Stephanie Yeboah: “Why the body positivity movement is crucial for Black women”

In an extract from her new book, Fattily Ever After, fashion blogger Stephanie Yeboah writes about why body positivity is not about boosting the confidence of people with conventionally attractive and acceptable figures.  

Body positivity is now a ‘free-for-all’ movement monetised and politicised by brands and public figures, in ways that often result in individuals above a certain size and darker than a certain complexion, being left out of the conversation. As body positivity became more mainstream, I noticed that the conversations were also most often centred around white womxn.

Arguably, much like the feminist movement, we are now at a point where body positivity has become non-intersectional and tends to constantly prioritise the thoughts, feelings, opinions, and achievements of white womxn, with a small number of ‘token’ non-white womxn being sprinkled throughout campaigns like parsley, in their ‘look at us being diverse!’ quota.

It seems that the present movement lacks direction and focus, and prioritises the thoughts, perspectives, and visibility of white, able-bodied, cisgender womxn with hourglass-shaped or smaller bodies (womxn who, let’s not forget, already fall well within society’s acceptable standards of beauty). Slimmer, white people (womxn) can love themselves loudly, quietly, or not at all, but they will almost always be seen as ‘normal’ in the eyes of society at large, regardless of if they feel normal in themselves or not.

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They will likely not experience overt or covert discrimination based on their size; neither will they face ongoing pressure to lose weight in order to be accepted. When people talk about body positivity in this way, they are looking at it from the perspectives of themselves as individuals. They want to feel confident about the way they look (who doesn’t?), and they find it hurtful to be told that the body positive movement wasn’t designed to support them. But this is not, or at least should not be an #AllBodiesMatter situation. Of course, all bodies are equally important, and I hope that everyone reading this – whether they are a size 4 or a size 30 – feels good about themselves. 

But body positivity is not about boosting the confidence of people with conventionally attractive and ‘acceptable’ figures. It’s not about logging onto Instagram and seeing a barrage of attractive, white, thin (or thin adjacent) womxn bending over as HARD as possible to create a smidgen of a micro-roll in order to prove to their thousands of followers that they too (!!) are ‘normal, real, womxn’. We know you’re normal – society knows you’re normal – and you are constantly treated as such!

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The world affords certain privileges to people whose bodies fit within the standards of beauty that society dictates we have, in order to be seen as ‘normal’. By dismissing the movement by citing ‘all bodies matter’, it glosses over the abuse, marginalisation, and ‘othering’ of unprivileged bodies that fall outside the scope of what is seen as ‘beautiful’. Instead, it is a social movement aimed at removing the prejudices that make us value some bodies more than others.

It is incredibly political, something that should not be overlooked or forgotten. And like feminism, any approach to body positivity that refuses to acknowledge hierarchies of privilege – that refuses to learn from those who are more oppressed, and that neglects to fight for those more marginalised – is missing something crucial.

Simply answered, because the Black female body (in all its shapes) has been dehumanised, mammified, hypersexualised, and fetishised since the days of slavery, by the patriarchy and by white society. If our bodies weren’t being used for comedic relief in comedies and cartoons, then they were being used as cautionary tales. Allow me to throw in a bit of history if I may. There has been a lot that has been written about surrounding the aesthetic standards for womxn during the Renaissance.

Back then, to be larger and plumper was considered to be the ‘ideal’, but it wasn’t just about the size of the womxn’s bodies. The standards would also take into account body shape. A proportional and well-rounded body was all the rage back then, and as the population of Black womxn who came to Europe as a part of the slave trade increased, the more these beauty ideals of having the ‘perfect larger’ shape were cemented in the countries that benefitted most from the slave trade. Coincidence? I think not. The population of African womxn as slaves and domestic servants in Northern and Western Europe between around 1490 and 1590 frequently led to the incorporation of Black womxn into the lexicon of what was defined as the ‘perfect female body’ at the time. 

Exclusive: read the fifth chapter of Fattily Ever After by Stephanie Yeboah
"I hope that everyone reading this – whether they are a size 4 or a size 30 – feels good about themselves."

The inclusion of Black womxn as beautiful in both fine art and aesthetic discourse wasn’t without its problems. African womxn were described as well-proportioned and curvy, and consequently viewed as physically appealing, yet the discourse about Africans suggested that their distinctive facial features made them facially unattractive. Adding to that their servant-status, Black womxn at the time were further denigrated. Despite their reputation as ‘well-formed beauties’, their African faces and slave status set them apart from their high-status European counterparts. This would continue for hundreds of years, and eventually would cause Italian and French scholars to take it upon themselves to examine the Black, female body.

’Why is it that the Black, plump body is deemed as desirable? There must be something wrong or alien involved, therefore we must study them, TBH’. Definitely paraphrasing there, but I’d like to think that that was running through their heads when they decided to prod, poke, and dissect the bodies of Black womxn, in the name of ‘research’. 

A hugely popular example of this is the tragic tale of Sara Baartman. The tale of Sara is one that myself and other black womxn have heard growing up, told to us by family members or lightly spoken about during Black History Month. However, as I got older, I began to do more research online on Sara and her tragic life, and what it meant for other Black womxn like her living through an era where Black womxn were seen – and treated – as less than human.

Image: Kaye Ford Photography

Fattily Ever After by Stephanie Yeboah (Hardie Grant, £12.99) is out now

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