Like many black women, [Michelle] Gibson describes her 5-foot-4, size 14-plus physique as “thick,” and considers herself ultra-feminine—no matter what the mainstream culture has to say about it.
She’s one of the most full-figured women in the gym, but she’s in love with her body. And it’s a sentiment that syncs perfectly with a recent survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation that focused on African American women. The poll found that although black women are heavier than their white counterparts, they report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.
This is not news to Gibson or the other women in her morning boot camp class. They grew up listening to songs like the Commodores’s “Brick House” and hearing relatives extol the virtues of “big legs” and women with meat on their bones.
The notion that all women must be culled into a single little-bitty aesthetic is just one more tyranny, they say. And black women have tools for resisting tyranny, especially from a mainstream culture that has historically presented them negatively, or not at all.
Freed from that high-powered media gaze, generations of black women have fashioned their own definitions of beauty with major assists from literature and music—and help from their friends.
At this gym in Capitol Heights at the crack of dawn, and in myriad other places, that thinking has made black women happier with their bodies than white women in many ways. And in some ways, it’s put them on the slippery slope toward higher rates of obesity.
Gibson, who says she’s over 150 pounds but under 200, has been plus-sized most of her life. And it took time to come to terms with that.
“High school is where I started to realize I was different,” said Gibson, who was captain of the cheerleading squad at Suitland High School. “My quads were big, I had these boobs, and I had a butt. Not only that, I was dark with short hair. That’s when I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Either I’m going to go with it, or I’m going to go against it.’ I always went with it.”
Doctors have long told her she needs to lose weight—30 or 40 pounds, according to their charts. She’d be cool with 15. She tried weight loss programs such as Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem in years past, but “I came to realize that I have to have some freedom to eat.”
Instead of fixating on shedding weight, she focuses on being fit and healthy and finding her joy in that: “This is how I’m genetically designed, and I’ve accepted that.”
And though she’s never married, she contends she never lacks boyfriends, black and white. “Men have always said to me, ‘You’re not fat, you’re p-h-a-t fat.’ And when I’m not teaching, I’m all girl.”
According to the Post-Kaiser poll, which offers the most extensive and nuanced look at the lives of black women in decades, 28 percent of black women say that being physically attractive is “very important,” compared with 11 percent of white women. White women were more likely than black women to say being attractive was “somewhat important.”
Gibson’s mission is to get women to embrace their size but to work toward being fit. She preaches acceptance but says white fitness professionals often seem almost resentful of her confidence.
“If I were this plump, meek person doing the same thing I do, I think they would embrace me.”