How the White Body-Positive and Self-Love Movement Hinges on Anti-Blackness and How We Can Stop It
Growing up, I wasn’t taught to have a friendly, loving relationship with my body despite what my parents would have wanted. Our society feeds us toxic messages about what we should look like, and how we should aspire to be a certain weight. Like many of us, I was conditioned to hate my body. But as a cis, white woman with thin-privilege, I know society affirms and accepts me, and that my body is considered the “norm” or “default.” I see myself in ads and magazines. I see myself in TV shows. Our society plasters images of thin, cis, white women all around us from cereal boxes to billboards. This glorification of thin, cis, white womanhood is a centuries old campaign rooted in an anti-fat, anti-Black ethos.
Now with the advent of body-positivity, as well as a cultural and trending focus on inclusion and diversity, we are seeing more people talk about their bodies and loving themselves at any weight, size, or shape. Of course, the only people getting amplified and centered, however, are white women. As Sydney Greene points out in her essay, “There is No Liberation for All Bodies Without the LIberation of Fat Black Women and Femmes,” white supremacy has infiltrated the movement:
The body positivity movement originally carved out a space where acceptance and self-love — which are often reserved for white, thin, fit bodies — had every right to be reserved for marginalized bodies (fat, trans, queer, disabled, of color) as well. Many body-positivity “influencers” and “activists” — particularly those with privileged bodies — have centered themselves in the movement while failing to recognize the presence of fat folks, and more importantly, the work of fat Black women and femmes, who gave those white influencers the liberation to exist in their privilege.
Too often as white women we fail to name our privilege and the people who fought for the access and benefits we have today. We cannot talk about body image without talking about anti-Blackness. Our whiteness is always present, always functioning, and the role it plays in any situation always needs to be brought to light. Otherwise, we are leaving out a key component as to how we got to where we are, and we are leaving out what it will take for all of us to achieve true liberation.
We need to constantly acknowledge the labor of Black womxn and femmes who have done the work and continue to do the work of liberating all of us. As white women we have a tendency to make it seem like we came to these opportunities all on our own, in this sort-of “bootstrap” mentality. We tend to make it seem like we got to a place of self-love or self-acceptance without those who blazed the trail from the beginning, those who had to blaze this trail because we were stranding in their way: Black womxn and femmes.
We need to plan for the long-term benefit of all, not the short-term benefit of a few. As Angela Davis provides us an in-depth look into the history of the suffrage movement in her book Women, Race, and Class, it is evident that white women have historically pushed aside and dismissed the need to center the most marginalized because our white minds are swayed by racism. Until we examine our racism and work to dismantle our internalized white supremacy, we will just be feeding into oppressive structures, and a true revolution will always be just out of reach.
Is it Really Self-love if it’s Anti-Black?
Can we get to self-acceptance and self-love if we have been indoctrinated into an anti-fat and anti-Black mentality? Am I really “body-positive” if I am anti-fat and anti-Black? If I’m not working against these oppressive forces in my psyche then I am definitely not anywhere near “body-positive.”
So, are your favorite white “body-positive” influencers talking about the fact that we have historically demonized and dehumanized fat Black womxn and femmes? Are they talking about the fact that we owned slaves, ourselves, as white women, and how we fought to protect our investment in slavery? Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers details in her newly published book, They Were Her Property, that our investment in slavery signified our white woman economic status.
Economic status plays a huge role in self-worth in our white supremacist society. We are worthy and valuable to society depending on how much property, assets, and stuff we own. In the past, the amount of Black people we owned determined our economic status. This means that our self-worth has historically been tied to the ability to control and exploit Black bodies. Self-worth that is tied to economic status like this means that our self-worth is rooted in anti-Blackness and anti-fatness.
We may not literally own slaves today, but our ancestors passed down a slavemaster mentality and we see this in the way we expect free physical, emotional, and intellectual labor from Black womxn and femmes in the form of the “mammy” or “magical negro” tropes. In her essay, “White Supremacy, Colonialism, and Fatphobia Are Inherently Tied Together,” Hess Love writes:
Fat Black women are assigned roles where other people bring “purpose” to us to determine our usefulness, never an autonomous validity. The mammy archetype which bleeds over to freudian sexual fetishism around fat Black femme bodies is another agent that makes our presence on a socio-political front more amenable for erasure and labor. Perhaps this image of impressionability is a result of how fat Black women have had to attempt to diminish themselves in order to navigate certain social and systemic scenes.
Today we see stark examples of how we white women like to control Black bodies by using the police as our personal customer service. We report Black people for just existing, just selling water on a hot day, just brushing past us in a convenience store, just grilling at a public park. The list of how many times we have criminalized Black people for simply existing is exhaustive. We cannot fail to see the links and parallels between how racism and white supremacy expressed itself in the past, how it expresses itself today, and how we play an active role in upholding anti-Blackness and anti-fatness in the body-positive movement and wellness industry in general, which is just one example of how this shows up.
We have historically used Black womxn and femmes labor for our benefit, and today we see white women like Rebel Wilson erase fat, Black womxn who started the body-positive movement. Hess Love writes,
In all of its ironies, Fat Black Women work overtime to account for our demonization and devaluation only to continue to be pushed aside even within narratives that not only involve us, but have us as their catalytic origin. Marginalizing and dehumanizing largeness is unequivocally connected with Blackness, as often times indigenous Africans, whether on the continent or internationally trafficked to be enslaved, are seen as larger, more brutish, more primitive, more able to carry profitable workloads within the intimate and overarching manifestations of capitalism.
How Can We Interrupt Our Racist, White Womanhood Legacy?
Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as Taylor Swift makes it out to be in her newest music video where she appropriates camp by centering herself, a thin, cis, white woman in a movement started and led by Black trans womxn to resist police brutality and white supremacy in all its forms.
Giving up our power is one way we can combat the forces of white supremacy, but I know this sounds scary to us. To white people it sounds like we are going to lose everything. It feels like life or death because our white fragility kicks in, our scarcity mindset kicks in, and we don’t have a healthy understanding of what giving up our power means. Giving up our power does not need to be scary.
Giving up our power can be naming racism in the moment. It can be addressing, examining, and stopping our own racist behavior and talking about it with friends and family. Giving up power can be being aware of how you carry yourself through the world, being mindful, and taking up less space. Giving up power can be giving credit to the Black folx who deserve it. When we are discussing ideas that are not our own we always need to credit who we got the idea from. Giving up power means we don’t take the job we know we don’t deserve. It means recommending and referring our qualified Black colleague or friend for the job, sponsorship opportunity, or gig. Uplift Black womxn and femmes. It’s always a good time to donate to organizations doing the work like the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
Giving up power means resisting “white solidarity” in which white folx will attempt to “keep the peace” and not call each other out on our racism. We prioritize white comfort over truth-telling as Robin Diangelo describes in this interview.
Talk about whiteness, racism, anti-blackness, and the legacy of slavery at the next family function. See what happens. Maybe it will be a pleasant conversation. Maybe it won’t. Maybe Grandma will know more than you think. My Grandma impresses me with her capacity to have conversations about race. It doesn’t have to be scary or drive a wedge between us. I think white fragility is a viciously strong phenomenon that will have us thinking in hyperbole. Really, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain when we name and work to dismantle our whiteness. This attachment to the construct of whiteness is toxic for all of us.
Holding each other accountable when we act or speak in oppressive ways weakens white supremacy, yet this is a very uncomfortable thing for us to do. Despite that discomfort, we can and must do this. It doesn’t need to be done in a punitive way. We can hold people in “compassionate-accountability.”
Healing from Internalized White Supremacy In Order to Cultivate a Self-Love That Shows Up for Everyone’s Liberation
I was first encouraged to examine my whiteness by Kenya Budd, an equity and inclusion consultant in Portland, Oregon, and she introduced me to the podcast “Seeing White,” of which spawned the question, “How attached am I to being white?” In episode part 7 of Seeing White, co-host Chenjarai Kumenyika, asks this of co-host John Biewan.
I used to think just like Taylor Swift. I thought it was going to be easy to end racism because all I had to do was not be like “those people in the south.” For much of my twenties I thought I could just blur and gloss over my internalized white supremacy and my racism by focusing on how horrible other white people were. I thought I could point the finger at them like how Taylor Swift illustrates racism and homophobia as this battle between progressive, kale-eating liberals and backwards, MAGA hat-wearing republicans. But we need to point the finger at ourselves. We also need to keep in mind that racism is not simply “bad” “mean” individuals. It is a system. It’s individual, it’s systemic, and it’s institutional all at once. Despite race being a construct, it has tangible impacts of which all white people have a role in influencing. All white people are racist by virtue of growing up in a society that treats us better and convinces us that our skin color makes us superior.
In order for me to have a truly healthy and non-toxic relationship with myself, and those around me, I have to examine and dig at my prejudices. I think it’s important for anyone who claims to be “body-positive” or “self-loving” to do this. It’s important to self-reflect on the ugly twinges we feel, but often repress. We don’t want to look at these ugly aspects of ourselves because we want to keep up this facade of ourselves as “good, moral white people.” But this binary of “good” and “bad” is a myth created out of white supremacy to hold us back from examining our deep racialized hatred. If we were to examine it then we would be closer to getting free.
What kind of self-love leaves us feeling superior and entitled?
What kind of self-love has us feeling scared to speak the truth about the reality of the world, the reality of racism, the reality of anti-Blackness and how it manifests in every aspect of our society?
What kind of self-love requires us to otherize another to feel good about ourselves and who we are? What kind of self-love is based on an identity that is wrapped up in the act of otherizing?
What kind of self-love is it if it’s rooted in belonging to a club by way of exclusion? What kind of self-love is it if it’s “rooted in the creation of aliens,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the foreword of Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others.
What kind of self-love is it if uprooting our attachment to the construct of whiteness is not at the heart of the work of healing our relationship to our bodies, as well as our relationship to one another?
When I see fat, Black influencers with large followings there is a twinge of jealousy and discomfort. I want what they have. The boldness, the fearlessness to be out and half-naked, sprawling, but I also know that I have to check these feelings and examine them because everything I experience or interpret is through my white lens. I examine my reactions and think about how whiteness is influencing them. This twinge of jealousy is not benign. It is a deep, centuries-long, intergenerationally, passed down in my DNA, hatred for free, fat, Black bodies.
My ancestors ingrained in our psyches that to be valued as a human you must be “civilized,” make yourself small, quiet, “proper,” covered up, closed off. Sprawling and being all out in the open is not how you achieve power and move up in status. You achieve power by adhering to white society’s norms and expectations.
So, this twinge of jealousy is a reaction to witnessing an expression of someone else’s self-liberation that I have held myself back from due to my subscription to whiteness. I have reflected on how my identity which is tied to my whiteness is glued to a certain way of speaking, acting, and behaving — we adhere to certain societal “norms” — and when as white womxn we witness Black womxn defying these norms we are reminded of how much we have repressed and it makes us angry, sad, confused, and upset. When we see our Black sisters thriving we have an impulse to demean them or take them down a notch. This is an insidiously violent issue of our conditioned anti-Blackness that won’t go away without constant vigilance and re-wiring of our brains.
If we examined our behaviors like this closer, we would see that this is not self-love and this is not body-positive. If we want to truly be about the work of self-love and body-positivity than we must talk about our internalized white supremacy — those twinges that we repress — and we must work every day to excavate it because otherwise it festers and grows. Healing from internalized white supremacy is an important part of cultivating a self-love that has the audacity to show up for every(body)’s liberation not just the individual.
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