Fat And Black In Hollywood

Here in America, we like our ladies thin, tall, and, preferably, blonde. Fat women don’t make it in Hollywood. No, we keep our fat women hidden in office buildings and suburban shopping malls. We—and of course I use the word “we” loosely—want our female actors, our models, our public figures of all stripes to be as gorgeous as we wish we were, as attractive as we think we’ll never be. We want our standards of beauty to be ridiculous and unrealistic and definitely unattainable. We don’t want our women fat. But you already knew that.

For the record, I should point out that I’m not entirely convinced “fat” is the correct word to use here. After all, it’s not a purely descriptive word relating only to a person’s weight or size. No, it ascribes, in a sense, a value judgment. But, for the purpose of this article, I hope you’ll join me in defining fat as corpulent. Not necessarily good or bad; just corpulent. I should also point out that the kind of “fat” I’m talking about is not in the vein of the full-figured Drew Barrymore, or the curvy Christina Hendricks, or the bodacious Scarlett Johansson. These women are not “fat,” as much as magazines may try to tell you they are the reason “fat is back in Hollywood.”

No, truly fat women don’t make it in Hollywood. Unless they are black, that is. Of the few fat women actors being cast in prominent roles or who have sustained their careers despite their weight, an overwhelming majority are black: Amber Riley, Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Queen Latifah, and, of course, Oprah Winfrey, who has been the face of fat black women for decades. While these women may have a harder time finding roles than their waify peers, there is certainly more room in Hollywood for fat black women than for fat white women. When was the last time you saw Kirstie Alley or Rosie O’Donnell wearing designer gowns and being photographed on a red carpet?

Part of why there are so few overweight women of all colors in front of the camera is because there are so few of them behind it. Women represented a paltry 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2009, according to Martha Lauzen’s annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report on the behind-the-scenes employment of women in Hollywood. That is a three percent decrease from 2001. Logically, until there are more women represented in decision-making capacities, our leading ladies—the ones who are supported by the Hollywood machine—will be the ones men are attracted to.

But why is Hollywood more accepting of fat black women than of fat white women?

My guess is it has more to do with social politics than with the entertainment industry: Black women are invisible in America. Despite the fact that women like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey are among the most public of public figures, black women make up America’s most invisible group.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat discovered that black women were the least recognizable group for white participants, in terms of both facial recognition and spoken statements. In their research, Sesko and Biernat found that participants were unable to pick out the faces of back women out of a crowd. Black male faces, on the other hand, were remembered more easily by participants, suggesting that it is not simply a racial dynamic.

In the second part of their research, Sesko and Biernat asked participants to listen to a recorded conversation between eight people (two white women, two white men, two black women, two black men). Then, they were given a list of comments pulled from the conversation and asked to match them to their correct speakers. Participants did not attribute the comments made by black women correctly, either confusing the black women for one another or crediting the comments to another race or gender.

Sesko and Biernat’s conclusion? Black women are more or less invisible in America. They are considered “interchangeable and indistinguishable” from one another, and they are more likely to go uncredited and unrewarded for their contributions. This kind of racism, albeit a subtler, unconscious form, excludes black women from the discussion of gender in America, in which white women figure centrally. But black women are also excluded from discussions of race, which tend to focus primarily on their male counterparts.

The feeling of invisibility as a black woman is one I’ve felt many times before. During my year of grad school, there were about five or six black women in my program. We came mostly from different parts of the world, did not resemble each other, and had distinct personal styles. Yet we were frequently mistaken for one another by professors and classmates. I was often mistaken for a classmate who is a foot taller, about fifteen pounds heavier, and several shades darker than I am. On at least two occasions, it took several minutes of conversation before I realized I had been confused for someone else.

And because black women are invisible, they are, for the most part, excluded from the impractical standards of beauty that plague other women in America. Black actors and pop stars with more European features, like Halle Berry or Tyra Banks or Beyoncé, are the notable exception. Black women who do not look like them have free reign to flout the ideals that would otherwise keep them as thin, tall, and as blonde as possible. And even Tyra and Beyoncé have been known to challenge criticism of their weight.

Women of color are rarely represented in mainstream media; a look through any fashion magazine or a flip through your TV can confirm that. And so, despite often being unhealthier, they are exempt from brutally comparing themselves to the idealized women they are confronted with daily in on TV, in films, and in magazines. In terms of body image, that is. (Skin color and hair texture as markers of attractiveness for black women are a beast of their own.)

But, back to our fat black Hollywood women. Unless they are lighter-skinned or mixed-race or otherwise look like white women, black women are excluded from the standards of beauty that have kept Hollywood thin, tall, and blonde over the past few decades. But that’s not because black women are more likely to challenge authority or defend their weight or show concern for reinforcing unrealistic beauty ideals. No, they can be as fat as they like because America doesn’t expect its black women to be beautiful in the first place. TC mark


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  • chris p rice

    Attainable, maybe. Sustainable, never. Then it wouldn't be extraordinary anymore.

  • JD

    Sorry but this article is so over the top, whiny, and dramatic. I don't even understand what you're complaining about. Halle berry and Beyonce are considered two of the most beautiful women in the world, by people of all races. Are they not black enough for you or something?

    • http://twitter.com/Alcords A C

      Halle Berry is half-white…the article states: “Black actors and pop stars with more European features, like Halle Berry or Tyra Banks or Beyoncé, are the notable exception”…

    • http://jolienoire.tumblr.com Jocelyn

      how does one measure “blackness”?

      • JD

        Ask the author of this article, she seems to pick and choose pretty freely to support her opinion. I don't understand why she finds it offensive that Queen Latifah, M'Onique etc are accepted in Hollywood and even portrayed as glamorous much of the time (red carpets etc.). What could possibly be wrong about that? Maybe instead she should write an article on how it's unfair to fat white women, because that would make a lot more sense to me.

        And who cares if Halle Berry is half white? Ok. Taraji Henson is gorgeous and she's “all black”… so?

      • http://twitter.com/rawiya rawiya kameir

        hey jd, i'm not saying it's offensive that there are fat black women in hollywood. not at all. what i'm saying is that the reason there are fat black women in hollywood is because black women are exempt from the beauty standards that keep fat white women out of leading roles in film and television.

      • Guest

        I definitely agree with this comment.   In Hollywood, an overweight white women would have to lose weight to get desirable acting jobs.  Black actresses, not so much.

  • jacob

    “But why is Hollywood more accepting of fat black women than of fat white women?”

    Because Hollywood knows how to take advantage of stereotypes. Most of America really doesn't care, and they (Hollywood producers/directors/etc.) know this, and they take advantage of this. I wouldn't complain. I'd praise their awful brilliance.

  • http://twitter.com/JosephErnest Joseph Ernest Harper

    I enjoyed this. But seems problematic to treat race in a binary way. Just feeling for fat Asians.

  • http://rightnetwork.com Van der Leun

    “Women of color are rarely represented in mainstream media; a look through any fashion magazine or a flip through your TV can confirm that. “

    Patently false on the face of it. Try really flipping and pay close attention to the programs AND the commercials.

  • http://twitter.com/lulabelleniche Gabrielle Bodek

    I agree with you completely Rawiyah. And I don't think you're complaining at all either. But since there is so much pressure on white women to be slender, blonde, and perfect, wouldn't it be a relief to be exempted from that pressure altogether?

  • HandsomeBlackCowboyStud

    Hmmm..Perhaps,but we lifesize Bretts-handsome black men-are VASTLY UNDER-REPRESENTED IN THE MEDIA.

  • RideThisBlackCowboy

    Beauty standards???WHAT BEAUTY STANDARDS????Queen-Size Fatifah and I are the same size-5'8'',210-220 lb.-and dollars to doughnuts Dana Owens-(Her Weighty Majesty's true name)-doesn't have 171/2'' biceps like mine.(Though she looks at least as much like a dude as Yours Truly.)GET A GRIP–AND NOT ON SOME MORE GRUB!!!-LADIES!!!

    • Piper

      Queen Latifah looks nothing like a dude. She’s a beautiful, full-figured woman. So, what if she’s overweight. It sounds like you are jealous. You could probably never get with her. I’m fat and black and tired of black men’s hypocrisy. I’ve seen black men put down fat black women and then turn around and marry fat white women. What’s up with that?

  • Firstladbrett1953

    Piper,the day I-a life-size Brett doll-i.e.,brawny-5’8″,220 lb.,18″ biceps-boyishly handsome,58-year-old black Canadian lad with a 147-165 IQ (genius level,folks!!!!)is JEALOUS of some porker like Dana Owens,aka QUEEN-SIZE FAT-IFAH-I’ll ask to be PERMANENTLY COMMITTED!!!!But you outed yourself as a typical 5’4′,250-300-lb land whale who believes we handsome black lads should fall over backwards to date/marry you.Oh well,I’ve heard a surfeit of fat cells lessens intelligence,and your reply to me proves it!!!!

  • Karsy88

    Apes have takin over

  • Chemi

    I just read this but I had a similar experience with a few people of being confused with a darker shorter woman we even have different color hair. I mean these people were talking to me thiinking that I was her and it was only after thery said something I realized they thought I was her.

  • Ducky8abug

    Melissa McCarthy’s  (from the movie “Bridesmaids” and the show “Mike and Molly)  and Brook Elliot (from the movie “What Woman Want” and the show “Drop Dead Diva”) would prove this article wrong, as well as many others I haven’t mentioned.

    Overweight women, of all ethnicities, have gained hollywood recognition over many years; and as Melissa McCarthy and Brooke Elliot would prove (to name a few), they continue to do so ’till this day.

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