Lizzo, “Body Positivity,” and the Impossible Expectations for Black Women’s Bodies

Tressie McMillan Cottom
·4-min read
Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images
Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

Lizzo never stood a chance.

She entered pop culture through the only door afforded to certain kinds of women: benevolence. The benevolent fan is one who feels virtuous for being brave enough, cool enough, progressive enough to sublimate themselves to someone inferior. As a fellow fat Black woman with a few fans who often like to remind me of how generous they have been to deign me worthy of their adulation, I can sympathize.

This week, Lizzo shared that she was on a 10-day smoothie cleanse. The reaction—and condemnation—from those accusing her of succumbing to diet culture was swift and she responded with a clap-back post.

But it’s not Lizzo’s fault. For all the commentary on how brave she is to celebrate her body, she has never truly pursued body positivity status. Really, she’s done only what pop stars do. She wears fancy clothing that does not cover much—so do Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, and Dua Lipa. She wears outrageous looks—a little neon pleather here, a virginal wedding veil there—so did Janet Jackson and Madonna. She creates a visual iconography on social media platforms to effect a brand statement, a reason for existing in the public discourse. That is what 21st-century celebrity is. From the micro-celebrity with a cult following to the influencers with millions of followers and endorsement deals, all pop stars are now social media brands.

To the extent that Lizzo masterminded her way to becoming a projection of body positive cults, all she did was use the body she has to do the minimum job requirements for a modern pop star. But that body has a history. Lizzo’s body is not just the actual flesh and bone and spirit that is her pop stardom vessel. It is also a theater for our culture’s appetite for a Black woman image that will assuage our deep disgust with actual Black women’s bodies. From health care to celebrity, our culture’s ideas about what constitutes a body worthy of being in public has one imperative: Protect the idea of white bodies at all costs.

The history of sizeism and fat phobia is not a fear of fat white women—although that is how it is often articulated. Fat phobia is a moral panic crafted from fears about free Black women in public life. Sociologist Sabrina Strings put the finest of points on this intertwining of enlightenment ideals, white body norms, and racist impulses to control the scourge of Blackness. Surveying 19th-century publications like Harper’s BAZAAR, Strings discovered that the genesis of fat phobia was not about being thin, per se, but about being as different from Black women as a white Christian woman could be. “[These magazines] were unapologetic in stating that this was the proper form for Anglo-Saxon Protestant women. And so it was important that women ate as little as was necessary in order to show their Christian nature and also their racial superiority,” Strings said to NPR back in July.

Body positivity that rejects diet culture might seem like a departure from fat phobia’s racist roots. But it’s not. Body positivity, like that which has been projected onto Lizzo, implies that there is a right and natural form for Black women’s bodies. That their bodies should not only be different from the white female default—thin, ergo morally superior—but it should be stagnant. Black women’s bodies should be a reliable ballast for white women’s fears about being thin or not thin enough—moral or immoral—as they traverse the cultural terrain of beauty and size that constrains them, as they would constrain Lizzo.

The “love yourself” message is a fragile veneer of branding, perfect for the social media age where everything is a brand. Whether you call it New Coke, Old Coke, or Coke One—it’s all Coca-Cola. Meaning, body positivity is just fat phobia for a new racial logic that wants to consume Black women’s bodies without feeling racist. It elevates a Black woman’s corporeal reality to a political road map for non-Black others to work out their relationships with whiteness. It is positive as long as the Black woman conforms to the desires projected onto her. It is about “bodies” only insofar as it is about deciding that certain bodies exist to make other bodies feel good about their own existence. That is the very definition of what bell hooks once called “eating the other.” Whether consumed through taste or visual senses, the consumption is racist no matter what you call it.

Lizzo never stood a chance.

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