Do Women of Color Get a Plus Size Pass?

by CeCe Olisa

People often assume that because I'm black, I get some sort of "plus-size pass" where no one body shames me or treats me differently because of my size. If at some point all black girls in the world were given this elusive plus-size pass, I must have been sick that day, because I never received mine. For whatever reason, this bizarre idea is paired with the myth surrounding women of color — you know, the myth that we don't have body image issues. People assume that being confident at any weight or size isn't something we have to work for. I've literally had moments where I've opened up to non-black friends about my body insecurities, only to have my emotions brushed off. There was even an article in The Washington Post claiming that Black women are happier at a larger size. It took the subject on from a somewhat scientific perspective and came to the same conclusion I hear all the time: Black and Latina women don’t have a hard time if they’re big.

Um. I'll be blunt. That's simply not true.

In my opinion, no racial group gets a plus-size pass, but I think we all battle with certain body assumptions based on race that are completely unfair. As a plus-size black woman, I'm often hyper-sexualized or completely de-feminized by the opposite sex. Dudes either assume that I'm a desperate fat girl who will take any man who gives her attention, or they punch me in the arm like I'm a fellow bro, because I'm seen as a more masculine figure due to my size.

There is no middle ground to my femininity, and that is frustrating.

Last week, I delved into the subject of how people perceive you if you're both big and black on my personal blog. I shared a few of my experiences in the "happy" intersection of race discrimination and size discrimination. And I got some responses from readers who were truly surprised that I, as a black woman, had a hard time growing up plus-size. They understood that being a fat kid, a fat teen and a fat woman can be hard on a girl's self-esteem, but they assumed that because of my skin color, my road to self confidence and body love must have been paved with gold.

As a black woman, I sometimes feel that my body is held to an odd, hypocritical standard that is hard to understand, even thought its part of my culture. I recently lost 55 pounds, and people started warning me not to get "too skinny." That may sound like a liberating thing to hear — but at the very same I was also hearing that it's cute to be a "thick" girl but not a fat one. What exactly does "thick" even mean? How do I know if I've achieved proper thickness? Anyone else seeing the paradox?

In other words, I'm supposed to avoid getting skinny but I'm also supposed to avoid getting fat. I have to "stay thick," but again, not fat. Oh, and my thickness has to be in the "right places," i.e. the bust, hips and maybe the legs. A lot of the cultural pressure I feel to have a certain body is based on things that I can't control, like my waist-to-hip ratio or how big my bum is. So maybe mother nature is holding my plus-size pass hostage. I must have pissed her off in another life.

None of this seems easy to me. If anything, it seems confusing. My observation is that our cultures and racial backgrounds don't make things any simpler, but rather, they offer each of us different ways to cope.

I have a vivid memory of a chubby white girl at my summer camp looking in the mirror and saying, "I hate being fat... but at least I have blonde hair and blue eyes!" In that moment, she used her cultural standards of beauty to validate herself and to find beauty in herself. And in that moment, I felt that if I were white with blonde hair and blue eyes, it would make my chubby life easier.

I think it's important to accept that women of color have the same body image struggles that everyone else experiences. Do I have my days when I feel like I'm Beyoncé? Sure! But I also have days when I feel like I want to hide my body. And I need for those feelings to be validated — not belittled.

Assuming that black and Latina women are immune to body image issues leaves the door wide open for things like undiagnosed eating disorders. Studies actually show that doctors tend to not recognize eating disorders in women of color. So I'll repeat: It takes medical professionals longer to diagnose patients of color who exhibit symptoms of an eating disorder than it takes them to diagnose white patients. And we'd be remiss not to acknowledge that this is probably largely due to the stereotypes surrounding being larger as a person of color.

These plus-size pass rumors are dangerous. All women, including women of color, have body image issues. All women, including women of color, have to work to become confident in the skin they're in.

For me, that confidence came when I took my body image into my own hands. I started eating well and working out — not because I hated my body, but because I loved it. Its an awesome feeling to have my confident days outnumber my not-so-confident days. Because loving myself at any size is the best plus-size pass ever.

Images: CeCe Olisa/Soho Mafia/Lydia Hudgens; Giphy