For Black Women, The Pressure We Face To Have A Certain Body Type Cuts Deep
The pressure put on Black women to have the "coke bottle" body type can be crippling and compromise our mental health.
May 24, 2022 at 1:45 pm
For me, it started when I first heard Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 hit “Baby Got Back.” I was 11 or 12 years old when I heard the catchy track at a family function. After gyrating to the beat for the first half of the song, I noticed my older family members singing along to the song’s hook with particular enthusiasm. “Baby got back!” they shouted as they roared with laughter on the makeshift dance floor. I caught on quickly and joined in on the fun.
Later, in my bedroom, the song was stuck in my head, and I started thinking about what the words “baby got back” really meant. My adolescent brain was still unacquainted with sexual suggestions in music (or otherwise, really), so it took me a while to put together that Sir Mix-a-Lot was rapping about women with a certain attribute. One that I didn’t have.
I remember looking at my body in the mirror and feeling a strong disdain for my lack of curves for the first time. My straight hips and lack of a derrière felt inadequate. And I started to wonder if my lack of back would keep the boys away. I started to feel anxiety, then a foreign feeling crept up. It only got worse when I saw the video for “Baby Got Back.” It was flooded with women with petite frames and perky, full buttocks — everything I now desperately wanted but would learn I wouldn’t be able to achieve.
In the years that followed, my relationship with my body became complicated. My weight fluctuated dramatically, and whether I was 90 pounds or 180 pounds, I always found something wrong with my body. And it made me anxious. Seeing parts of my stomach in the mirror or thinking about the bodycon dress I wanted to wear over the weekend would raise my heart rate.
It wasn’t an issue inspired by internal stimuli. A lot of times, other people, my family included, would contribute to the intense body pressure I felt and still feel. One memory that burned into my brain was when a guy I was dancing with asked me, “Is this all you got?” referring to the size of my behind. He demanded I work harder, and after I failed in his opinion, he walked away, visibly annoyed. I think about his rejection more often than I’d like to admit.
Then, there’s social media. The rise of the Kardashian-inspired, coke-bottle body type was off with a vengeance as I grappled with crippling body anxiety. My timeline was flooded with celebrities pushing Flat Tummy Tea, waist trainers and flaunting their dramatic dimensions, not-so-subtly establishing their body type as the new norm and constantly reminding me that the way I looked was unacceptable for a Black woman.
I still struggle with body anxiety today. It’s something that’s constantly there, like a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Social media still exacerbates the pressure I feel as a Black woman to look a certain way, making me feel isolated in my pain and inadequacy.
Turns out, it’s something that a lot of Black women deal with, including some I’d never guess felt their bodies didn’t measure up. Like Uche Joshua, 26, someone whose shape I’ve always been envious of. She tells me that her athletic form isn’t always accepted by others or herself.
“I’m thankful that I’m healthy, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t compare my body to others,” she says. “There are definitely things I am critical about and have considered paying to change.”
Uche’s not alone in that contemplation. The amount of women who turn to surgeons to get their bodies like the Instagram models they see on their timelines is astronomical. According to The New York Times, there were 61,387 buttock augmentations like Brazilian Butt Lifts, or BBLs, in 2021. The average price of a BBL is around $5,000, and they’re dangerous. For every 13,000 procedures performed in the U.S., one results in death.
Even waist trainers are still extremely popular, even though their effectiveness is questionable at best, and they can damage your body by restricting your breathing, affecting your internal organs, weakening your musculoskeletal system and can even cause digestive issues, The Washington Post reports.
Like me, Uche feels social media has played a big role in her hyper-critical relationship with her body. “I’m even embarrassed to say it was only pretty recently that I learned that a lot of the girls I compared my body to on social media had cosmetic surgeries,” she confesses. “I was like ‘wow, I was really killing myself in the gym or buying products that never worked’ and wondering why I didn’t look like these girls. I was very hard on myself. I still am.”
And while she looks at those women with much more realistic eyes, the years-long pressure has taken a toll on Uche’s mental health. “Recently, I was told the way I think about and eat food isn’t normal. I try to be thankful for the body I have and change what I can by adopting healthy habits.”
Ore Obasanya’s story is a little different. The 30-year-old was extremely thin growing up, and now that she’s gained a few pounds, she feels the pressure to have the right body type. “Now that I have gained natural weight, I feel this pressure to have it all shifted in the right places to have a nice butt and hips but a small waist,” she explains. Amira Roloko feels similarly, telling me that she feels the “pressure to keep my body the same.”
Ore says the root of the body pressure we feel is modern eurocentric beauty standards that have been thrust onto us. “The problem is the people who have made some of these body types popular aren’t Black women,” she says. “And these non-Black women have used black features and exaggerated them drastically and have suddenly made this unrealistic body type the norm.”
She continues, saying that “while they borrow and steal from Black culture and features, they’re also ironically influencing Black women who don’t look this way. It’s a very vicious and interesting cycle to watch. All of a sudden you have all these women trying to look like caricatures of Black women — including Black women.”
It’s an eloquent description of how deep this issue goes. Living up to a fantasy, a fetishized version of who you are, created by someone who is not you nor looks like you, is an impossible, emotionally crippling task. And licensed psychologist Dr. Ebony broke it down for me in a transformative way.
Like Ore, she tells me that the body pressure we face is a “byproduct of Eurocentric beauty standards,” explaining that we’ve always had curvier bodies, and white women have made a caricature version of them that’s gone mainstream. And it has negative long and short-term effects on our self-worth and mental health.
“It continues to send the message that we’re not good enough and our bodies are not good enough,” she said. “Even though we’ve had curvier bodies for forever, we now have to fit within a certain dimension in order for that curviness to be acceptable.”
“We’re trying to fit ourselves into a box that never was meant for us,” she continues. “Even historically and even still is not.”
Dr. Ebony says those constant feelings of unworthiness encourage “things like depression, anxiety or overcompensation in relationships.” She says you’ll find a lot of Black women “go inward. They may begin to isolate and shrink themselves because we think that we aren’t worthy enough to be taking up space. We carry a lot of internalized depression and a lot of mental issues that can then span the spectrum.”
It’s something she’s experienced firsthand, too. “I would work out and think that my body is supposed to magically transform into what I’ve seen online or what I’ve seen in print magazines and that wouldn’t happen, which made me question my Blackness.”
I know that feeling all too well. More often than not, I feel like my body type negates my Blackness — my Black identity was almost solely tied to my desirability. While I try to remember that attribution was not born from my community, I still struggle to feel worthy in Black spaces because of my body.
“While celebrities like the Kardashians and others have made it acceptable, we get blamed for it and are forced to deal with pressure to adhere to the illusion,” Dr. Ebony explains. “Society thinks this is what we’re trying to and supposed to look like, but that’s not us. This isn’t from us. But we’re getting blamed for continuing to try to conform to the supremacy of it all.”
And it’s affected the way that we see each other. “We’ve co-opted the problem, and we’re trying to become what we think other beautiful Black women effortlessly look like,” Dr. Ebony says. “But, we don’t understand that this is all trying to follow a trend of what eurocentric beauty standards are.”
Dr. Ebony explains that pressure creates mounds of stress that affect every aspect of our lives.
“It causes us an immense amount of stress, like waking up every day thinking that you’re not good enough impacts and generalizes across many areas of your life. If I think that I’m not good enough, I’m likely going to struggle with anxiety. I’m going to be worried about how people perceive me, receive me and how I show up in relationships. I’m going to be very cognizant and careful, and things that I say might be less likely to implement boundaries, I might be less likely to ask for what I want or communicate my needs because I don’t feel good enough and worthy enough to then have those be taken seriously.”
Dr. Lloyda Williamson, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College, says the key to relieving body pressure is being intentional about what and who you surround yourself with.
“It’s important to consider how to maximize physical and mental health through surrounding yourself with positive people, making healthier choices in food and water and physical activity or through choice of what we watch and listen to in the media to move in a positive or negative direction,” Dr. Williamson says.
Dr. Ebony suggests diversifying the messaging around you is paramount, too. “Do some reading and diversify what they are consuming as it relates to body types. Think about who you are looking at, what your feed consists of, what you’re listening to and what spaces you’re in. There are people taking up space and doing very great workaround movement, yoga and stretching, whose bodies don’t look like the typical classical trainer’s body. Seek them out with intention.”
I try to keep that in mind when I scroll through my social media, look at my changing body in the mirror or come across videos like “Baby Got Back.” Now, I make a point to consume content that represents the real me by people who look like me. It reminds me that I’m not alone and, most importantly, that I’m worthy.