Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Being Fat and Black

One of the wonderful things I remember about arriving in the United States was being led into Mama’s apartment in that newly-integrated racist building. The table was full of food, food! A lemon cake with lemon icing and lemon ice cream, among other things. We scanned the room, my sister and I, registered the faces of these happy strangers, all overflowing with love and joy at our arrival. Such sweet food. Such sweet people. That was one of my happiest memories. But it wouldn’t last long. My mother was a single mother, deathly afraid of disease and of harm coming to her children should they leave the moral path. She would whip us when we strayed, but because of her my sister and I are overachievers of the highest order.

Much of my overeating occurs when I feel overwhelmed with a dread of powerlessness against disease and powerful humans, of isolation from those who love me, and from a pressing self-loathing, and from a silencing where I feel the urge to deny or avoid certain disagreements, issues, or people.

I recently saw a news show on television. The news anchor was saying that obesity is rampant in America, especially among black women. He pretty much hinted that black women were gluttonous and would die sooner than "their white counterparts." White counterparts? The nearest thing to a counterpart of fat black women is a fat white woman. Of course the newscaster filled me with so much dread about my upcoming early demise, made me feel isolated and rejected by society, and gave me such a feeling of being morally wrong that only food could push the grief down. But it is strange how the personal family issues have melded into the cultural ones, that I now I feel powerless and unloved in the world.

Three major life events contributed and still continue to contribute to my need to comfort myself with food. They too, are connected with rejection, futility, and isolation. The first was my marriage to my husband. A good and sweet man, he is nevertheless ineffectual and when I realized that I would have to spend my life with someone who had a complacency streak and who was not a fighter, despair overwhelmed me. It did not help matters that when his mother called on the day of our elopement he told her we had not married although we had just returned from our wedding. Later, behind my back, he succumbed to the sales pitch of the realtor and bought a handyman’s special that we have never been able to fix, I became sick as soon as I entered the house – which I still live in-- and developed what later was diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Then our second son was born and was diagnosed with autism. This only added to my feelings of grief and of a life gone wrong. It also isolated me from others who tended to judge me for both the fibromyalgia and the autism

These are the reasons I overeat. Cultural pontificators are always hammering against the so-called immorality of obesity and they often leave me feeling battered. The terrified, unapproved, isolated, and unloved child now lives in the Age of Information which breeds a communal and universal rejection. The American media is so pervasive and it is often seen as a dispenser of universal "truths." But these are false truths, and the "fact" that black women are so morbidly dangerously overweight is seen as simple reportage about a simple moral issue instead of the complicated problem it is. When some pontificating health nut talks about the fat person’s need to worry about cancer and diabetes, I not only fall into my mother’s alarmist fear of disease but I feel downright unsightly and immoral and the only solution to quelling the rising despair inside is to eat.

We Americans have become survivalists of the highest most fearful order, hunkered down in our own mental bunkers. And my childhood attempts at survival and self-comfort have mingled together seamlessly into a psychological condition where I become completely stressed when I stand hiding my face in front of a bathroom mirror or when I walk, eyes down, past a storefront’s glass door.

When I was younger, Eileen – a white fellow student in Midwood High School made my life miserable bu telling me I had a mumba butt. And mumba lips. Mumba everything in fact. A couple of months ago I was speaking to my friend, Mrs Sales. Like me, she’s dark, but her classmates were primarily black. She had seen a TV show about skin color and without a moment’s warning she started crying. She said, "I never realized that thing was still with me. But I remembered being at the prom and all the guys going over to the light skin girls and no one asking me to dance."

I have friends of all colors, sizes, shapes, opinions who love me. And yet, this societal mirror thing... I just don’t want to know what strangers see when they see me. Strangers don’t know that I’m an educated black woman who fascinate and entertain her many friends. When they see me, I suspect they see a fat uneducated black woman from the ghetto. Of course this shouldn’t bother me, because these strangers are not directly involved in my life. After all, the opinions of the rich and the white and the powerful shouldn’t matter even though they rule society’s ideas.

C.S. Lewis said that grief felt like a physical pain, a pressure on the lower chest. I feel this pressure whenever a mirror or a door is nearby. I should be able to look at myself. I should not feel this bereftness, this powerlessness, this isolation. I should not walk around as if my body is a shaming accusation of how unwhite and thus how unright, ungood, unlovely I am. The old and present racial accusations should not still be shaming me. I feel that my life is an eternal loss, because I was once so beautiful but now I’ve grown even fatter. I do so many other things well. I know the truth behind what I feel. I know that God has made me wonderfully. And yet I cannot grasp it. I don’t remember this truth when I pass mirrors and doors. I keep hiding myself. It boggles the mind.
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