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Race, Femininity and Food: Femininity and the Racialization of Health and Dieting

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Abstract

‘Femininity as Portrayed within Western Society’ is a research study that explored the ways in which femininity, what Moi (1989) defined as a set of cultural attributes assigned to the female sex, is racialized within western culture. To uncover black and white women’s racialized perceptions of femininity a total of 42 women, 22 black and 20 white women were interviewed for this research. This paper will highlight the ways in which the discipline of diet is practised within the homes of white and black women in their endeavours reflect and perform femininity. With the white respondents, the message that is communicated within their homes, through the everyday practice of their mother’s eating, was that dieting was perceived and learnt as the ‘normal’ way to eat. Within the homes of the black respondents, however, food, rather than being something that was restricted, was about sociability, something to be shared out and enjoyed.
International Review of Social Research 2017; 7(2): 109–118
De Beauvoir (1997) informed us that for the female body
to be considered ‘woman’ that body must share in the
mysterious and mythical ‘reality’ known as femininity. It is
femininity that transforms the female body into a feminine
one for it to become ‘woman’. Ultimately, femininity is
about gender, as Skeggs (1997) argues, femininity is the
process through which women are gendered and become
specific sorts of women. It is about transforming women’s
bodies into socially constructed feminine roles. According
to Bordo (2003), femininity is always a representation
of the aesthetic ideal of the time, and in contemporary
western culture this ideal is thinness; the slenderness of
the female body.
We are regularly bombarded with images of
femininity in popular culture, and these images are
always a representation of a woman’s slender, slim body.
Subsquently, Bordo (2003) argues that many women feel
compelled to embody these images. The need to reflect
these images is what makes femininity, and thinness;
the slenderness of the female body, a relentless pursuit
for women. When it comes to reflecting femininity, there
needs to be a ‘taking away’ from the female figure if it is
to be a representation of femininity. This ‘taking away’
(Jeffreys 2005) comes through utilizing the practices of
diet and exercise; the female body needs to be trained
and shaped to be considered feminine. According to
Wolf (1991), the concept of femininity enables women to
live under a beauty myth which makes women’s eating
habits a public issue. Food and the eating of food are
central to our understanding of the westernised concept
of femininity because women have been taught to restrain
themselves and have a self-denying mentality when it
comes to food. It is this self-denying mentality that has
made the knowledge of weight-loss and disciplining one’s
body an important skill girls obtain from an early age.
Public images of women gave us a clear illustration
of what femininity is and plays a central role in our
understanding of femininity. This is because ‘the
environment in which women learn about the politics of
the body is saturated with media presentations of what
a woman’s body should be’ (Poran 2002:66). However,
DOI 10.1515/irsr-2017-0013
Received: February 1, 2016; Accepted: December 20, 2016
Abstract: ‘Femininity as Portrayed within Western Society’
is a research study that explored the ways in which
femininity, what Moi (1989) defined as a set of cultural
attributes assigned to the female sex, is racialized within
western culture. To uncover black and white women’s
racialized perceptions of femininity a total of 42 women,
22 black and 20 white women were interviewed for this
research. This paper will highlight the ways in which the
discipline of diet is practised within the homes of white
and black women in their endeavours reflect and perform
femininity. With the white respondents, the message
that is communicated within their homes, through the
everyday practice of their mother’s eating, was that
dieting was perceived and learnt as the ‘normal’ way to
eat. Within the homes of the black respondents, however,
food, rather than being something that was restricted, was
about sociability, something to be shared out and enjoyed.
Keywords: Femininity, Food, Diet, White women, Black
women
Introduction
Many western feminists (De Beauvoir [1949] 1997, Greer
1971, Dworkin 1974, Moi 1989, Wolf 1991, Bordo [1993]
2003, Skeggs 1997) have attempted to address the
question of femininity. They have all theorised femininity
by stating that femininity is not biological nor does it have
anything to do with the female physical body. Femininity
is something that is imposed on a woman’s body from
the outside either through direct or indirect means
(Andermahr et al. 2000). Moi (1989) defined femininity
as a set of cultural attributes assigned to the female sex.
Research Article Open Access
© 2017 Mary Igenoza, licensee De Gruyter Open.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
Mary Igenoza*
Race, Femininity and Food: Femininity and the
Racialization of Health and Dieting
*Corresponding author: Mary Igenoza, Assistant Chair for the
charity Black & Minority Ethnic Community Association (BMECA),
E-mail:mezigenoza@hotmail.com
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110  M. Igenoza
these images are not just a reflection of women who are
thin; their pictures do not only reflect what Bordo (2003)
calls the slenderness of the female body. The images of
femininity that are everywhere in popular culture are
also a reflection of women who are white. The women
who were labelled ‘skinny’ or having ‘slim-frame/figure’
in newspapers and magazines are of women who were
almost, always white. For example, the Mail Online (6th
January 2016) had an article on the American socialite
Olivia Palermo stating: ‘Olivia Palermo displays her super-
slim frame in a sunshine yellow bikini’ (appendix, figure
1) and she was described as bright and beautiful. On the
other hand, black celebrities such British model Naomi
Campbell (appendix, figure 2) are described as having
a ‘glamorous muscular build’, or they are bootylicious
like Beyoncé. There seems to be a clear demarcation
between the ways in which women like Victoria Beckham
(appendix, figure 3) or Nicole Kidman (appendix, figure
4) were described from women like Lupita Nyong’o
(appendix, figure 5) or Halle Berry (appendix, figure 6).
It seems that the concept of femininity, or what Bordo
(2003) describes as the slenderness of the female ideal, is
a very racialized concept. Subsequently, we need to ask
the question; has there been a lack of racial awareness
when it comes to western feminists’ analyses of femininity
that we see everywhere in popular culture? Do women’s
relationship with food differ, as they attempt to reflect
and perform femininity and the slenderness of the female
ideal because of their race and ethnicity?
‘Femininity as Portrayed within Western Society’
(2011) was a research study that placed race at the centre
of its exploration of femininity, analysing the ways in
which femininity is racialized within western culture.
This was done by empirically researching the lives of 42
women, 22 black women and 20 white women, through
the use of semi-structured interviewing. To access data
that was not only informative but also rich in knowledge
when it comes to beauty, femininity and the female body,
requests for interviews concentrated specifically on
establishments that were relevant to this research. Beauty
salons and hairdressers which catered to black women
were targeted as well as mainstream (white) hairdressers
and gyms in city centre Manchester. The main aim
was to find respondents who frequently visited beauty
establishments and women who made a concerted effort
to reflect femininity. The data collected from the interviews
were analysed through the main principles of grounded
theory. Charmaz (2003) claims that grounded theory
methods consist of systematic inductive guidelines for
gathering, synthesising, analysing and conceptualising
qualitative data to construct theory and the strength of
grounded theory lies in its empirical foundation. The use
of grounded theory ensured that focus was placed solely
on the findings which emerged from the data.
Drawing from the data, this paper will argue that
food and the eating of food is a highly racial and cultural
practice that is primarily learnt within the home and this
practice greatly influences white and black women’s
perceptions and understanding of femininity. This article
will also illustrate the fundamental role mothers play in the
ways in which black and white women ‘restrict’ their food
intake to reflect femininity. The first section following this
introduction will focus on the white respondents and the
message that was communicated in their homes, through
the everyday practice of their mother’s eating. When it
comes to understanding the relationship between food
and femininity what was learnt within the homes of the
white respondents was that food is a substance that must
be restricted or controlled if a woman is to successfully
perform femininity. As a result, dieting is learnt as the
‘normal’ way to eat. This section will then go on to show,
that within the home of the black participants’ food was
not seen as something that should be highly monitored
or controlled when it comes to reflecting femininity. The
second section will focus on how white respondents of
this study associated food with black women and their
cultures and how the black respondents associated
thinness with whiteness. This section will also draw
attention to the ways in which the black women of this
study were beginning to accept the message given to them
by government policy and their doctors, that food, and
the intake of food must be tightly controlled for health
reasons.
Finally, this article will conclude by stating, as Craig
(2006) argues, that western feminists’ focus on thinness
and the pursuit to maintain a slender figure to understand
western women’s practices of femininity, though not
incorrect, is incomplete. By conducting a comparative
study on the ways in which femininity racially affected
both black and white women’s lives, ‘Femininity as
Portrayed within Western Society’ is a research study that
has implications for the ways in which we read previous
white western feminists’ accounts of femininity. For their
analysis of femininity are just racialized evaluations
of femininity, and they inform us of the ways in which
femininity primarily affects white women’s lives. The
restriction of food intake has always been central to a
white woman’s attempt to reflect and perform femininity.
However, as this article will illustrate, this is not necessarily
the case for black women. The relationship women have
with food in their attempts to perform femininity is greatly
influenced by their race and ethnicity.
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Race, Femininity and Food: Femininity and the Racialization of Health and Dieting  111
Femininity and Diet
This section will clearly illustrate how racialized dieting
is and how the concept of dieting has acquired meaning
through historical and cultural factors. Drawing from the
words of the white respondents in this study, the message
that was communicated in their homes through the
everyday practice of their mother’s eating was that dieting
was perceived and learnt as the ‘normal’ way to eat. They
grew up to understand, through their mother’s eating that
restricting one’s food intake makes a big difference to the
way they look and feel. Sara, a 24-year-old white woman
working in retail, continually argued that it was important
for her to stay slim because being slim was not only
about being thin, it was also about being healthy. This
message, McKinley (1999) argues, became prominent in
the 1970s with officials arguing that any level of thinness
was healthier than being fat and that the thinner person
was, the healthier person. Thinness essentially equated to
healthiness, beauty and desirability.
McKinley (1999) claimed that programmes such as
‘Shape Up America’ advised women that if they were at
or below the ‘healthy weight’, which is noticeable by the
thinness of a woman’s body, then a woman’s goal is to
maintain that weight for the remainder of her life. The
message of maintaining an ‘ideal healthy weight’ rarely went
unchallenged and the reasons given, McKinley (1999) states,
for not losing weight were pregnancy and certain medical
conditions. Within western culture, the idea of maintaining
a ‘healthy weight’ has created the normalisation of diet. For
example, there is a continued increase in the popularity
of weight loss companies such as Slimming World and
Weight Watchers as well as the increased use of diet pills. It
is important to make a racial differentiation here. The idea
that a woman must continually diet to sustain a ‘healthy’
weight that equates to thinness is a message that mainly
affects white women. As this paper, will illustrate, this was
not a message that was communicated within the homes of
the black respondents who took part in this study. Sara, a
24-year-old white woman, was asked why she thought to be
healthy meant being thin:
Sara: My mum has always said that we should be healthy; you
know, and eating food from say McDonalds made you fat and
unhealthy, and I just grew up thinking that... I remember thin-
king I needed to go on a diet when I was about eight…I have
three older sisters and my mum, and that’s what I learnt from
them, and dieting is just what we do because we want to be thin
and healthy.
Cutting et al. (1999) claimed that studies have shown
that parents’ dieting history, eating concerns and child-
feeding practices influence the development of children’s
eating behaviours and weight outcomes. They argued that
young women who diet often learn to do so from their
mothers, who may provide explicit advice on dieting.
Cutting et al. (1999) cite the study of Fisher and Birch
(1999) to argue that for much younger girls, mothers
who attempt to control their daughters’ eating reported
restricting their daughters’ food intake which is related
to their dietary restraints. It is mothers that are the first
to teach their daughters the art of restraint when it comes
to food, to monitor and to control everything they put
in their mouths. Angela, a white 28-year-old nurse, was
asked when she first thought that dieting and exercise
were necessary to be thin and beautiful:
Angela: I’ve always thought that, well from a very early age
because my mum is big and I have always known dieting to be
part of her life… I’ve always known that dieting is something a
woman does; my mum has dieted ever since I was a baby.
Angela continually argued throughout her interview that
a woman cannot be genuinely happy with herself if she
was perceived as overweight. Using her mother as an
example, she claimed that her mother is happiest when
she is thinner than her ‘normal’ weight. This illustrates
that a mothers’ attitude to food and her behaviour can
not only affect the way her daughter may eat but can
also affect her daughter’s perceptions of femininity. A
mother’s attitude to food can even affect women’s ideas of
happiness. Angela claimed:
Angela: When my mum is depressed she eats and gets fat and
thinks she’s ugly and when she’s been on a diet and has lost
loads of weight she is happy, confident and goes out. I’m 28
now, and that’s affected me, and it’s the same with…for me
being happy means not being overweight.
In Angela’s case when it came to her body representing
femininity it was her interaction with her mother, the
messages she received through her mother’s dieting
behaviours that affected the way she has learnt to present
her body as a woman. It was Angela’s mother who taught
her what it means to be beautiful, and that beauty came
through the careful monitoring of one’s food intake. Angela
was very candid about the effects dieting had on her life:
Angela: You know what it’s sad, but dieting has affected my
whole life…From the day I was born dieting has had a great
effect on me. I look at the pictures of my mum before I was born
and she was beautiful and thin and then I look at the pictures
of her after I was born and she was quite chubby. I think it was
after having me that my mum got quite big and I sometimes
blame myself for it.
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112  M. Igenoza
Danielle, a black 31-year-old solicitor, was asked when
she first thought dieting and exercise were necessary to be
considered thin and beautiful:
Danielle: Umm, probably when I was at school, you know at
secondary school about 14 when friends would say that they
were on a diet but I don’t really think that a woman must be thin
to be beautiful.
There is a clear difference between Sara and Angela,
two white respondents whose knowledge of diet and
restricting one’s food intake was learnt from their mothers
within the home and Danielle a black participant whose
knowledge of dieting came from her friends at school.
Cutting et al. (1999) argued that it was mothers that are
the first to teach their daughters the art of restraint when
it comes to food, to monitor and to control everything they
put in their mouths. However, drawing from the data of
the black respondents of this study this is not the case for
black women.
For example, Danielle was asked if her mother ever
went on diets when she was a child:
Danielle: My mum’s African (laughs), food’s not something that
was restricted in my house I was told that I was lucky to get a
good supply of food and to eat rather than to control what I ate,
no my mum did not diet, not that I remember anyway.
When Leanne, a black 24-year-old Fitness Instructor
was asked if she would rather be a little overweight than
underweight she argued that she would rather be a little
overweight because of the importance her family has
attached to being curvy:
Leanne: Well you know everybody in my family is very curvy,
and they all take the meek (tease or mock) out of me because I’m
thin, so in Jamaican culture curves are beautiful…My family are
Jamaican and big is beautiful, and that has a big influence on
me and the way I see dieting and my body.
Sobo (1997) argued that in Jamaica, keeping slim has
antisocial connotations because food is about sociability,
sharing and is always readily available within people’s
homes. According to Sobo (1997) thin individuals in
Jamaica, who are not sick or poor are labelled as mean or
stingy because they have no good reason to restrict food.
This perception about food that comes from Jamaica is
also the same in Africa. Renne (2007) argues that in West
Africa a parent’s lack of provision of adequate food may be
seen as a sign of a failed mother-child relationship. Food
is an important part of sustaining good parent-children
relationships, and weight loss signals social neglect.
Sobo (1997) argues that if a Jamaican sees someone
losing weight, they wonder what sort of life stresses
may have caused the weight loss, rather than offering
congratulations for it and attributing it to a ‘good’ diet.
These perceptions about food and thinness were acted
and re-enacted within the homes of the black women who
took part in this study. There was stack difference between
white and black women when it comes to their attitudes to
food and dieting.
There is the common belief and assumption which
western feminists have reinforced, and this is that all
women have the desire to be thin because all women are
surrounded by images of thin women in the media. As we
saw with Angela, a white 28-year-old woman, Danielle,
a black 31-year-old woman and Leanne, a black 24-year-
old, their relationships with their mothers or family
greatly influenced their association with food and their
understanding of beauty and femininity.
By drawing attention to the importance of what takes
place in the home, we can begin to understand that the
eating of food, even though it is an everyday practice, is
also a highly ethnic and racial practice. Therefore, we can
begin to see the ways in which food influences white and
black women’s perceptions of their bodies in relation to
the image of femininity. It is vital that western feminists
who write on femininity and the female body consider the
importance of race and the ways in which racial difference
is enacted through the everyday practice of eating and
dieting in their analysis of femininity and the female body.
Notions concerning health, Sobo (1997), claims can
profoundly influence the symbolic communications made
through our bodies. These notions greatly influence the
ideal standards set for bodies and affect the ways we
experience, care for, and shape (or try to shape) our bodies
and those of others. In the West, it is widely believed that
to be thin is to be healthy and that the healthier woman
is, the thinner woman (McKinley 1999). The westernised
message of femininity is that women must carefully
monitor and control what is placed in their mouths.
Drawing from the data in this study, however, it was
mainly the white respondents who learnt as young girls
to evaluate their eating and bodies not only through the
thinness of the images of femininity they see around them
in popular culture but also through their mother’s eating
and dietary behaviours. Bartky (1988) argues (white) girls
have internalised the importance of their appearance
by learning to watch their bodies as an outside observer
regulating their body size and contours, its appetite,
posture and gestures.
Sayers (2002) states that our bodies and what we
feed them are conditioned by economic, historical,
biographical, ideological and discursive factors. Health
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traditions do not exist in isolation; they are not separate
from other realms of culture, and there are cultural and
racial differences in the way body ideals and health are
perceived. Sobo (1997) claims that for Jamaicans the ideal
body type is plump, hence, why Leanne, the black 24-year-
old Fitness Instructor, argued that her family made fun
of her because she was thin, and for her family, who are
Jamaicans there are negative connotations attached to
thinness. This is also the case for Africans; Danielle, a
black 31-year-old solicitor, originally from Nigeria argued
that when her friends and family saw that she had put on
weight they all claimed that she was looking well:
Danielle: I remember going to a party with some family and
friends that I had not seen since I was a teenager and loads of
my mum’s friends, aunties and uncles came up to me saying I
had put on weight, they all told me how great I looked. One of
my aunts said that I now looked like a proper woman because I
looked healthy and beautiful and comments like that do affect
the way I think about my body...
There is a different ‘health-related symbolism’ (Sobo
1997:257) and sub-cultural variation which take place
within the homes of black women. By understanding that
black women have a different relationship with food and
have a different health-related symbolism to white women,
we can begin to recognise that not all women conform or
attempt to reflect the thinness femininity represents. We
can also understand why black women may have rejected
or have not fully accepted the thinness of femininity or the
slenderness of the female ideal. The significance food has
within black women’s homes and cultures have helped
black women to be less concerned about their weight and
are twice as likely to report being satisfied with their weight
than their white counterparts (Hebl and Heatherton 1998).
Food for black women is very much about well-being, and
it is widely accepted that sickness occurs when there is a
lack of food. According to Sobo (1997), food for Jamaican
women rightfully fattens the body, making plumpness
an index of quality, good social relations and especially
good physical health. Sobo (1997), like Leanne, argued
that Jamaicans value large curvy women. Conducting her
research in rural Jamaica, Sobo (1997) claimed that her
female respondents argued that the body should be built
up by eating and one should eat to replenish what is lost
through work and other activities. Claire, a black 35-year-
old Recruitment Officer claimed:
Claire: At work, many white women would just have salad for
lunch, and I think that’s just mad. I need some proper food to
get me through the day because when I have something like
salad I’m hungry again in about an hour I need food of subs-
tance to build up my energy. Salad goes with your meal (laughs)
it’s like a side dish; it should not be the meal.
Claire shows the importance of feeding her body with what
she calls “food of substance” to replenish her body and
it is this that will get her through her daily activities. For
my white respondents, it seemed to be the other round;
they were more obsessed with the pursuit of thinness,
and continually exercised to remove the calories they had
taken in through what they had eaten.
In African and Caribbean cultures, there is not a
stigma with being large as there is in white western
culture. Sobo (1997) argues that there are health benefits
to being big among Jamaican women. The largeness of a
woman’s body also indicates that she will be successful in
reproduction and there is also, as we saw with Danielle,
the belief that the plumpness of a woman’s body indicates
her attractiveness. Hence, the reason why Leanne, the
black 24-year-old woman, argued that she would rather
be a little overweight than a little underweight and this is
even though she is a fitness instructor.
Within black subcultures, food is also about sociability
and the most respected person in African villages and
rural Jamaica is the large person who is actively involved
in food sharing (Sobo 1997, Renne 2007). Respected
individuals like these would be described as ‘big woman/
mama’ or ‘big man/papa’, and food sharing is a part of
good social relations, and this food sharing has become
part of western black sub-culture. Gloria, a 20-year-old
black student nurse, told me the importance of food and
how it is beneficial to her as a student:
Gloria: One of the best things about being Nigerian is that I
can go to a friend’s house and there is food readily available.
Because I’m a student I get family friends who want to feed me
because they don’t want me to lose weight. If someone gives you
food it’s rude to say no, so I love being African in that respect.
Crystal, the 35-year-old black domestic worker when
asked about dieting spoke about being offered food from
family members:
Crystal: No and even if I wanted to diet I can’t because I go to my
auntie’s house regularly and she is always offering me food and
even if I’ve eaten its rude to say no.
Anna, a 30-year-old white housewife, married to a black
man also told me about the availability of food within
black people’s homes:
Anna: When I go round to my husband’s family there’s always
loads of food, and they are like, come in, eat, make sure you eat,
you are looking thin. When I’ve eaten my mother-in-law is like
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114  M. Igenoza
don’t you want some more, there is loads left have some more.
When I go round to my mum’s I’m only offered a drink (laughs),
a cup of tea.
According to Hughes (1997), food is central to black
culture, and the easy availability and the sharing of it
plays an important part in black people’s lives. Slimness is
not something that is valued, and mothers are continually
asking their daughters and the younger women around
them if they are eating properly. Food and the importance
of food play an important part in the lives of black women
and affect their attitudes to dieting and the ways in which
they perceive the thinness femininity represents.
Food and Black Women, Thinness
and White Women
Bordo (2003) describes femininity has a representation
of the aesthetic ideal of the time, and in contemporary
western culture this ideal is thinness; the slenderness
of the female body. The white respondents in this study
also associated femininity with thinness and they
regularly argued that black women were not influenced
by femininity because they are not necessarily influenced
by the slenderness that femininity has come to represent
in western culture. Black women are highly influenced by
the images of femininity they see everywhere in popular
culture. The difference is; however, they attempt to reflect
or perform femininity in different ways from their white
counterparts. Instead of monitoring and restricting their
food intake to reflect the slenderness femininity, they
attempt to replicate femininity through the alterations of
their afro hair. When Laura, a white 19-year-old trainee
hairdresser, was asked why she thought black women
were not influenced by thin images of women in the media
or why we rarely saw black celebrities labelled as ‘thin’ or
‘underweight’ she replied:
Laura: I don’t think femininity affects them and well black
people have a culture of food, don’t they? They love their
chicken.
There is the common belief among white women as well
as in feminist literature on the femininity and the female
body that black women are ‘protected’ from internalising
westernised ideals of femininity because of ‘black
culture’. This, therefore, enables them to have a more
positive body image than their white counterparts. Poran
(2006) states that there is the notion that ‘black culture’
is separate from dominant white culture. Additionally,
the tendency to examine sub-cultural norms as distinct
from or unrelated to, dominant cultural norms limits
the conceptualisation of this protection. Black women’s
identity in this configuration is presented as fixed and
stable, as a thing that – by its ‘nature’ – can withstand
the pressures of dominant culture and this is not the case.
What Laura described as ‘a culture of food’ might enable
black women not to be as influenced by the slenderness
of the aesthetic ideal as their white counterparts does
not mean that they are ‘protected’ or not swayed by
femininity at all. Black women spend thousands of
pounds by buying wigs, having weaves and chemically
straightening their hair to reflect femininity. Femininity
is not only about what Bordo (2003) describes as the
slenderness of the female ideal but also about its long
flowing hair.
Julie, a white 23-year-old sales assistant, also claimed
that the cultural labels that are placed on a large white
female body compared to that placed on a large black
female body is completely different, and she argued that
this can help black women reject the pressures placed on
women to be thin:
Julie: I think people expect...they expect black women to be
voluptuous…People kind of expect it, so there is not as much
pressure there perhaps. Whereas when you see a fat white
woman walking down the street and you see fat hanging out of
her…it looks dreadful and blotchy; it just looks worse…I think
it is also an image we’ve got in the UK of a big fat white woman
which is scary; people just think they are just sitting there doing
nothing all day eating pies and getting fat…it is that association
of a lazy fat white person on the dole.
Black respondents in this study equated thinness with
whiteness or an attributed closely associated with white
women. One’s endeavour to be thin for black women was
about one’s endeavour to be white, and this is something
that my black respondents wanted to reject. The ‘tyranny
of slenderness’ (Chernin 1981) was described as a taking
away not just from one’s body but from one’s black self.
There were some black women who took part in this
study who saw and described thinness as a terrifying
thought. The sizing down of the black woman meant
that the removal of her weight equated to the removal
of her blackness. Grace, the black 31-year-old Teaching
Assistant, was asked why she thought we never really see
extremely thin black celebrates in the media:
Grace: I don’t think that being skinny is really part of our culture
and it doesn’t look good on a black woman. I mean I want a nice
curvy black woman’s body, not sticks and bones… To be honest,
I just think that it’s not something black women do, but it’s what
white women do.
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Race, Femininity and Food: Femininity and the Racialization of Health and Dieting  115
Leanne, the black 24-year-old Fitness Instructor, spoke of
the way her family viewed her slender figure:
Leanne: Everyone in my family is big, I’m around big women,
and I am a size six/eight, and they say to me “oh you’re too
skinny, put on weight, put on weight, put on weight”. When I’m
stressed, I lose weight and my mum once came up to me, seri-
ously (laughs), and said are you trying to act white because you
are getting too thin...
Leanne also associated losing weight with Englishness
and being a part of English culture:
Leanne: Brought up around some English families I think they
just believe that skinny is beautiful because it’s just their culture.
With their families, they hear their mum’s say oh I need to lose
weight and my mum is like oh I love my food… losing weight is
not in my household, and that’s just part of being English.
The negative association of thinness and white women
also comes from an African subculture. The African
women who were interviewed for this study could not
understand why slenderness was such a coveted body
figure in the West. Some were surprised that there was
such a strong association between whiteness and thinness
because whiteness for them is associated with affluence
and wealth which means accessibility and access to food.
For example, Crystal, a black 35-year-old domestic worker
for Uganda said:
Crystal: Our food is very important to us, and dieting is not
something that is part of our culture. To be thin has nothing
to do with femininity and beauty. In Uganda to be thin is to be
sick, dying of malaria or aids. If it is not acceptable to see really
thin people during famine, why is it acceptable on the red carpet
and among white women in the West? I don’t understand why
people who have so much food stop themselves from eating it.
For the black African women who took part in this study,
the connotations with the thin black female body are
that of famine, sickness and death. Hence, they viewed
thinness as an elimination of blackness rather than the
celebration of it.
This is not to say that black women do not care
about their weight because many of them do. Health
and bodily wellbeing is something that both black and
white respondents spoke a lot about during the interview
process. The contemporary western focus on the body
means that people are routinely exhorted to look after
their bodies, for example through healthy eating, keeping
fit and looking good. Food and the eating of food are the
primary focus when it comes to the subject of health.
There have been many healthy eating initiatives drawing
on the work of experts and specialists such as nutritionists
and scientists with the aim to convince people to embrace
a healthy eating plan and lifestyle. Woodward (2008)
argues that the promotion of the healthy body through
healthy eating has become a regulatory strategy of the
neo-liberal state; good citizens have healthy bodies and
look after themselves. This message is not only a message
that speaks to white mainstream culture but is also a
message that affects black subcultures. There is a shift
where black daughters are now informing their mothers
about the benefits of healthy eating. Leanne, the 24-year-
old black Fitness Instructor, spoke of how her little sister
is telling her mother how to eat:
Leanne: At the end of the day you can’t get away from the health
thing. My mum is a big woman, and my little sister is telling
mother not to eat so many deep-fried foods, she is worried
because she does not want my mum to get ill and now my mum
is even thinking of getting a gastric band.
Woodward (2008) states that the body is targeted by
the state because good citizens are healthy citizens and
many of the black respondents in this study felt that it
was the black female body that is being targeted. Many
black women in this study argued that they, their mothers
and aunties felt the need to monitor their weight, control
and reshape their bodies. Naomi, a 22-year-old mixed-
race hairdresser, claimed that she felt an overwhelming
pressure to lose some weight and her West-Indian
grandmother has also felt the same because of her doctor:
Naomi: I know I need to lose weight for health reasons, but
you know even my black grandmother also wants to lose some
weight which I was surprised at because she’s always cooking...
her doctor has been telling her that she has a high risk of disea-
ses, so she is trying to lose some weight.
When it comes to messages of health and black women’s
general eating habits, black women are also attempting to
balance two separate cultures. The celebration of the thin
body in popular western culture coupled with the repeated
warnings of the dangers of obesity (Woodward 2008) by
the government and doctors have made black women to
rethink day-to-day cooking and eating practices. Sharron,
the 40-year-old black doctor said:
Sharron: As a doctor, I know that unhealthy eating can cause
diabetes which a lot of black people suffer from...it increases the
risk of heart disease and cancer…as a black doctor I know that
food is more than just food …especially for older black people
food is about heritage, the smells of back home, whether it’s the
Nigerians or the Jamaicans food plays a big part of that home
comfort and it’s a part of who they are. I have a lot of black pati-
ents with diabetes, and it’s difficult to say your food could kill
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116  M. Igenoza
you, so it’s about telling them to roast their chicken rather than
deep fry it...
Black women are now beginning to buy into the healthy
eating message and the belief that food must be tightly
controlled. As a result, they are now joining dieting
institutions such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World
to help them size down. Phoenix, the black 27-year-old
teacher, has been an on/off member of Slimming World,
and it’s a membership she shares with her mother. During
my interview with Phoenix she claimed that the recipes in
the Slimming World magazines and the foods she and her
mother are encouraged to eat tend to be predominantly
white European foods. This leaves the question, how
does a black woman who is a member of Slimming World
or Weight Watchers negotiate between the eating of her
traditional African or Jamaican food and the food she
is expected to eat to lose weight? Naomi, a 22-year-old
mixed-race hairdresser, explained that in her desire to
lose weight she joined Weight Watchers and had problems
in following the eating regime:
Naomi: Well I joined Weight Watchers last year, but I didn’t lose
any weight though (laughs)…I couldn’t count the points; I go to
my black grandma’s house a lot, and I didn’t know how to count
the points for curry goat or ackee and saltfish, so I just got sick
of it and stopped counting points.
Naomi’s experience at Weight Watchers demonstrates
that ethnic minorities are still discriminated against
by simple mechanisms of exclusion in contemporary
western culture. Her experience informs us that there
are a noticeable absence and understanding of race and
ethnicity by diet institutions. The same criticisms black
feminists made against white feminists applies to dieting
institutions; there has been a continual ignoring of black
women’s lives, struggles and experiences.
Conclusion
‘Femininity as Portrayed Within Western Culture’ is a
comparative study which racially explores the concept of
femininity and the ways in which it affects both white and
black women’s lives. It highlights the fact that previous
studies which focus on the representations of femininity
are in fact racial research that primarily focused on the
lives of white women. This article has argued, drawing
from the data in this study, that it was primarily white
women that were influenced by the slenderness of the
feminine ideal. Their interaction with their mothers and
learning from their mother’s normalisation of diet and
control of food intake greatly influences their perceptions
of femininity. As a result, they have learnt to closely
associate femininity with thinness. The white respondents
in this study, in their efforts to perform femininity, were
preoccupied with losing or maintaining their weight.
Thus, they learnt to continually regulate and monitor
their food intake to reflect the slenderness of the aesthetic
ideal. On the other hand, the importance and significance
food took within the homes of the black respondents in
this study enabled them to be less concerned with their
weight. Food was more about sociability and sharing, and
the quest for thinness was not necessarily an obsessive
pursuit for them as black women.
Food for black participants was very much about
well-being, and it is widely accepted among West-Indian
and African cultures that sickness occurs when there
is a lack of food. Food and the relationship white and
black women learn to have with food within the home
influences their perceptions of femininity. Understanding
black and white women’s relationship with food furthers
our understanding of the ways in which the concept of
femininity affects both white and black women’s bodies.
It is vital that western feminists who write on the female
body consider the importance of racial difference and the
ways in which racial difference is performed through the
everyday practices such as eating and dieting. Notions
concerning food and health, according to Sobo (1997),
can profoundly influence the symbolic communications
made through our bodies. These notions greatly influence
the ideal standards set for bodies and affect the ways we
experience, care for, and shape (or attempt to shape) our
bodies.
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118  M. Igenoza
Appendix
Figure 1: Olivia Palermo Figure 2: Naomi Campbell
Figure 3: Victoria Beckham Figure 4: Nicole Kidman
Figure 5: Lupita Nyong’o Figure 6: Halle Berry
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