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?