Why We Want To Be White Women

A first-person account of race and yoga is making the social media rounds. In it a self-described thin white woman notices a black woman in yoga class and has an existential crisis about envy, big bodies, and race. It’s one of the oddest autoethnographic attempts I’ve read in some time. The title is sensationalist but having been around the bend, I know that writers rarely choose the title. So, I’ll leave that alone. The content of the essay, over which the writer has total control, has enough to consider without dithering over the title. It all starts when a black woman walks into a yoga class:

A few weeks ago, as I settled into an exceptionally crowded midday class, a young, fairly heavy black woman put her mat down directly behind mine. It appeared she had never set foot in a yoga studio—she was glancing around anxiously, adjusting her clothes, looking wide-eyed and nervous.

The writer immediately recognizes this woman’s body and eyes for what they are — an emotional albatross:

At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about this woman. Even when I wasn’t positioned to stare directly at her, I knew she was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body.

There’s a reflection on how the writer embodies an unachievable ideal for the heavy black woman:

I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.

And, then, there are tears. The inevitable wet, wet tears:

I got home from that class and promptly broke down crying. Yoga, a beloved safe space that has helped me through many dark moments in over six years of practice, suddenly felt deeply suspect.

It’s a sad little thing, really. Almost too sad to comment on. But, better writers and thinkers than myself have taken what is worth commenting upon to task. Some of it uses humor brilliantly (which, I’ve said before, is for me humor’s highest form).

There are a few things here. I’ll comment on them briefly for a few reasons. One, I’m short on bandwidth these days. Two, I’ve said almost all of this before. Three, others have said much of it better. Four, because Jesus I cannot live in this constant cycle.

Let’s put aside that you could do a search+replace for “Miley Cyrus” in my thoughts on race and beauty, subbing this essay’s author, and the argument would barely change a bit. Let’s also put aside that often people simply aren’t up to the task of what they’re trying to write. It happens to all of us. Some of us simply have better supports and/or self-editing mechanisms.

Despite all this, I thought it was worth adding a few empirics to the debate. At the heart of this writer’s crisis is her deeply-held belief about how black women envy her body, for its thinness and its whiteness.

Do black women want to be white women?

That struck me as an empirical question.

Melissa Milkie went after this question with her study of black and white teenage girls and their body image. Teen mags like Seventeen have been taken to task for idealizing and perpetuating white beauty ideals. As the infamous doll studies have shown, at a young age non-white children project higher human qualities onto white dolls that do not look like them. Does that extend to young adults? Does the near total white wash of teen magazines define beauty so narrowly (pun, intended) and whitely that black girls have no choice but to hate themselves and envy white girls as a matter of course?

Milkie asked black girls how they engage white teen magazines. And the black girls won’t having none of your envy thesis. The black girls in her sample were less likely to read teen magazines than were white girls, across class (she divides them between urban and suburban schools, a kind of class construct). When asked why they weren’t interested the black girls said, “maybe if there were more of us in there…” but since there were so few black girls in the mags, the black girls had enough sense to determine that the mag wasn’t talking to them or about them. In contrast, the white girls mostly accepted the images in the magazines as an ideal reference group for matters of beauty, fashion and behavior.

Ten of the 11 black girls in the survey said, “unequivocally that they did not want to be like these [white] girls” with only one mixed-race girl saying she sometimes did. Instead the black girls in this sample said they read Essence and Ebony, remixing a counter-narrative of beauty piecemeal from various media and cultural products (which is not at all without problems, but more on that later). The point is, even young black girls who presumably are at a critical developmental stage of identity formation expressed a vocabulary and awareness that clearly rejects the idea that they envy white girls their thinness or whiteness.

In “Black in a Blonde World”, Lisa Duke follows up on Milkie’s study (and similar ones on race and beauty images). It’s the naughts and maybe things done changed. Media has certainly sped up. It can stand to reason that maybe black girls just didn’t know enough to properly envy white girls until there was an app for that.

The black girls in Duke’s sample did not read the teen mags looking for themselves in white beauty ideals. Instead, they seem to scan white media looking for reflections of themselves through the rare occurrence of a black model (again, still a model so still problematic but follow me here). Duke finds that “black girls do not particularly admire or seek to emulate models — instead, they pointed to the more infrequent images of African American performers and athletes”. One black girl said, “white people perceive beautiful in a different way than we do.” The white girls are transfixed by the images of thinness but across class the black girls most often described the same images as “sick looking” or otherwise non-ideal. One black girl explains, “I don’t have the mindset like I got to be perfect…there isn’t one specific way a black girl has to be.”  That’s some powerful articulation of resistance and hegemony from a fairly young girl.

Makkar and Strube go experimental design and grown in their study of race, beauty, and self-esteem among adult women. I won’t get into the methods but basically race and racial self-consciousness significantly moderated the effects of white beauty images on the self-esteem of adult black women.

But what of the powerful import of white beauty ideals that so many black scholars (including myself) have theorized and articulated? Don’t we say that lifting up blonde, blue-eyed women as the ideal feminine archetype oppresses black women? Well, this hinges on some tricky theoretical turns. I’ll try to take you through them but I’m not perfect here. I may fail.

There is the common problem of conflating individuals with structure. When many of us critique the pervasiveness of white beauty norms we are not critiquing beautiful white women. There is you, and there is a thing bigger than you, and almost all the time critiques about race and beauty are not at all about you. Normative beauty ideals diminish black women not by making us hateful, envious spiteful persons but by excluding us from meaningful social interactions and resources. It matters less that you think my fat black body is gross in yoga class and matters a great deal more that because fat black female bodies are viewed as undisciplined, they are more likely to be policed and sanctioned. The difference is instructive for how we center whiteness in dialogues about race and gender and class.

Like the black girls in the samples, I do not much envy white women. I do occasionally think what seems to come with being a type of white women is kind of nice. But that’s not about sports bras and abs. That is about assortative mating, racist social welfare narratives, and WHY THEY DON’T MAKE JEANS FOR THICK THIGHS! Sorry, that last one is a personal thing.

The point remains that a structural analysis can rarely be done through personal emotional management of white women without some honest attempt to link the “personal troubles of milieu” to the “public issues of social structure” (borrowing from C. Wright Mills).

So, there isn’t much evidence that black women go around envying the thinness or whiteness of thin white women. There is evidence that thin white bodies benefit from material and cultural resources that heavy brown bodies do not. But that is not about yoga or the tearful epiphanies of one thin white woman.

Socially situated so much closer to the benefits of thinness and whiteness, the bigger question from all of this may be: why would a thin white woman so desperately need a fat black woman to envy her that she concocted an entire narrative around it?

30 thoughts on “Why We Want To Be White Women

  1. I think the most important question asked was not at the end (although that’s pretty important). I want to know why they don’t make jeans for thick thighs, such as my own… Dammit I just want a comfortable pair of jeans.

    1. Baby Phat used to be the jeans for the thicker thighed woman. The jeans were stretchy, but not overly so. They can be a little spendy, but oh so worth it.

  2. AS an old white woman, my reaction is that this younger white woman is so narcissistic that she really imagines this other black woman is actually thinking about HER, and not concentrating, frowning, and otherwise doing what people do when they do yoga including occasional facial contortions. We only have HER word for it that she is so enviable that the occasional black woman who happens to be near her is obsessed with HER stupendous beauty. Adolescent mind set.

  3. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop–the big, clunking, obvious shoe: This has nothing at all–nada, nil, rien– to do with the Black woman in her (possibly first) yoga class. (I tried 2 years ago to take yoga classes–in my 60s, heavy, out of shape, badly damaged arthritic shoulders & knees & wrists, having taken 2 bad falls, post-abdominal surgery, my last limber yoga classes a good 30 years in the past–and I, too, not Black but just a lumbering old fat white lady, doubtless was hideously out of place!) This skinny yoga freak is projecting her own awkwardness over being suddenly confronted with a Black non-yoga freak in “her” space. “Her” yoga class is not her private fantasy cozy narcissistic cocoon any more. Not “safe” she says. Wow! Sigh.

  4. Thank you for sharing the research and enlightening commentary. I always learn so much from you. Your question at the end is very interesting. The original yoga post struck me as written by someone who thinks she’s posting in a ‘safe’ community, where she(he?) can get just enough attention without alerting the whole world.

    A decade ago, I used to moderate discussion communities for new moms and women trying to conceive. The communities were diverse and distributed globally, but very small, and centered on the common desire to conceive.

    The general epiphany theme of the yoga post was not uncommon on those boards. For some reason, we were all fine expressing our ignorance and getting schooled. White women would post things like this. Black women would jump in and tell us not to feel sorry for them. They’d write posts asking why the white women put up with so much from our husbands. (I probably have some of them to thank for my escape!)

    We’d all talk about the way we learned things in school, or church or home. Everyone was so obsessed with making babies, these deeper conversations happened without battles. There were definitely members who made up drama just to get attention, and this event kind of reminds me of that. But it also is eerily similar to posts made by people with fake accounts. I had to hunt those down, often finding them posting the same thing on other sites. Perhaps the answer to your final question, is, ‘Histrionic Personality Disorder.’

  5. To hear that black women want to be white woman makes me chuckle. For starters, I’ve never heard that claim nor does it have any merit in the circle of my culture. Most, if not all black women I know love their thicker bodies, full shapely hips, and naturally plump rear ends. Stick figures, bones showing, it’s just not something I aspire to be. Black women, or girls view beauty and body image very different than other races.
    This post certainly gave me an interesting dialog around my water cooler. Thx for sharing it.

  6. I’m curious as to why that woman felt she could put those thoughts into another’s head.

    I’m also curious as to why jeans/pants for women who have athletic thighs don’t exist!

  7. I am just amazed at the lady finding the Yoga Space not safe, and yet she says that she has been a yoga practitioner for six or so years, it seems apart from learning how to twist and her body in weird shapes she has not learnt anything else. Coming for the Pacific and a very multi racial and multi cultural place, I am still trying to get my head around it.

  8. I read that yoga post too, and I was disgusted, especially with her white lady guilt at the end. She didn’t know jack about that black woman and didn’t bother to say two words to her, but she decided to project envy onto her. As for the jeans, give Levi’s a shot.

    1. Yeah she did; she think her whiteness is all that mattered. Maybe she was envying skill as she herself said that she could be flexible but that could be done to any woman of any race or colour so yeah it is not the genetic right of one singular race flexibility lol

  9. This reminds me of all the times white English teachers in South Korea would conspiritorially tell me the Korean people near us were talking shit about them – when they didn’t speak any Korean. I did, and they were talking about a video game, dude.

    1. I have witnessed Catholic sisters (!) assume that Black Haitian teens were conspiring with younger boys (Black Haitians) in Kreyol, asking them to lie about something–they were talking about breakfast, TV shows, and basketball!

  10. I feel like I might know where Jen was coming from on the yoga experience itself.

    My first yoga class was… many years ago at a class held at a community center. The instructor was very good, and he focused on slow and gentle movements. This is the yoga I had in mind when I suggested my 69 year old mother take it up. Obviously, yoga is an ancient spiritual practice developed for health and wellbeing that should be accessible to anyone.

    I’ve more recently taken yoga classes at Gold’s Gym and on college campuses. Those classes were much more focused on abilities- and probably appearances. Obviously, yoga is being practices as a competitive sport by painfully annoying pampered skinny white chicks with bottled water who need to prove they are sexy.

    I say this not to establish some kind of “more detached than though” religious-fundamentalist yoga hipster credentials. I say this because I’d be surprised if Jen Caron didn’t start at a Gold’s Gym type yoga class, compare herself to others and feel bad, and eventually switch to a more park district type yoga studio. She DID drink the religious fundamentalist yoga hipster Koolaid “anyone can do yoga”. And she says prior to this she did not think about who really felt welcome there. And she clearly never eradicated the “must compare self to others” mentality.

    As for why people like Jen Caron, and for that matter myself, did NOT in fact realize that black women do not suffer as much from the pathological obsession with appearances in the weight-fixation variety… I think it’s easier to see the dominant cultural standards as really powerful than to admit it’s a personal weakness to subscribe to them. One of my friends used to be a ballerina, and was hospitalized multiple times for depression and anorexia. I went with her to auditions and was amazed at how many of the conversations were about food. Despite a pretty reasonable attitude about my body for an adolescent, I still felt at the time I could develop an eating disorder pretty quick if I was surrounded by that. If what you suggest about black women adapting different beauty standards is true in the specific case of dancers, I’d be really interested in data on black ballerinas, and how they resist that toxic thinness culture.
    So to partially answer your question, she needs the black woman to envy her because envy is such a normalized part of her experience that if others don’t experience it, she is responsible for her pettiness (not the larger culture obsessed with appearance).

    Now, other aspects of the piece were deeply problematic, and I suspect the author learned a lot from screwing up that ostentatiously. I am really bothered by the ham handed way she described the woman, and the fact it made so many people feel dehumanized is a clear sign she screwed up on the racial-awareness front. She didn’t use the word “gross”, but she should have understood that the cultural context would fill that in whether she wanted it there or not. So in reality, she probably also needs the black woman to envy her for reasons related to internalized racism.

    1. I really enjoyed your reply. As a “fairly heavy black woman I had to go read that article and reply to it. One thing I forgot to mention was how she specifically singled out the black woman. If this woman had been a “fairly heavy” white woman would she had been so distracted by her poor performance? Would she had assumed this woman envied her too? Would she had burst into tears when she got home because her sanctuary had been destroyed? So it was really interesting for you to bring up the dancers who are just a small demographic of white women who are fighting everything to maintain a “skinny white girl body”.

  11. As a white woman who has a background in massage therapy, education and Spa and who is now pursuing a master’s in health care administration I am not all that surprised. I ended up taking a teaching job for massage at a community college in an area my state classifies as a blighted rural community. The area also had the dubious distinction of having been a dumping ground for hazardous waste and I think at one point Johnny Cochrane’s law firm defended some of the minority clients who’s quality of life suffered as a result. In spas and resorts, black women are a minority even more so than usual. Some of the theories of Eastern medicine are subtly racist or racialist and there is no denying that.

  12. As a white male (might as well be from planet Xqurion) I read with an attempted discipline of acceptance, tolerance and observance…. and something leapt right out at me;

    The author (a self-described ‘skinny white girl’) experienced a newbie/rookie ‘thick dark girl’ show up, all uncomfortable & new, to a yoga class… and the skinny white girl either observes or assumes all kinds of terrible emotional things… and DOES ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for the new kid.

    There are exceptions to everything I suppose… but would it be unfair to assume that this is a gender/cultural norm of responses?

    I think I can fairly say that the male culture (*especially* in a similar circumstance… say a thick non-white guy wandering cluelessly onto a beach with a surfboard to attempt to go for it among a pack of small, thin, flexible white surfer guys) would tend toward pulling the new guy into a bit of a protective/nurturing/coaching approach.

    Not right or wrong… we’re all different (with completely differing strengths & weaknesses,) but the contrast just seemed huge.

  13. That first person narrative at the beginning left me speechless. It shows a very narrow perception of self and surroundings. It is sad that this encounter did not take place much earlier in the narrator’s life, and that apparently there’s nobody there (yet?) to help her reflect on her own response to the situation. Because like you, I’m fairly certain that the black lady in her yoga class did not experience anywhere near as much distress as she…

  14. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    I think I reblogged this once but I am not White nor do I have any problems with people of any race, however, this article is also a critique and a good one of when certain people of a race, in this one a White women, think they are the center stage to everything in life just because of their Whiteness. It is actually demeaning to other people as the lady’s article which is cited in this article feels like she owns a certain public space all because of her trim petite body and her White skin colour. It feels really awkward because she is not a foreigner nor is the Black woman she is upset with. Just proves how egotistic people are :/

  15. I am a not-very-thin white woman who used to do yoga before an injury stopped that in its tracks and I never cared who else was in my yoga class because I was too busy trying to balance and breathe at the same time. I guess I will never understand why white people are so threatened by non-white people (yes, I meant to say that because a hispanic friend of mine has also mentioned this as well), but that is not why I am commenting. After looking for the last two years, I have found some great jeans for thick thighs: American Eagle Favorite Boyfriend jeans. Yeah, I know, my “whiteness” is showing just by mentioning American Eagle, but try them, or the “Boy Fit.” I swear by them, and I probably have thicker thighs than you ladies do. And even though they can’t “be found at Target or Wal-Mart” they have some great sales online.

  16. You are an absolute genius! I love how you can find actual, empirical questions to pose, and then answer, in things like this. (I’m also thinking of your essay on Quvenzhane Wallis.)

  17. I do not envy white women. I do pity them for “the thing that is bigger” that pressure that makes them feel they MUST be thin as a rail and blonde with impossible boobs. When some people feel normal womanly curves are problematic, somethin’ ain’t right.

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