Like a lot of American women growing up in the fat free-soaked 1990s, I put myself on my first diet when I was in elementary school. Even though I’m black, I’ve assumed a role in the general American woman body issues narrative, until seeing Black Panther changed everything.
I had never read the comic, but overhearing the premise “imagine Africa if it had never been colonized” was enough to convince my world-weary self to by presale tickets for the movie. Nestled in a Harlem movie theater seat with a an assortment of movie snacks of variable nutrition values, I was prepared to be amused by special effects and a joke or two at a colonizer’s expense, and I got those gems and so much more. For the first time in my recent memory, I got to see black women celebrated simply for being strong.
Black Panther wasted no time leaping into action scenes, but it was when Nakia, who is played by Lupita Nyong’o, and Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, fought off Claw and his crew in a swanky South Korean speakeasy that I sat up straight in my movie seat. I watched in awe as these women fought off the bad guys with bona fide strength, without requisite sexiness. The camera captured the powerhouse kicks and lunges, the grunts and exclamations. Their toned physiques were in use, unbothered with any overt display of cleavage, abs, or any other sexy signifier.
It’s no secret that women’s bodies, in film and in society as a whole, are viewed as sexual objects. This is true for all women, and especially true for black women. During slavery, our bodies were viewed as vehicles for extreme labor or sexual violence, and most times, a painful combination of the two. Hundreds of years later, our options for body image representation are just as polarized. Mainstream media portrays us as either outrageously sexy or hopelessly unhealthy. We’re asked to twerk over to the video vixen corner or to become society’s cautionary tale for consuming too much sugar.
Stereotypes are perpetuated by the patriarchy for women of every race, and black women are certainly no different when it comes to the reluctant acceptance of limited roles we’re told to pick from. It’s commonplace to find some black women wearing waist trainers at the gym that literally readjust our internal body parts while also doing bicycle crunches to achieve the animated proportions the patriarchy has deemed desirable. Or we skip the waist trainers and the gym and the flat tummy tea altogether by accepting white America’s narrative that our bodies are inherently unhealthy. We accept the lies that we’re lazy, inactive, and we resolve ourselves to being poster children for diabetes, high cholesterol, and a host of other chronic conditions ironically associated have annual 5K races.
Watching beautiful frames of Wakanda as T’Challa and Nakia walk amongst a thriving black society, I found myself wondering again, what if Africa had never been colonized? What if we had never been enslaved and told to survive on the discarded parts of animals or old cornmeal? What if we hadn’t been forced to make what we’ve come to know of and depend on soul food? What if black communities had never been targeted by junk food ads? What if we never needed terms like “food desert” because fruits and vegetables were just as plentiful as popcorn, candy, and other movie snacks?
Women in Wakanda were revered and respected as equals. It was a chilling look at strong black women if, through colonialism, the modern manual for degrading our bodies hadn’t been defined by white men and fine-tuned by black men. How different of a movie experience would Black Panther have been if T’Challa slapped Nakia’s butt or if W’Kabie was distracted by Okoye’s slo-mo sexy run? How different that would have been, and yet, how familiar it would have felt? I might not have even noticed the difference.
Throughout all the diets, I’ve never aspired to be thin. Fashion magazines with gaunt white women never made me yearn for a more discernible clavicle or hip bone because they were so different from my black self anyway. Taking a closer look at my historical aspirations, I wanted to have the power of Dominique Dawes doing a pirouettes on the uneven bars. I still think of the most popular girl in high school. I was in awe of her body—strong broad shoulders, svelte legs, and abs that didn’t flow over her belt like mine did. I’d always been athletic and active enough, but it wasn’t until college that I really started taking care of my body. Running miles across Lubbock’s endless paved roads, eating more fruits and vegetables than the cereal and fried foods always available in the dorm cafeteria. By the time I graduated college, I was beginning to look as strong and confident as I’d always known myself to be.
“Jennifer you know, you are very, um, how do you say, strong,” my coworker said while assuming a bodybuilder stance. We were in our cluster of cubicles at my first job out of college. This coworker was still mastering the English language, but somehow found just the right word and gesture combination to sow a seed of doubt in my psyche that remains today. He wasn’t complimenting my body. He was suggesting that something was wrong with it. That it was too strong and not feminine enough. The same sentiment would be echoed from a romantic partner, who even joked that I could pass as a hermaphrodite. These men stand out in my mind, because despite all of the resolve and self-confidence I possess, their words have stayed with me. Year after year, I’ve worked out less consistently. I still run the occasional half marathon, but I’ve stopped prioritizing maintaining my health. I don’t blame them for the incremental decline completely, but I know that their words caused a switch in my understanding of how I should look. Strong but not too strong.
It’s impossible to talk about the image of strong black women in mainstream media without talking about Serena Williams. She has received just as much criticism for her body as she has praise for her unparalleled success as a tennis player, if not more. The public’s fascination with Serena’s body swings on a pendulum. In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, Anne Helen Petersen cites the Daily Mirror as it unknowingly captured this pendulum swing by positing, “Is her unique figure the sexy, athletic look that every woman wants and every man lusts after? Or is it an over-worked masculine turn-off?” Written in 2003, the article was entitled, “Sexy… or Scary? Serena Sets Off Hot Debate.”
Serena received a lot of body positivity praise for gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, a magazine that typically showcases classically thin women. Bossip published the unfinished photos with the headline, “Cakes: Serena Williams Puts Her SI Swimsuit Modellin’ Buns on Blizzy,” a Bossip-y nod to a body that doesn’t need retouching to be praised. Many in the comments section did not extend such a nod. Comments like:
Sorry to say but many people (men) will look at all the women and compare their beauty. They will see Serena (athlete) who is more muscular/ non-model and see her as less attractive.
This and the many comments like it are sober reminders that the scrutiny of women’s bodies knows no racial boundaries.
When Nakia and Okoye were fighting to save Wakanda, W’Kabie didn’t turn around to her and say “Nakia has a pretty, pleasant face. Okoye does not, and if she had light skin, she’d still have the same manly features and she still wouldn’t be attractive.” This is how one Bossip commenter managed to stack several dysfunctional issues in a seven layer dip of ignorance by comparing Nyong’o to Guira. Even in predominantly black media spaces, our bodies are held to specific sexualized standards.
“She likes to take care of her body,” a close family member said, observing me as I returned to my hotel room after a run. We were gathered for a wedding, our giant family taking up most of the hotel’s second floor. This family member went on to say, to no one in particular but directed at me with a certain passive aggressiveness that Southern black people have perfected, “God gives you everything you need… shouldn’t have to do all that.” This family member implied that I was ungrateful for the body God has given me. Or that I’m focused on my body for vanity when I could be more focused on the holy ghost.
Be strong but not too strong. Take care of yourself but take what you can get. Be sexy, but you’ll probably be another slob. After more than thirty years of listening to these conflicting messages, it’s a wonder I haven’t taken a bat to municipal utilities like Beyoncé in the Hold Up video. And if it hadn’t been for Black Panther, perhaps busted fire hydrants would have been imminent. Men have projected their ideals for how women should be for thousands of years, so I don’t expect their perceptions to change overnight. And frankly, they don’t have to. I saw myself on the big screen—the strong black woman that I am, and the stronger black woman I aspire to become.
Feature image of Lupita Nyong’o © Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Photograph of Serena Williams © Edwin Martinez via Creative Commons.