As a teenager at Northern High School, Inger Stevenson used humor to mask her insecurity about her body. She was always quick with a funny comeback when she was teased for being tall, skinny or too much of a tomboy.
These days, when the 40-year-old patrols the halls of Baltimore City
public schools as a police officer, her height, broad shoulders and
tough exterior earn more deference than teasing.
Still, like many African-American women whose bodies are far from
mainstream ideals of black female beauty portrayed in movies,
magazines and videos, Stevenson often has felt uneasy about her
looks and others' perception of her. In fact, she says, it has been
only in the last three years that she has grown comfortable with her
appearance. And that required changing the way she thought about
"I am just getting to the point now where my size is not a
problem for me," says Stevenson, who is 5-foot-11.
The issue of body image among African-American women is not a new
one. But it has gotten more attention lately, thanks in part to a
new anthology of essays: Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their
Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts (Perigee Trade, 2005). The
book contains 25 personal vignettes about how women such as poet and
singer Jill Scott, spiritual life coach and author Iyanla Vanzant,
world-renowned poet Sonia Sanchez and others feel about their
Book editor Akiba Solomon and contributor April Garrett spoke
recently about the book during a reading at the Enoch Pratt Central
Library in Baltimore. The main message: African-American women have
to look beyond media images and see themselves for who they are.
That is easier said than done, they acknowledge. Only in the last
few years, it seems, has the range of what is considered beautiful
about African- American women broadened. It is now more en vogue to
be plump or full-sized, thanks to the stylish celebrity of
African-American comedian Mo' Nique of Randallstown and
singer/actress Queen Latifah, both of whom also do fashion and
Still, African-American women, bombarded with images of flawless
celebrities and half-naked video vixens, find it hard not to obsess
about physical appearance on a daily basis.
"Unlike men, women are more likely to engage in comparisons
with other women, typically in a negative fashion that makes them
feel very low," says Stefanie Gilbert, an assistant professor
in the psychology department at Howard University in Washington.
"I think black women have historically been devalued in their
physical appearance, while, ironically, also being highly
sexualized, which is a very schizophrenic way of being," says
Beverly Guy Sheftall, director of women's studies at Spelman College
"I think, in general, American culture is so sexualized right
now," says Solomon, co-editor of Naked and a former editor of
The Source, a hip-hop magazine. "Hip-hop is something that is
part and parcel of what you see in the greater society, but I think
it is a lot more damaging because there's no balance when it comes
to black women."
At The Source, Solomon says, she became disenchanted with some of
the images of women portrayed in the publication.
"[The media] is the main place where you see black women,"
says Solomon, now health editor at Essence magazine. "We don't
even have like a Thelma Evans [a character on the 1970s sitcom Good
Times] anymore. "
Evans, played by BerNadette Stanis, defied mainstream beauty
standards with her distinctive, hourglass figure. She was conversely
hailed as the requisite girl-next-door in the black community -
beautiful, but with an approachable aura.
But most of the images seen on screen are selected by men who have
their own image of what is beautiful, experts say.
"Men grow up in the same world and are getting the same
messages about what is beautiful and desirable in women," says
Ayana Byrd, co-editor of Naked and an editor at Vibe Vixen, a
health-and-beauty magazine. "So they have a limited view of
what's an acceptable-looking girl, and it usually is not based on a
Until recently, celebrities such as model Iman and actress Halle
Berry seemed to typify ideal images of beauty for African-American
women. To some, these women more closely resemble the standard of
beauty seen in the majority culture - small frames and thin facial
But even within the black community, there are contradictions in
judgments placed on women. Women are often judged negatively if they
are too light or too dark, too heavy or too skinny, or don't have
enough "junk in their trunk."
The way African-American women see themselves can have an effect on
their everyday lives.
Stevenson, who is the mother of two children, 14 and 19, says she
was "never comfortable with my body, period, because of me
always being the tallest and having a tomboyish way."
When Roxanne Johnson, 53, was growing up, she didn't like her hair
because it was so thin it couldn't hold curls. She also was so thin
her mother took her for polio tests. When she started menstruating
at a young age, her body started developing quickly and her weight
increased, which she liked less than being skinny.
"When the poundage came on, I didn't like it. I didn't find it
pleasing to look at," says Johnson.
By the time she was in her teens, she says, she was comparing
herself to her girlfriends.
Now, Johnson, who works as a claims officer at the Social
Security Administration in Woodlawn, says she has come to terms
with her body. "Once you get to a certain age, you see things
differently. ... a lot of that stuff doesn't matter as much."
Though it may seem that skinny women have it easy, Kecia Rome, 25,
of Catonsville says it isn't so.
She says she was offended by Skinny Women Are Evil: Notes From a Big
Girl in a Small-Minded World, a book by Mo' Nique.
"It works in reverse, too," says Rome. "Some people
criticize me; they say you don't have nothing to hold on to. Or I
can't wait until you have a baby so you can get big. But if I say,
'I feel fat today,' I am the worst person in the world to a bigger
The feelings expressed by these women aren't uncommon, says Solomon.
"How your hair looks affects how you feel [and so does] a
comment about how your skin looks. Or someone makes an overall
comment about how your shape looks - whether it is a good effect or
bad effect, it still does affect how you feel." she says.
Garrett, who is Stevenson's sister, wrote an essay about the
evolution of her hair.
As a child, she sported a natural hair cut "that couldn't have
been more than 2 inches high." She was teased for being the
"skinny, baldheaded" black girl. As a teenager in the
1980s, she wore a jheri curl, a hairstyle made popular by Michael
Jackson and which required a lot of moisturizer. It was her hope
that the style would make her hair grow.
It did, and so did her popularity with the boys, who at one time
looked past her.
Since then, she has learned to enjoy her own identity, no matter
what others may think about her hair - short or long, braided or
"The writing was cathartic," says Garrett, 35. "I'm
more comfortable in my own skin."
For some women, just discussing their feelings about their bodies is
"Now that we are airing it out and talking about it, what are
we going to do to change it?" one audience member asked Garrett
at the Pratt Library gathering.
"I think part of [the answer] is in the telling. I think
everyone is going through needing to be acceptable to my man, my
mother, society. I think in the telling, there's power and