say that I knew, and I think that most women who are over 200 pounds know that they are overweight. And so whether or not they share that with their physicians - and I really want to say, I'm speaking from the "us," you know, that - and many physicians speak from black and white, from the "them" because they don't have this problem.

I also know - I'm a Harvard graduate. I'm married to a lawyer. I'm a professor. My own daughter went to Harvard. I have roots in the culture of poverty because I have roots in the plantation South, but I am not a poor woman, and so I had noticed intuitively that there isn't - the problem isn't simply poverty, and the problem isn't simply what is available to us.

Think - I started a book tour in Montgomery, Alabama, where my family had been enslaved, near Selma, where my problems with my family started. And I noticed that the decision for me to be able to go into the weight room was a hard decision because to me that seems to be something that to be welcome and invited into that place is essentially something you have to be a skinny white girl to do, to be honest.

But I want to change that, and my husband did go down there with me, and I was on the treadmill, and I wanted to make an invitation for any other black woman, any other large woman, to get involved in this, because I think part of it is are we being invited - are we inviting ourselves to this fitness, to the part of our culture that is a fitness culture, and who is invited to that table, who isn't.

I think we have some wonderful roots in jump-roping and hula-hooping and things - those street games that I played as a black girl in Detroit, that I want to reclaim as a woman. And so I do think that part of reinventing our culture is finding traditional things, whether it be the sweet potato and the peanut. I study food culture and soul food.

Soul food is not eating fried chicken, commercially produced, every day. That is no African-American foodways tradition. Soul food, you know, is much more rooted in the plain baked sweet potato, the plain boiled peanut. We need to claim our own roots.

CONAN: Christine?

CHRISTINE: I was just saying, and growing those foods yourself.

CONAN: Yeah. All right, Christine, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

CHRISTINE: Yeah, great topic.

CONAN: Email from Shirley(ph): As a much older black woman than you are, sorry, but I totally disagree with this. As a black woman and member of the extremely large family of black women, we definitely don't want to be fat and unhealthy. Our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers talked about the need to maintain good health.

My mother, born in 1917, was the oldest of nine sisters born in Arkansas, raised in the South - in the North, rather - and none of them were or are overweight. I think you are sending a really bad message and stereotyping a race of people.

RANDALL: Well, I have continually said that there are many, many different views about this. But with the statistic - four out of five African-American women being seriously overweight, although much of this has risen since the Second World War, their family, a family where everyone is at the proper rate, is clearly the exception.

And my point is, I'm not stereotyping anyone. We have - I've also pointed out, I said I want to be, in my family, the last fat black woman in the family. As I've pointed out, my own daughter is way under - is a small woman, and I myself am under 200 pounds now. I think what's exciting is we don't need to get into finger-pointing. What we need to be talking about, which is the best part of this discussion, is how do we share helping strategies.

And that's what Ada does in the course of the novel. She experiments with a whole range of new and old exercises, from yoga and Watsu. How do we get more black ladies doing yoga to relieve stress? That's free. How do we get our jump ropes out? I want to look out - I live in a center city, inner city neighborhood, a center city neighborhood. I want to be seeing lots of black ladies out walking at all shapes and sizes.

We - so I am - I want us all to come to the table to talk about this discussion, and that's not just for black women, it's for all people, including - China has a huge diabetes, a growing diabetes problem and obesity problem there. It's a worldwide problem in the industrial nations in the modern world.

So we need to get together at the table of figuring out what strategies we can bring together to have this cultural revolution.

CONAN: Let's get Isaac(ph) on the line, Isaac with us from Camden in South Carolina.

ISAAC: Hey, how are you today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ISAAC: So I'm a Mexican-American. I was imported in 1992 and have traveled back and forth to Mexico a good bit. I've experienced, you know, firsthand observation, mainly with my mother, as to what the impact of weight and obesity are in contrast to Latin American culture, at least the one of my family, where I live in Mexico City, to that of the United States.

My mother living in the U.S., sure, she might be a few pounds overweight but nothing under - or nothing to the degree of some of the obesity you see here in the United States. When she goes to Mexico, the reaction of my family and her friends and peers, it's like holy smokes, you've really put on a lot of weight.

I think it's kind of skewed to say it's just a black or white thing but rather that it's really an American thing, that it's Americans as a whole that are far too overweight and far too obese.

CONAN: Oh, I don't think anybody disputes that, Isaac. It was just Alice Randall's contention in her piece, in her article in the New York Times, that there are different reasons for that in different communities.

ISAAC: Well, I would agree to that, but when it comes to the United States, I think it's the fast food culture. It's, you know, the instant chocolate cakes that people so-call indulge in, but also the fact that having a few pounds overweight is now part of the social norm. And to see regularly people that are so obese that they cannot walk even in a grocery store and need, you know, an electric chair to get around, you know, that's kind of becoming not necessarily un-normal to see.

In Latin America, you don't see that. It's extremely rare to see that. You know, you talk about developing countries growing in diabetes and these health concerns, it's also because they're also now getting McDonald's and fast food chains and all these ready-made snacks and preservative-rich foods as opposed to the more natural foods that they would typically eat prior to globalization.

CONAN: Isaac, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

ISAAC: No problem.

CONAN: Here's an email from a listener: Listening to Alice Randall talk about her desire for big thighs reminds me of my own growing up as a skinny white girl in the Detroit suburbs. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I wanted to be a fat black gospel singer when I grew up. Why? Because I could see the power those women had within themselves, and I wanted some of that.

So it's not just black girls growing up who see role models in older black women, Alice Randall.

RANDALL: Well, Aretha was a big influence on a lot of different people. I also think we have to look at the everyday culture of black women not feeling often that they should put themselves at the front of the line, that we have a strong, strong sense of community. And that's how many black families survive, by focusing on community helping each other.

And so there has not been much of an - as much in all of our communities an emphasis on us taking care of our individual selves. And that's part of what I'm thinking about in writing "Ada." Ada has to try to balance these two things. And that's a challenge I've experienced in my own life, that, you know, taking care of elderly relatives, taking care of kids in the neighborhood, that - when do I have the time? When do I feel I have the right to take the time out for myself in the gym or the treadmill? By, you know, making this idea of the 8-8-8, I've put it as part of my job for my community.

Not just - I said, this is what I can do for my president. Whoever the next president is, if every person in America walks eight miles a week, the country will be easier to govern. And what I love about this, it's a grassroots re-shifting, recalibrating back to basics. And when one of the people said earlier about we can grow our own, I advocate us all putting in sweet potato patches. That's one of the things that Ada does. She starts thinking about how do we end food deserts? And I think it's something we need to all think about, not as a government program, but with self-initiative.

CONAN: Alice Randall is our guest, the novelist and writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Paul, Paul with us from Tucson.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

PAUL: I'm curious what you thought about how black men responded to this. I'm a black guy and I'm overweight too, and we're not too small either. And I don't know if you know the statistics on us. But you know, have black men who have come across your work responded in any way positively, and do you know how black men themselves are also proportionally weighted and stuff like that?

CONAN: Alice Randall?

RANDALL: As a novelist, my focus has been on black women and mothering in our communities and issues of the body, from the first novel, "Wind Done Gone," where I'm talking about what does it mean to be a slave woman, beginning a life with growing up and sex when you've been owned, to the present. I - so I'm not an authority on black men and their health issues. I have actually spent a lot of time reading about black women and this issue...

CONAN: But what responses have you gotten from black men to your article?

RANDALL: I have had a lot of positive responses. The first email I got, I think, was of a preacher saying, this is happening in my home. And he actually preached about it that day. He said that, you know, that he acknowledged his own role. He acknowledged the challenge his teenage daughter was feeling, wanting the Beyonce thighs, but also acknowledge his wife's health issues. And they were trying to do their own shifting. So I've had a lot of people sending me, yes, this is exactly my life. I have also had a couple of men who said, no, I'm a professional African-American man, and I don't want my wife to be overweight, although several of them have said my wife has been overweight. I want to say right here: I love what our brothers can do about loving women the way they are. I think that black men have done a great job.

One of the things that, you know, I want to shout out to my black brothers about loving women realistically and not being as immaturely influenced by images of models that some of the majority culture, that there's such an issue with that. And I think that that's just one of the strengths of black men, but black women have to make use of that strength in the best way and not let it cause any kind of laxity about us noticing these hard statistics of what obesity finally does. It is, you know, emerging as a leading cause of cancer.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much. Let's see if we get one more caller in. This is Leah(ph), Leah with us from Jacksonville.

LEAH: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LEAH: I'm African-American. I'm 28. I remember, as a child, I used to love juice, water, milk and, you know, soda, and my mom would take that away from me and make me eat my food. And as I've gotten older, looking at my mom and my aunts, all of which are bigger women, my vision of beauty is bigger women.

Like my friends who are smaller than me, I encourage them to eat the rest of my fries. Or if we're ever out and they're thinking, no, I'll get the salad, like, no, honey, you're 125 pounds, maybe you should get this. My view is the bigger - not the bigger, the better. But if you have a little more meat on your bones, then, yeah, you're a lot more attractive. And the same - my vision is the same for men.

CONAN: And do you battle that? Because obviously we all know it's healthier to be - lose a little bit more weight than gain a little bit more.

LEAH: Oh, goodness, yes. I'm about 10 pounds over what I consider my comfortable weight. I'm five-four. My comfortable weight is 150, but right now I'm at 160. So I'm working to get down to 150, but, I mean, in my - in the world of beauty and pressures, 150 is still considered fat. I think it's fantastic. Whereas my friends would never want to be that size.

CONAN: Well, Leah, good luck to you. Thank you very much for the call.

LEAH: Thanks so much.

CONAN: And Alice Randall, good luck in your continuing efforts.

RANDALL: Thank you. I love being under 200 pounds, and I love creating an environment of transformation. And I think that we have a lot of science out there. We have a lot of facts. We need more creativity, and we need art. And we need novels to create a safe space where transformation is more possible and that we could we look at these complex cultural issues that sometimes are hard to get down to simple numbers.

CONAN: Alice Randall joined us from WKNO, our member station in Memphis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.