YoungGiftedandFat: Performing Transweight Identities

The perception that black women do not wish to be slender is a myth situated in the American imagination. Oprah Winfrey’s decades-long public struggle with her weight, Kerry Washington’s recent admittance to battling bulimia, and Jennifer Hudson’s commercially marketed, drastic weight loss are only a few examples of the stark reality about black women and their bodies. Many African-American women aspire to Eurocentric standards of body size. As Bartky asserts, “There is little evidence that women of color or working-class women are in general less committed to the incarnation of an ideal femininity than their more privileged sisters.”15 Though authors Andrea Shaw (The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies) and Susan Bordo (Unbearable Weight) provide compelling arguments as to how and why the presence of the fat female body serves as a marker of direct resistance to Eurocentric standards, one could offer that the very existence of these types of arguments hinge partially on the truth about weight loss, that is, weight is extremely hard to lose.16 Thus, in America, fatness leaves women few options, and one of them is to claim fatness as honorable and admirable. But do we love our large bodies because we adore fat or do we love our large bodies because we cannot lose the weight?

I revere those Fat Studies scholars who are able to embrace their largeness, and I am in the fight with them against size discrimination. I wish I had the confidence to appreciate my largeness as actress Gabourey Sidibe, who seems not to have lost a pound since her big screen debut in Precious, apparently does. You go girl! However, in my case, I could not love the weight that categorized me in my eyes and in the eyes of others as ugly, disgusting, and non-sexual. I work to live in my honesty, and at this moment I lack the volition to re-embrace the fat body.

So what occurs when the fat black female performing body transforms to slender and then engages in the performance of “thin-ness”? What happens when the black female body physically ‘passes’ in a new way? What happens when a formerly fat, black body experiences ‘double consciousness’ in a historically new way: a way in which how the ‘other’ sees the body affords that body a privilege that is unfamiliar, abounding with humanistic perks. This liminal space—the space around and within the border—is where my ethno-theatre work begins.

When I crossed the border, not only was my physical body altered, but my psychological state was significantly affected as well. I changed physically and mentally in ways that I am aware of and ways that I am still discovering. I transformed from physically inferior to physically elite, from ugly to attractive, and from undesirable to desirable. My body now reads as happy, healthy, and worthy of protection. As an actress I went from mammy to mother (or wife), and from asexual, ensemble roles to sexy leading roles. I went from my body being fully costumed to scantily clad. My new body serves as a document of acceptance, my ‘passport,’ if you will, into a new privileged location. At near starvation, I crossed the border that allowed me to immigrate into an ideal American size. However, I’m just as morbidly obese mentally as I was morbidly obese physically five years ago. My outer appearance morphed, but my psyche remained the same. I do not believe myself to be a slender woman, so I feel as though I’m performing slenderness and femininity in life or in the virtual reality of the stage. As I experience fat and thin, unprivileged and privileged separately, I purposefully create and write towards a desegregation of identity.

Though the world now experiences me as a slender black female actress, I process my current encounters, both on and off the stage, as a morbidly obese female actress, inhabiting an outsider-within identity. Coined by Patricia Hill Collins, an outsider-within identity initially referenced the social location of black women in the field of domesticated work. Here I use the outsider-within identity marker as theoretical framing to explore what it means to be a fat black woman living within a privileged body or ‘home.’ Simply stated, I am not fully who I appear to be, nor am I where I appear to be. I envision my mental location as one similar to that of Gloria Anzaldúa’s new mestiza: a place where she could be all that she was.17 Furthermore, I am working to build a healthy ‘third space’18 both within my psyche and in performance where my two dis/identities encounter one another.

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