The United States is not a particularly thin nation, any more than it is a particularly honest one. Consider, for instance, that according to the Centers for Disease Control, about 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. And yet, at the very same time, notions of thinness are imposed upon us in such a way that overweight people are needlessly dying from stigma and cruelty. I take up space. From her perspective as a black woman and his as a black man, Gay and Laymon both lay bare many of the similar if distinctly gendered struggles of being large, black and considered too smart for their own good.
In the early twentieth century, Americans began to stigmatize fatness and engage in purposeful exercise in search of thinness, health, and beauty. Historians, however, have excluded black women from this story. This article considers the relationship between notions of beauty, fatness, black womanhood, and the physical culture movement—a white-led fitness campaign that took place between and the s. It argues that middle-class black women used physical culture to promote their ideals of beauty and the slender black female body at a time when thinness held new civic and political meaning. From the turn of the twentieth century, middle-class blacks began to reject fatness and encourage black women to slim down, beautify, and enhance their bodies through purposeful exercise.
FOUR out of five black women are seriously overweight. One out of four middle-aged black women has diabetes. What we need is a body-culture revolution in black America. Chemically, in its ability to promote disease, black fat may be the same as white fat.