Body Talk


Baltimore Sun, 2005



Body Talk

African-American women discover their own sense of beauty
Special to the Sun
December 4, 2005


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 herself.

"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 bodies. .

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 beauty modeling.

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 in Atlanta.

"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 black aesthetic."

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 features.

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 person."

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 weaved.

"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 therapeutic.

"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 truth."