Notes on Pride

Fearing the Black Body (Sabrina Strings)

June 5, 2021
Houston 2011. One of the first semi-romantic bits of small talk I remember a man trying to make with me in a club started and ended with “you have a cute face, but you should do some more cardio.” At the time, I was not amazed and awestruck, by what he said. Honestly, I’ve heard worse about my body from Aunties while growing up. What struck me was his entitlement to say anything at all. My presence in line at a crowded bar waiting for my corona (JUDGE ME NOT!) was somehow an invitation, access to my body like it was an open source, free access document for him to register his own grievances. It was that entitlement to fat bodies that was so striking to me. What is often framed as “a preference” or “polite advice” is actually part of a longer history of entitled access to the bodies of black people (esp femmes) rooted to longer and older histories of oppression like slavery and racial science. These moments are also a reminder that queer pride and liberation means nothing if fat liberation isn’t also on the table.

“Repeatedly, scholars have shown that the fear of fatness commonly targets low-income women of color, and especially black women. These and other scholars...have shown that black women’s bodies have long been treated as “excess.” (5)
“Racial Scientific rhetoric about slavery linked fatness to “greedy” Africans. And religious discourses suggested that overeating was ungodly.” (6)

In the United States, fatness became stigmatized as both black and sinful. And by the early 20th Century, slenderness was increasingly promoted in the popular media as the correct embodiment for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant women. Not until after these associates were already in place did the medical establishment begin its concerted effort to combat “excess” fat tissue as a major public health issue. In this way, the phobia about fatness and the preference for thinness have not, principally or historically been about health. Instead, they have been one way the body has been used to craft and legitimate race, sex, and class hierarchies (6).

By taking us through the history of the fat body from the renaissance through the 21st century, Fearing the Black Body demonstrates that medicalized discourses of anti-fatness are not rooted in health consciousness, but longer anti-black histories like chattel slavery, racial science, and the ongoing devaluation of black femmes. Thus, contemporary fatphobia is not benevolent, is not a benign preference, and is misaligned with any project that imagines queer/black liberation. Anti-Fatness is a measured, studied repetition of other forms of violence and domination that we (at least pretend to) consider unacceptable. Strings’ book challenges us to remember that if #AllBlackLivesMatter and #LoveIsLove then any queer spaces that promote anti-fatness also reassert the very logics of domination (anti-blackness, sexism, etc) that they purport to refuse. Finally, as Strings demonstrates in the shifting aesthetics between the renaissance and now (the transition from celebration of Rubenesque white women’s bodies to the present denigration of all fat bodies, especially black/femme fat bodies) body positivity is a thin framework based on taste and individuated feeling rather than an ethic of care and acceptance. Instead, fat liberation, the acceptance and celebration of all bodies as valid, offers a more robust framework for queer world making. As Strings’ book provocatively reminds us, gay, trans, black, fat or otherwise, none of us are ever going to get free if we are held up to antiquated notions of “normalcy” or “normal bodies.”