Curvaceous. Shapely. Voluptuous. No, you pervs, I’m not about to post a personal ad. These are just a few of the lovely terms that have come to be associated with us not-so-skinny people. I won’t call them euphemisms for fat because, despite my many self-effacing statements to the contrary, I don’t really think of myself as fat. Even though I might wish I could wear clothes one or two sizes smaller, I’m pretty confident in my sexuality, intelligence, and self worth. And that, in and of itself, is apparently an amazing thing coming from a black woman in her mid-30s who is fully immersed in mainstream (read: predominately white) culture.
Still, it came as a surprise to me to learn recently that for years studies like this and this have shown that African-American women generally have higher self-esteem than Caucasian women. (Apparently this is a well-known truism among white women, demonstrating a certain “grass is always greener” effect.) Socio-economic status plays a small role in the development of a women’s self-esteem, these studies tell us, but more important is the input of those in a woman’s circle of influence—friends, family, neighbors, as well as the perceived aesthetics of the men that they are trying to appeal to.
So, to follow with lots of sweeping generalizations here, the theory goes that African-American women believe that African-American men prefer larger, rounder women, so they are more comfortable being heavier. (This somehow never addresses how the skinny black women feel about themselves, but perhaps that’s another story.) The ’round-the-way girl doesn’t feel bad about filling out those jeans in all the right places because it will always catch a brother’s eye. In turn white women are supposed to believe that white men prefer really thin women, which can lead to often unhealthy machinations to be that ultra-thin woman as well as feelings of inadequacies. (Like most things in America, the studies focused on African-Americans and Caucasians, to the exclusion of other ethnicities, but if you were to continue that thought across ethnic lines, Latina and Asian women would be content to fulfill the standards of beauty that are the norms for their culture. These standards consist not only of body size, but also complexion, hair “quality,” color, length, etc.)
But, besides the fact that all men don’t neatly fall within such prejudicial racial lines, recent progress in terms of racial intermingling can cause all that alleged healthy black self-esteem to dwindle. What if a woman wants to date across ethnic lines and she doesn’t happen to be that other group’s preferred physical type? (In other words, if a black woman happens to be attracted to white men, is she just out of luck if her body is of the bootyliscious variety? Or, more to the point, does she perceive herself to be?) A new fly in the race ointment, as it were, is that as technology and advertising condense our world into one global village, so do they also streamline our ideas of beauty and play on these internal prejudices while adding new ones, like body size. The standards of the smaller community fall to those of the seemingly more powerful one.