This essay was guest edited by Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle-based Writer, Speaker and Internet Yeller. Her work on social issues such as race and gender has been published in The Guardian, The Stranger, Washington Post, ELLE Magazine, NBC News and more. She has been the Editor at Large at The Establishment since 2015. Her NYT bestselling first book, So You Want To Talk About Race, was released January 2018. Ijeoma was named one of the Most Influential People in Seattle by Seattle Magazine, and one of The Root's 100 Most Influential Americans in 2017. To see the other essays in this series, check them out here, here, and here.
My grandmother must have bought no less than 80 heads of cabbage at the store that week. I was 10 and it was my job to put away the groceries. It was an impossible task, my tiny hands trying to keep the leafy green and purple heads from toppling back out of the refrigerator like victims of a clean, swift guillotine swipe.
My first diet was the cabbage soup diet. Two weeks of cottage cheese and dry wheat toast for breakfast, boiled eggs and plain tuna for lunch, and endless nightly bowls of cabbage soup for dinner. It was my grandmother’s idea and my aunt and I—the two other people in the house and neither of us old enough to buy our own groceries—were unenthusiastically along for the ride.
Grandma was a full woman, as were almost all the women in the Taylor family (save an exceptionally tiny cousin, who clearly inherited someone’s skinny genes). We had juicy thighs, high-sitting wide backsides, birthing hips, and round, ripe breasts. We were big, and our relationship with our bigness was a perpetual Cirque du Soleil act. To this day, I am fascinated by how we all managed to walk the tightrope of being an “acceptable” kind of big without getting “too big.” We were never trying to get thin enough to pass muster with Western beauty standards. After all, we were big, dark-skinned black working-class women. We already understood that the commonly recognized kind of “ideal” was a building for which there was no entry for our big, dark womanhood. By virtue of birth, our bodies were—and would always be—outsiders.
But the cabbage soup diet and the myriad others that followed over the years told me we were trying to maintain our access to the building of “acceptable” in the black community, the one that’s at least adjacent to the one of “ideal” that was built by white society, that one we’d never be allowed to enter. In grandma’s neighborhood of booming bass systems and black latchkey kids, it was okay, even desirable, to be THICK. Thick was the house next door to the westernized body ideal. In the house of thickness, we were allowed the grace of some meat on our bones. A black girl was supposed to have a big booty, supposed to have hips and thighs. It was not only acceptable, it was desirable. Part of this preference for thickness was a longstanding tradition of black and African culture, but it was also reinforced by the crack cocaine ‘80’s, which devastated the black community and stigmatized all of us, even if we never even tried it. Being too thin was synonymous with the zombie addicts of our streets. And so it was, I grew up balancing contradictory expectations—trying to maintain a body that was just big enough to distance me from the thief of crack addiction that had stolen so many lives in the community. One needed to be big enough to hold all that black womanhood was supposed to be; lover, cook, therapist, mama, freak, co-conspirator, messiah, savior, martyr, while never getting too big. Metaphorically. Physically. I was to never get fat.
Fat was still, even in this house of acceptable and desirable thickness, an unwelcome guest. Fat was not thick. Fat was evidence that you could not control yourself in the face of all that the world had asked you to hold. It revealed your secret: That you could not be everything to everyone at all times. No one forgives black women for such trespasses, for failing to be the only things we have been told makes us worthy.
And so, I would spend years dieting. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, the grapefruit diet, Atkins, SlimFast, Alli, Olestra, Dexatrim, Ephedrine. There are more, whose names I do not recall. I have never really let myself list all the ways I have tried to hold the line, to keep fat outside this barely standing house. I am not supposed to tell. Black women love their bodies. The black community celebrates big bodies. For every dollar I spent, every hour I wasted on trying to balance on the precarious ledge of “not too big,” there’s a ghost haunting the walls of the house of the thick black woman.
Today, I am fat. It happened while I was out living and not dieting. My family’s hourglass genes have secured (at least for now) my status as “acceptably fat.” I am old enough for a certain amount of fat to be expected on my body. But my lack of motherhood nullifies the partial justification my age might have afforded me if I’d also carried and born children. I haven’t actually earned my fatness by offering my body as the vessel for another body. The intersection of weight, age, gender, and race gives us so many rules about our bodies, what permissions they are given, and which will be stripped away.
I didn’t stop dieting until I started asking myself why I was doing it. For whom was I denying my own real hunger? Who built this house adjacent to worthy, and why was I trying so desperately to live in the second-rate shack of acceptable? Who was holding the key to the big house and what did they gain by keeping me and so many others out? Did I even want to live there? These questions kept me stirring. I was chewing on them. They made me hungry. They made me eat. This work I do, of loving myself radically, has created a human bulldozer. I spend my days trying to collapse the walls we have built around acceptable bodies. These walls that have only ever shrunk us, spiritually even more than physically. I am remembering my grandmother at 55, eating cabbage soup, trying to fit into some house other than her own. Even at 83, my grandmother, who lives in a nursing home, still gets compliments when she loses a few pounds
Even there , when shrinking is the opposite of living, we throw it a parade. Today I am big enough to hold a black womanhood whose existence need not be defined by any obligation to be desirable enough, servile enough, or self-sacrificing enough to be valued. The walls of the house I used to occupy were built to keep me subservient inside and to keep my own true self outside, ceaselessly beholden to every need but my own. The house I want to live in is expansive. It is a house in a world without boundaries, without acceptable bodies. When I stopped dieting I finally had the space to try to build this vision, a vision for a world where this house, right here in this body I have today, is always home enough.
Sonya Renee Taylor is the founder and Radical Executive Officer of The Body is Not An Apology, a digital media and education company promoting radical self-love and body empowerment as the foundational tool for social justice and global transformation. Sonya’s work has been seen, heard, and read on HBO, BET, MTV, TV One, NPR, PBS, CNN, Oxygen Network, The New York Times, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, and many more.