My best friend, Denise Jolly stood on a subway train and disrobed, revealing all 311 lbs of her formerly hidden body in a black bra and panties.  This was the culmination of a 30 day journey, in which she took photos of herself in various states of  partial nudity at home and in her community.  She called it the Be Beautiful project.  Her nakedness in the photos was no more than what we might see on Victoria's Secret commercials or beer ads and yet it was revolutionary.  In a society that tells us that anyone with a body like hers is not  worthy of love let alone sight, her work was a reminder to herself and others that, “The active practice of loving myself exactly as I am is radical self love.” The photos were bold and powerful and I asked her to capture her journey in an essay for The Body is Not An Apology (TBINAA), a radical self-love and body empowerment movement I founded 4 years ago.  

The day after the blog went live the story went viral.  She was contacted by the Huffington Post, Yahoo, Inside Edition, Queen Latifah Show, Laura Engram Show and several more media outlets making requests to appear and give interviews.  Her project had achieved what it set out to do, make her seen. When the Huffington Post reblogged the TBINAA article they included a slideshow of their ten favorite “Body Positivity Heroes”. Nine White women's faces beamed at me with each click. The final woman on the slideshow was Asian.  If I am being honest, I felt the ugly tinge of jealousy creep up my spine when the media outlets started calling.  After all, The Body is Not An Apology started because of my choice to post a picture of my large body in just my undies on a social media page.  I wondered, “Where was the Huffington Post then?”  When I looked deeper at that ugly feeling it became clear it was not a personal jealousy about my gorgeous friend being seen in her brilliance.  It was the bitter reminder of how often women of color, Black women specifically are not seen.  

The same day I watched the slideshow of body positive heroines, sans any black or brown bodies, TBINAA posted a clip from GLEE's Amber Riley, dominating the cha- cha on Dancing with the Stars.  There was nary a peep in the media about her beautiful example of movement, endurance and power in a large body. Several articles talked about what a great job she did.  One article even mentioned she was “plus sized” but no one was mentioning television star Amber Riley as a “body positive” heroine. Why? Because the social narrative is “she is a singing Black girl; she's supposed to be fat.”  That narrative renders her body an act of happenstance.  Her body “just is” and therefore is not noteworthy.  It would be like reporting she has a nose. Of course she is fat and her boldness in her particular body is nothing to aspire to. She is not Kirstie Alley, former Cheers star and DTWS alum whose fatness was such a novelty in Hollywood, that it garnered her an entire HBO Series, “Fat Actress”.

Gabourey Sidibe, the breakout star of the 2009 film Precious, defied all odds and persevered beyond most of the entertainment industry's attempts to make her, the illiterate food addicted character she played in Precious.  Her out loud, charismatic, ebullient personality and beauty continue to shine through and yet she is not touted as a hero of body positivity.  Her size and dark skin make her an outsider even in movements of inclusivity.  Her absence in the dialogue in any meaningful way is unsurprising but important.  Black women have always found ways to live in our skin with a dignity that world has not afforded us.  When Black women's bodies are acknowledged it is to pathologize them.  A google search of black women and body image leads to scores of internet hits on the “obesity crisis” in Black communities.  Whereas, when the word “black” is removed the same search generates article upon article of White women embracing body positivity.  

In Western culture, White womanhood is held as the epitome of beauty and desire. Part of the machine of size discrimination is stripping White Women of that status as punishment for fatness.  There is a way in which body positive movements both reject the notion of the body as object while reclaiming it as beautiful by dismantling the definition.  Black women's bodies have always been object in the social sphere but never exalted as beautiful.  The fat Black woman's body has been rendered as an object of service whether for food, advice, care-take etc., but has never been a thing to aspire to, not a thing of beauty.  The mammy, a stereotypical trope born out of slavery validated large Black women's existence only through their service to White women and White families, think Gone with the Wind, Give Me a Break or The Help.  

Our society tells us fatness is not beautiful.  Blackness is not beautiful.  So even while reclaiming size diversity as beautiful, the presence of Blackness complicates the narrative.  We don't deal well with complications, which often means we don't deal with complications, particularly in the realm of race.  We simply don't tell those stories.  It is this unwillingness to wade through the murky waters of race that make Black and Brown women invisible even in the places where we say we are trying to make people seen.

There is a reason women like Stella Boonshaft and Denise Jolly’s images have gone viral. Without question a great deal of that is about their brave declarations of beauty over their bodies, bodies that because of weight stigma, the world says should not be seen as such. However, their loud demands for a seat at the table must be mitigated by the reality that they have always been invited to the table, as long as they could fit in the prescribed seat. 

Being seen in our bodies, in our fullness and beauty is a birthright women of color have never had and what I thought was jealousy about a friend’s success was not that at all. What I was feeling was the aching reminder that the vehicle to even beginning to dismantle weight stigma is to be seen as fully human in this society. Far too often, that is a privilege that requires white skin and no matter how much I weigh or how naked I get, I will never have that.

I will always have the reminder that the vehicle to being seen as fully human in this society often requires white skin.  


Sonya is one of my personal sheros/inspirations and I'm honored to call her both a mentor and a friend. Frreal, this woman blows my mind. If you haven't heard her perform, give the goosebump inducing Beautiful a watch. No really Watch it. If you want more comprehensive body love, follow The Body Is Not an Apology on Facebook or visit the website here (god DAMN, it's good). All the love.

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