Excerpt: Romance with Voluptuousness

The following is an excerpt from Romance with Voluptuousness: Caribbean Women and Thick Bodies in the United States (Nebraska, 2016) by Kamille Gentles-Peart.

From Chapter 1: The “Thick Black Woman”: Racialized Body Politics and the Marginalization of Black Women

Reflections of a Mahgah Jamaican Woman

I always ate at least three meals a day. Being a graduate student with little disposable income, these meals were neither remarkable nor sophisticat- ed; my daily diet usually consisted of oatmeal for breakfast, cheap fast food for lunch, and chicken with rice for dinner. Regardless of the simplicity and lack of variety of these dishes, I did not want to miss meals, because that would risk me hearing the dreaded words from my mother when I returned home between semesters: “You lose weight!” Many women would welcome these words and deem them a positive assessment of their bodies. However, as a woman from Jamaica, those words were distressing. It was important for me to “keep on some weight”; I did not want to be skinny. I had to “have shape”; I had to have thick hips and round buttocks.¹ So I was careful to eat.

This relationship with my body did not begin with graduate school in the United States; I was always petite and always desired to be as big and voluptuous—and thus as attractive—as my relatives and peers. I was also accustomed to having the deviance of my body being the topic of conversation at family gatherings and being highlighted by members of my community, particularly, but not limited to, females. Aunts, cousins, and girlfriends surveiled my body, liberally and jovially making comments about its small size and shape. Commentary also came indirectly from Jamaican popular culture with songs, magazines, and music videos promoting a body type that was not mine and reinforcing the difference of my body.

Emigration to the United States did little to change the expectation that my body conform to the Jamaican ideal. I was surrounded by main- stream American media prolific with thin images, but in the black Caribbean community of New York City where I resided and among my black Caribbean relatives and peers, a thick body was desirable. On the other hand, however, my body was perceived with admiration among my white American peers in the small midwestern town in the United States where I attended graduate school. My race and foreign accent marked me as “other” in this predominantly white space, but my small body size, which approximated the thin ideal of mainstream America, engendered some acceptance; it was one of the few areas of my person that I knew fit into the dominant discourses of my new home. My thin body did not fit the body type associated with blackness, and to some (both black and white Americans) that made me not “black” enough, and lacking in the erotic sexuality ascribed to black women. However, to many, I became exceptional; my small, “not black enough” body, in combination with my accent, made me foreign, other, exotic.

I am cognizant that being called “exotic” is problematic, as it marked me as different, not normal, a bit of a spectacle. However, this exoticization gave me increased access to mainstream American society. It created the perception that I was less aggressive, less confrontational, less threatening, all issues that I witness many bigger women in my community contending with when engaging with white American spaces, such as academia. In my experience, black women with bigger bodies are not only hypervisible in academia, but they are also marginalized. In fact, they often exist along the Mammy-Sapphire continuum (Henderson, Hunter, and Hildreth 2010). I believe that both ideologies of Mammy and Sapphire construct black femininity in ways that link thick black female bodies to ideas of lowered intelligence: Mammy is the big black domestic worker, Sapphire is her voluptuous, more feisty counterpart, and neither of them is very bright. Perceived along this continuum, black women in academia (and I would argue particularly those with bigger bodies that most align with these popular cultural images of black women) are systemically shut out of the intellectual life of the white-dominated academy of the United States. They routinely receive negative student and peer evaluations that describe them as militant and aggressive, they are often denied tenure as their work and contributions are viewed as less valuable and less deserving of compensation and promotion, their expertise and knowledge are often questioned and challenged ( Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2004), and they are perceived and treated as the “maids of academe” (Harley 2008), supportive agents whose primary reason for existing is to help others (Bova 2000). I believe my smaller body helped to neutralize and “soften” the threat that Eurocentric imperialism has ascribed to thick black female bodies.

My thin, petite frame was also better for learning European dance forms such as ballet and modern dance, and I gravitated toward these performance arts. Admittedly, my body was not the ideal type for these dance forms, but they provided a space where the smallness of my thighs, hips, and buttocks were at least accepted (unlike in the mainstream Jamaican dance context, where big buttocks and thighs are prerequisites). Over time, I also noticed that my bigger-bodied relatives and friends in the diaspora no longer completely ridiculed my size; they viewed my body with a sense of ambivalence, of amusement but also admiration. They too noticed the mobility and inclusion (albeit marginal) that my body afforded me in the U.S. environment. They did not want my body, but they realized that it gave me access to American society in a way that theirs did not.

Notes:

  1. Given that cultures and the body politics they produce are not constant but
    continuously shift in relation to social and political ideologies, this refl ection
    should be seen as a snapshot of a particular moment in history, and not as the
    discourse of the body of the English- speaking Caribbean. Moreover, in light of
    the inextricable relationship between body politics and social markers, including
    class, it would be problematic to suggest that the description presented here
    is upheld by all sectors of black Caribbean society or even across Caribbean
    nations. Therefore, though what I present here would be considered the norm
    of Jamaica, it should be noted that there are variations based on many factors,
    including class and nationality.