Today I am celebrating Ms Oprah Winfrey, who recently won the Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille award. It’s given to people who have made a big impact on the entertainment industry, and I couldn’t think of a better person to win this prestigious accolade.
From a Body compassion perspective, this matters to be because many of us tens to put our lives on hold for after we loose the weight and attain the “perfect body “. Oprah has struggle nearly all of her life with her body image, with her weight fluctuations often broadcast on her show for millions to see. But amidst all that she never stopped forging on with her grand visions. Not just with her personal achievement, but championing a diversity of bodies and skin tones of blackness in media.
Oprah always talks about what it feels like to see someone who looks like you on TV, as a full fledged, complicated human being. What it feels like to be seen, to be validated. I remain in awe of the fact that she has run a magazine for 17 years now, a magazine on which we see this dark skinned, not thin woman every single month. What a feat it is, considering that well before “diversity” became a marketing buzzword, Oprah was defying the world with her decision to grace the cover of her magazine every single issue. Championing the representation of black people is an endeavor she firmly held on to, from her choice in acting roles from the Color Purple, Beloved, The Butler, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Greenleaf. Her network OWN continues this legacy with the determination to present black experiences in all aspects from the formely incarcerated, to the rich and famous and everything in between. That to me, is the reason I am so glad she won this award. Because what is impact in entertainment, if not to create programs that make people feel that they are represented in the world? For people to know that they too, have stories that matter regardless or because of, but never in spite of what they look like or which social class they come from.
May we all remember to not put our dreams on a shelf while on the pursuit of the perfect body. May we all have dreams that are in service of humanity. Now that is something to aspire to. Bravo Ms Oprah Winfrey.
I remember when the Episode of Gabourey Sidibe’s sex scene on empire aired on television 2 years ago. The amount of vitriol that rained down on her was unbelievable. People mentioned that Gabourey was much too large to be having sex, and that her sex scene should not have appeared on primetime television. Stills from the sex scene became the subject of countless memes, one of which said “damn! and some of you can’t even get a text back”. Insinuating that if a fat, darkskinned woman is having sex, what’s your excuse? The message was clear. Fat, fat black women’s bodies weren’t worthy of being on television or even more scandalous, worthy of being shown as desirable.
So when two weeks ago I watched the video of Mayim Mialik discussing how she was tired of seeing celebrities getting naked in the name of empowerment, I immediately flashed back to the vitriol that Gabourey endured for her sex scene, and the every day harassment that fat women have to endure simply for existing. I must note that Mayim does say that she understands that seeing fat bodies in media helps to normalize the fact that women like are that out there, and they are real. What Mayim wants girls to be taught about the fact that sexiness isn’t the only way to be empowered and that intelligence, accomplishments, social contributions, are also great ways to be feel empowered as a woman. Certainly this is a great message to give, for girls to know that their mental prowess is absolutely worthy of praise. However, we cannot neglect desirability as an important component of self-empowerment. When you think about the fact that a lot of women grow up to understand only certain kinds of bodies have the right to be seen, the right to be respected and the right to be desired, you can’t downplay the importance of seeing sexy fat women. We grow up thinking that our bodies are not our own, that they are instruments for someone else’s pleasure, and that our own pleasure and sexuality is not a priority.
This is why I love the fat women I see on instagram, love handles spilling out of their lingerie, thighs that are darker than the rest of the body, stretch marks that trail up their stomach, and folds on their backs. I especially love that they purposely pose in a provocative manner, because the message is explicitly that “this body is one to be desired and I am not asking for your permission”. And yes, I’m ok with that being purely about sexual appeal. When we witnessed the backlash that Gabourey endured for her sex scene, it has absolutely nothing to with her intelligence. It wouldn’t have mattered if Gabourey was a neurosurgeon who won the Nobel Prize; right at that moment, it was about whether or not a body like hers had the right to visibility and desirability, and whether she even had the right feel desirable. This makes me think back to an episode of Nip Tuck, where Christian tells a woman that before he can have sex with her, she will have to put a bag over her head so he won’t have to see her ugly face. This scene isn’t a debate about whether or not the woman is intelligent, but whether she is desirable enough for him. She could have been a partner in a top law firm, but if she didn’t see herself as desirable, or thought that her pleasure mattered, her accomplishments were irrelevant.
Seeing fat women on instagram taking up space on my timeline, is something that I truly cherish. Because long before body positivity became a marketing strategy, it was the women of instagram who braved online harassment to normalize the idea that fatness and desirability are not mutually exclusive. And perhaps the challenge for Mayim here, is for her to be reminded that owning your sexuality and being intelligent, shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. At the strongest point of my eating disorder battle, my worry was never that my intelligence didn’t matter. I knew I was smart, I knew how to get good grades, and I had high aspirations for myself. But the shame that I carried in my body was one that I couldn’t shake off with my best efforts. My sexuality was always a source of shame, because any talk of sex was either about remaining pure, or never saying no to your husband because that’s why good wives did. Sex was never discussed in terms of what I wanted, but in terms of what a man thought of me. So when I hear Mayim talk about the fact that desirability is not the end all be all of empowerment, whether she means to or not, she’s not giving enough nuance to the topic of sex and empowerment especially for fat girls.
I want us to have a discussion about women empowerment, that isn’t afraid to give importance to sexual empowerment. To not be afraid to tell girls that their sexuality matters, and to trust that they can make that distinction between intelligence and sex. When I think back to my younger years, one of the things I wish most is to have been taught that sexuality and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. But I am so thankful that there are young girls who are growing up today with fat, nearly naked women on their timeline, with a Gabourey Sidibe sex scene on primetime television, and with Oprah Winfrey at the head of a successful empire. Get you a girl who can do both. Be a Girl who can do both.
***Trigger warning: recollection of body mutulation and rape***
When I was a little girl back home, I witnessed a practice called breast ironing. It’s a practice done to girls when they hit puberty and mothers press down their growing breast with hot (nearly burning) stones, in order to stunt the breast growth. The hope is to delay womanhood as long as we can because they know what happens when a girl shows signs of womanhood. She become vulnerable to men who feel entitled to a woman’s body simply because she exists. You might be led to say “not all men”. don’t. Understand that sexual assault is prevalent enough, and goes unpunished enough, that body mutilation is considered a valid practice. I witnessed breast ironing, held a girl’s hands while she cried, saw the burn marks.
I was young but I remember it being my earliest evidence that my body wasn’t mine to own. It was my earliest understanding that a girl’s voice is often not the priority, that she likely won’t be believed anyway, and from then on I saw evidence that a man’s reputation had priority over a girl’s body and it’s violation. I learned to keep quiet when men fondled my teenage breasts. I learned to keep quiet when an old man forced his lips on mine when he met me in the kitchen where I had gone to get a glass of water for him. I learned to laugh off the wandering hands of my math tutor, because he was a respectable man. I learned to trade off stories of sexual assault with my friends, as if we were just sharing tips on the best pads to use for our period. That was the rite of passage. Get your period, get excited about buying the training bras, and learn how to keep quiet about men who feel entitled to your body. Silence is a skill you learn quickly.
People will read this possibly be outraged, and call my culture primitive for the burn marks on our girl’s breasts. But please don’t, because I see here in the U.S. too, the ways in which we’re told our bodies and our voices don’t matter and don’t belong to us. I immediately think of Roxane Gay’s latest book Hunger; in it she writes about why she kept quiet for so long, about her gang rape at 13 years old. She writes,
“I wasn’t a girl to them. I was a thing, flesh and girl bones with which they could amuse themselves. later, those boys told everyone at school what happened or, rather, a version of the story that made my name “slut” for the rest of the school year. I immediately understood that my version of the story would never matter, so I kept the truth of what happened a secret and tried to live with the new name”.
Roxane echoes the message that countless sexual assault victims/survivors have internalized along with the atrocity they endured. I see the 60 women who accused Cosby and were vilified for destroying his reputation, because bodies matter less that a TV legacy. I see the woman who was raped and the judge decided to give her rapist Brock Turner a light sentence, so as to not get in the way of his budding swimming career, and his father said his son’s life could be ruined because of “20 minutes of action”. I see Daniel Holtzclaw who managed to sexually assault up to 36 women, carefully choosing the type of women who don’t fit the “respectable woman” profile, women whom nobody would believe anyway. I see POTUS 45. I see the insults when we don’t respond to your catcalls. I see you guys who refer to our sexual history as “mileage”, to devalue our bodies. I see your anger when we say no. I see you telling us we’re asking for it. I see you telling us that sex is our marital duty. I see you and the way you see us.
And when I read a headline about Bill Cosby wanting to teach men how to not get accused of sexual assault, I realize he still doesn’t care, and wants to trample on the bodies of the women he’s already violated. And what of the rest of you who will either endorse this initiative, or pretend it’s an innocent attempt to clean his image. Girls and women are watching you attend class on how to get away with murder. How to mutilate our bodies and suffocate our voices.
I just want to know, what does it look like to live in a society in which a woman’s body is really hers, not the land of men’s Manifest Destiny fantasies. What’s a world in which Bill Cosby’s TV legacy doesn’t take precedence over justice? What’s a world in which a girl’s breast don’t have to be burned to protect her from predatory men?
The greatest magic trick we know for our body is how to make it disappear. Eat less or throw up what you ate. Try all the latest diet craze and make it slumber party talk with your girls. Don’t go out to parties, and if you do, don’t wear bright colors, form fitting outfits, and be sure to not take pictures. The challenge is always, how little of you can be allowed to exist?