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on fatphobia, hair discrimination, and daily negotiations with a racist society

April 2, 2019
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Anti-Black racism is a helluva drug. But what becomes of it when fatphobia is introduced to the mix. Or any other intersection for that matter?

I suppose many a Black femme has asked this question because it’s a fair one. And one that doesn’t have an easy answer. However, when it comes to dealing with anti-Blackness that has been dealt to me via the cards of Eurocentric beauty standards, fat Black folx have to make negotiations and concessions about which part of us (which intersection) is gonna take the brunt of a societal beat-down every day.

My negotiation specifically has to do with my hair. As in, to be clear, I have used the eclectic, versatile, and ever-changing state of my hair to absorb the heavier blows of fatphobia fueled by anti-Blackness.

Why do I do it? Well, there’s not a straightforward answer to that either. On one hand, my hair has always been a weapon I wield when it comes to my own creative self-expression. It was a battleground in my uber-conservative, Nigerian home growing up —with strict rules about upkeep that included monthly perms, touch-ups, required length that were no doubt in keeping with respectability politics and what is considered “feminine”…for a dark-skinned Black girl. for a  So by the time I went to college, combinations of that and the potential money I would sink trying to uphold it drove me straight to “the big chop” while trying to survive on two dollars (the third dollar I probably spent on overpriced college books already).

Of course, my hangups about my hair and how it influenced perceptions on my appearance would not cease with the big chop. For as much as I hated my parents’ strict rules, I noticed growing up that having prettier, longer, and straighter hair as a Black girl shielded you, in a way, from harsher criticisms that your peers and elders (most of the time women, ironically) had for you.

This was two-fold if you were dark-skinned. And three-fold if you were fat.

Case in point, there was always an elder in my mother’s church who always had something smart to say about my weight. She’d make snide comments to my mother asking what she was feeding me and tell me I would be so pretty if I just lost some—while pointing at my round belly. This was mild compared to what I heard from my own parents, but hurtful nonetheless. But, on the days where my hair was particularly on point? When my mom had just given me a silk press or I was fresh off of a perm, with a head full of perm scabs? Well, there were no snide comments. No side-eyes about how I looked in comparison to skinnier church girls. All of the attention was focused on my hair and how “good” and “respectable” it looked.

And me being a child, I took the wrong lessons from this. Instead of recognizing that society hates fat [Black] folx so much that they require everything about us—especially when it comes to our appearance—to be in tip-top shape before we even receive a granular of respect and that this was unacceptable and I should be respected regardless of how fat I was, I internalized that I could avoid potential abuse concerning my weight if my hair was distracting enough. And distracting didn’t necessarily have to be respectable.

Enter my current pre-occupation with brightly-colored hair. After my big chop, I wore my hair naturally for quite a while, in a burgeoning afro. But I found it did not have quite the same effect that it did with my respectable hair. I still found myself overcompensating with humor (a noted disarming technique of fat folx), being stared at in public while eating (of course, I’m no punk, so I always mean-mugged back), or having my space violated because, by virtue of being fat, people assume that you are already taking up enough space. This continued until about my second or third year when I saw someone in one of my film classes with brightly-colored pink hair. And resolved that I wanted a similar look for myself.

The catch here is that while brightly-colored hair is not new to our community (and was popularized by trendsetting “ghetto” women in our community long ago), the girl wearing the hair was a light-skinned Black woman. And as much as our community tries to shimmy around such politics when it comes to skin (colorism) and hair (hair discrimination), it will always affect how all of us are perceived. She was on the “thicker” side, but not overtly fat like me, so she most likely didn’t garner the same ire and her skin tone insured that she would not be written off as “ghetto” for her unconventional hair color. And even if she had been dark like me, there is an argument to be made about how class might have factored into perception. I with my brightly-colored hair would garner a different reaction while occupying a “progressive”, liberal arts college space versus someone of my same hair color and skin tone occupying space in the real world or even on the street. Politics surrounding my college education deem my appearance slightly more acceptable in that context because while I’m pushing my luck, at least I’m not poor.

Or in the very least, reading as poor.

All of this, of course, is fucked up and literally contingent on some overt as well as an insidious form of anti-Black racism made more potent by internalization. But I didn’t care, nor is this something I really thought about, because the very next week, I returned with my own electric blue wig. And as expected, perceptions of me changed in big and small ways. I remember suddenly becoming visible in that same film class. The professor made a comment about how cool my hair looked (that was the first time he had spoken to me all year. We were closing in on midterm season) and some cishet boy I had been eyeing the whole time decided that today was the day to notice me and wink at me.

Even with my so-called friends, there were compliments about my drastic change in my appearance and how “good” I looked—with me taking silent notes that I had never received said compliments when my hair was natural. What’s more is that once my hair had undergone this change, I didn’t feel the need to do the same old disarming shticks I did to distract from being fat because there was no need.

My hair was technically doing all the disarming for me.

Years later, I would circle back to this moment after having some come-to-Jesus moment about my hair and body with myself and even ask some of these same friends some hard questions about why they suddenly felt more comfortable around me with my hair being louder and “feminine” and less “Black”. Some answers, like my brightly-colored hair softening my appearance, while anti-Black, I expected. Others, like apparently my new hair making my friends suddenly forget or incidentally just “not notice” that I was fat and focus on other parts of my personality and being, took me for a spin—even with my sordid relationship with hair and weight.

After all, I had spent over two years with some of these individuals. Laughed with them. Cried with them. Had mental breakdowns with them as we tried to avoid flunking out or living in a perpetual state of academic probation. So, imagine how jarring it was to hear that most of these people never even once thought about the full range of my humanity—past my body—until my hair changed to something less Black or unless I was cracking some funny joke because I was so damn “hilarious”.

And that, ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in between, is what anti-Black fatphobia looks like.

These days, I am still very adventurous with my hair and I have become fiercely accepting and confident when it comes to my fat body, because as one of my colleagues said, fat folx get robbed of enough confidence every day. Why would I add to my own marginalization by robbing my own? But this confidence and venture in creative expression by way of hair, is accompanied by my keen awareness of how I am perceived based on both of these things and what exactly I can do to combat that and make sure I’m not playing right into the hands of White supremacy and the beauty standards that love it.

Whether that plays out in purposely wearing my hair shorter and nappier in certain “professional” spaces or bringing hair color into spaces that are all but devoid of such—all on this fat body of mine—is just another necessary list of things that I have added to my daily negotiations with society as a fat Black femme.

CLARKISHA CLAPS BACK is a weekly column that humorously and honestly claps back at the world around writer Clarkisha Kent, from culture, politics, sexuality, gender and her personal life.