Black Beauty Standards Can Be Just as Unhealthy as White Ones

She Matters: Recent stories serve as a reminder that there’s room for all shapes and sizes.

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Last week, there were plenty of reactions to an XO Jane story in which a self-described “skinny white girl” in a yoga class assumed that a "heavyset" black woman, who never said a word to her, coveted her lithe form. Whatever.

That misguided essay launched hundreds of responses, including one of my own, which pointed out that no, white lady, black women in general aren't sitting around pining for "skinny white girl” bodies. Many reaction stories emphasized that we black women have our own beauty ideals—ones that emphasize curves in all the "right" places and/or a little more "meat on the bones," as the elders might say. I wondered, though, even as I emphasized the difference between the two ideals, if black women hadn't bought into a perspective that, while unique from the mainstream standard, was equally as problematic as absolute thinness.

To emphasize my defense of black women who are just minding their business and aren't thinking about random white women, I posted a picture of video model-turned-fitness advocate Tiara Harris. Harris has a figure that is held up as "ideal" for black women—narrow waist, ample bosom, thick thighs and prominent rear—and many women commented how they would love to look just like her.

“Is that sister in the photo a trainer?” the very first commenter asked. “She is the bomb.com.”

She is. I picked the picture for a reason. But as much as that very curvaceous shape is admired, is it any more realistic for most black women than say, Sarah Jessica Parker—the current cover model for the February issue of InStyle—is for white women? The truth is, it isn't. And that is one of the reasons that some black women go to extreme lengths, risking their health and their lives, to meet an unrealistic body ideal. It’s the other side of the same coin that plagues some white women.

Over the last few months, there have been several viral stories about black women who have sought illegal butt injections with disastrous results. As an unintentional kickoff to Black History Month, The Root ran a story about Natasha Stewart, who was convicted of culpable negligence manslaughter for her role in helping a woman get silicone butt injections that resulted in her death.

Weeks before that, social media was abuzz over a new documentary, Buttloads of Pain, which featured the disturbing images and stories of women who had used illegal butt injections. One woman described how her backside had ”turned purple” and “peeled like an onion” after she received the shots. Images from the documentary show women with eroding buttocks that sag from their bodies.

And still that doesn’t compare to the woman who was featured in Essence magazine in 2012, whose scared-straight story pops back up every few weeks. She sought injections to fix the "pancake" booty that her family and friends teased her about. She lost all her limbs trying to look like the “ideal” black woman. 

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating beauty or black culture distinguishing itself by celebrating our own outlook. But it is important that in our conversations and perspectives about beauty, we make room to be inclusive of many shapes, sizes and curves—even those without them.

Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.