The other day, Whitney asked me to share my experience of growing up skinny. Well, it’s sort of unique. So after reflecting on where I’ve been and where I am now body image wise, Alex, Whitney and myself decided to make it a separate post. Hopefully through us sharing our individual stories you can see how growing up as a black female in the South molded our image of what was sexy when we were children.
I was born and raised in Dallas, TX but spent many summer vacations at my grandparents’ house in Louisiana. Most folks would probably say I was a boney kid. However, everyone in my family was rather large. We eat all of the time. When somebody was born we got together and eat. When somebody died we got together and eat. When somebody got out of jail, we got together and eat. If there was an occasion, we were going to eat. My aunts would joke about me being skinny and not wanting a second portion of food. I never took it to heart but there were times I wondered was I the only one that gets full from one plate of food?
O’Conner Family circa 1990. That’s me squished in the middle
I love my family!
As I reflect on my childhood I don’t remember ever having any body image issues. Based on how I saw men react to shapely women(even my own daddy), I developed the belief that being big was in. At least in my family. My mother was large when she met my dad. They’ve been married 36 years and I’ve never seen where her size was a big issue. I remember one time my grandaddy saying “Ain’t nothing wrong with having a little weight on you. It gives you cushion for the pushin’!” I was about 10 years old and had no idea what he was talking about. Being big was even in the songs I listened to (when my mom was not around). I remember popular songs with lyrics like Gimme dat donkey butt and them big ole’ legs! I ain’t to proud to beg!
I remember the first day of school of my eighth grade year walking through the school doors and a little mannish boy saying “Monisha, you still ain’t got no booty and <foul word for breasts>! Hahaha!” My feelings were bruised a little bit but I don’t think I was seriously hurt by it. He was missing one of his front teeth (the grown one) and I thought he was very dumb anyway. I know that’s mean but that was my logic for not letting his words hurt me.
I’m in the 7th grade in the picture. I actually thought the strings on my glasses were cool. LOL
I recall hearing boys look at some girls and say things like “Dang, she got a big ole booty!” “I want to go with ____ because her booty is big.” I heard similar comments in high school and the girls deemed as “fine” by the boys did indeed have shapely hips, thighs, and backsides. I had none of these but it really didn’t bother me to where I had low self-esteem. I just knew that I was not going to be the girl that people asked to go out with. And for the most part it was true. I don’t remember ever viewing myself as ugly but I don’t remember viewing myself as super gorgeous or what I felt was in popular demand. My ninth grade year, I had the pleasure of being a watergirl for the Freshman and JV Football team. Not only did I get the low down on who was allegedly doing who but I also got to ear hustle on the guys talk about who they thought was fine, aight, and built nasty (bad). And of course most of the people these dudes would want to pursue were either thick or if they weren’t had a top of the line wordrobe to compensate for their un-fine body. My name never came up. But once again, I didn’t care. I found their talk very entertaining and was glad I was never the butt of one of their jokes.
My Senior Year of High School
College was a whole different story. While enrolled at the University of New Orleans, I went from 155 pounds my Freshman year to weighing 188 pounds the summer of my Senior year. The red beans and rice Mondays and catfish Fridays got the best of me. Due to a non-active lifestyle, the pounds stacked up quick. But to my surprise I wasn’t viewed as fat, I was “thick”. One day, while walking on campus a dude called me “Big Fine” and I was confused because no one had ever associated me with being big before. I guess he thought I was offended. He went on to explain that he was giving me a compliment and it was not like he was calling me fat. He said being thick is when you are shapely and everything still has form to it. For example, the hips are curvy, the butt is round and the boobs are full. A thick girl can have a little gut because that comes with the territory. But fat is when it all looks sloppy. For example, the hips are square or oddly shaped, the butt is more of a block or lumpy look, ankles are swollen, boobs are more flapjack like instead of full, and/or the stomach protrudes over one’s waistband. Don’t kill the messenger. I’m just relaying how thick vs. fat was explained to me by this guy. It might have been me but after that day I noticed guys approaching me and referring to me being shaped nice or right. Nice and right? So I guess being skinny or having a flat butt and no hips makes your shape mean and wrong.
My junior year of undergrad. Were Kangols even in? LOL
During the summer of my senior year of undergrad, I studied abroad in the rural town of San Ramon, Costa Rica. Universidad de Costa Rica sits atop of a steep hill and we had to walk uphill to school everyday. In addition, my host family cooked fresh foods and meats everyday. As a result of clean eating and daily hillwork, I went from 188 pounds to 148 pounds that summer. When I returned back to New Orleans, people treated me as if I had a secret drug problem. I remember the guy I was interested in at the time came to visit me and when I opened the door, he screamed “Nooooooooo!” with his hands on his head. He then asked me “Why did you lose your fine-ness?” That was my first experience with a guy insinuating he preferred me larger than skinnier. I didn’t let on that I was upset by what he said but I was highly upset by it. It wasn’t like I had let myself go and gained weight. I lost weight, the healthy way!
This is a picture from grad school when I was fasting. But this is exactly how I looked when I returned from Costa Rica.
Over the next five years I maintained a slim figure never getting back the shape I had in undergrad. And once again I noticed an increase in people asking me did I eat or how often did I eat. Female colleagues would jokingly tell me they couldn’t stand me when they saw me order food. Deep down inside I felt they weren’t joking. There were times when I felt like I was on display in the break room. I would always end up answering questions about what I do and don’t eat.
When my aunt died of illnesses related to poor eating and lack of exercise, I hit the gym hard. I slowly built up a regular workout regimen that eventually led up to me running my first 10K. Right after that, I decided I wanted to train for a marathon. At the time I was dating a guy and I decided to share my desire to run a marathon with him. His response caught me off guard “Do you know how marathon runners are shaped? Do you really want to be that skinny? You’ll lose so much weight.” I would have thought with him having served in the military and being in shape, he would have been pumped. Boy was I wrong. He went on to ask me did I know any distance runners. I didn’t know any marathoners at the time but I’m glad I didn’t believe him or listen to him. I’ve been distance running for two years now, and it has given me a curvy lean figure that I enjoy looking at. LOL. I’m not skinny. I’m not thick. I’m not fat. I’m not even sure what my figure would be described as. But one thing is for sure, I love the way I look. Most importantly, I love the way I feel: FIT.
Striking a pose before I run the Rock N Roll New Orleans Half Marathon. March 2012
So why are Black women fat? There are a million ways we can answer it from ancestral, to cultural, oppression, rah rah rah. Once we agree to disagree as to why we are fat I think the real question we should ask next is After all of the research that has been conducted over the years, why are Black women still fat? or After seeing my friend(s) or family member(s) dying or die from diabetes, hypertension, heart failure or other illnesses related to obesity why would I think it’s okay to embrace obesity? Yeah I said it. Let me make this clear, I believe we are all beautiful creatures made in God’s image, BUT I don’t think it was His intentions for us to live a life of poor health with little to no exercise. We were not all designed to be shaped the same and my grandaddy was right, a little weight doesn’t hurt. But that’s not our get out of jail free card to eat whatever we want, whenever we want, and not workout. And I tell this to both skinny and obese individuals I know.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from being skinny, gaining weight, losing it, and toning my body up is if your vision of inner self is not solid, you will not be happy with your outer appearance no matter what society deems as beautiful. When how we value our inner being overrides how we view our outterbeing, we’ll see some drastic changes on the scale.
Feel free to post your thoughts and feedback. I welcome it!