Raymond Liu/HBO

Black Plus-Size Women Have Layers, So Why Aren't We Seeing Them On Screen?

The vision of the plus-size Black woman is often one-dimensional.

Her Voice

Let's face it, when it comes to a television show or movie centered around Black women, there will likely be a few hybrids of the "normals" in the friend group. The "saddity" or high-maintenance one that all the guys find their noses wide open over; the free-spirited one that's just kind of floating on this rock called Earth; the super Type-A friend who has a banging wardrobe and a not-so-banging love life; and, if we're lucky, you'll have the plus-size friend. You know her; she's typically the comedic relief who always has advice but who we rarely get to peek at behind the curtain of her (romantic and/or sex) life. Yeah, you know her.

Don't get me wrong, I love seeing the representation of women over the size 14. Still, the love is fleeting when the layers of who plus-size women genuinely are in the real world don't fully translate onto any screen I see them on. (P.S. Technically, "plus size" is sometimes considered a size 10/12. However, I'm specifically talking about the women who have always had to head to the dimly lit back of the store to find one rack of often unfashionable clothes to choose from. Yeah, her.)

First things first: nearly 68% of American women identify as plus-size, making us the average size in the country. More plus-size women are living fly, whole lives than not. So why are we made to feel like supporting characters with dimensions as shallow as kiddie pools?

Think back to any of your favorite "old school" to "new school" shows or movies where plus-size women are included, and you'll see what I mean. From Kelli on Insecure to Kim on Moesha and even Nikki Parker on The Parkers, the vision of the plus-size Black woman is often one-dimensional. Chances are she's loud, hypersexual, always the comedian, the one who chases men, and, oh, did I mention she's often seen as more "Mom jeans" than "MILF”?

We see that trope even in one of the most brilliant series, Insecure by Issa Rae. Early on, I was invested in the character Kelli (played by Natasha Rothwell) because she looked like me; she was armed with sarcasm and comedic timing that made me proud. She was just unapologetically and confidently fly. Kelli was the one everyone in her crew turned to for advice and words of reality and wisdom, and sis always had an excellent sex recommendation to try out, too.

Merie W. Wallace/HBO

Simply put: she was everyone's best friend. Kelli was always there. Always the life of the party. Always real. Still, in all the beauty of her character, during the five seasons of Insecure, Kelli was the friend you loved but felt like you never truly got a chance to get to know.

Compared to all her girls, she was the only character we never saw in a consistent relationship or even being pursued. Did Kelli participate in online dating? Had a man broken her heart? We could have explored so many unknowns and areas to give Kelli as much depth as the other girls. Kelli was flourishing and beautiful, yet, we never saw her being pursued in the ways the other friends were…only her aggressively chasing. Paired with other depictions of plus-size women, it's easy to believe the truth is that all plus-size women have this as a reality. Also, unlike all the other characters on Insecure, we never saw the inside of Kelli's bedroom or even her home, or her dating (being fingered under the table is a good time, but it isn't a date, y'all…).

The searies finale aired late last year and I've watched it no less than ten times. Spoiler alert: It wasn't until the last 30 minutes of the finale that we were finally able to see Kelli fall in love, get pregnant and reveal the layers of herself. I loved watching her exist in her evolved vision. I also felt cheated. I'd had five seasons seeing the other girls grow romantically and had only a sped-up glimpse of seeing someone who looks like me be loved and in love.

Raymond Liu/HBO

I felt like she deserved more…like we deserved more. Not only for the representation of plus-size women but because ALL of us deserve to see the reality of how we're flawed and living, celebrated.

Let's be very clear, the dimensions of plus-size women go beyond the boxes we're often placed in under the guise of being inclusive. That plus-size woman's desirability doesn't diminish because she has rolls, or because she has a FUPA, or because she's thicker in the waist or thighs. Even in reality shows, a plus-size woman is often solely seen as the back-up for the thinner friend. If they are shown in relationships, it's as if the world is amazed at the thought of someone loving a bigger woman. Despite what you've heard, plus-size women aren't out here begging and chasing as an everyday means of finding a partner.

Nikki Parker may have chased Professor Oglevee on The Parkers, but that level of unapologetic desperation for a man (who doesn't want you) is not the norm; I don't want anyone - plus size or not - to think it is. I love to be the bearer of great news: plus-size women are being loved, having sex and incredible orgasms, raising their babies, dressing fly, and keeping it hella sexy while thriving in all the areas of their lives.

A plus-size woman isn't her crew's savior, whether comedic or therapeutic. A plus-size friend is an additive to the crew that gives it a vibe to show that, regardless of how different we are, as Black women, we are all collectively magic.

But first, we have to get out of all the boxes we've placed each other in and then dismantle the boxes we've settled being put into by others. How we see ourselves is more important than how others see us; but, a resounding trend of only showing plus-size Black women as desperate, loud, and only as valuable as the laughs she can provide is more harmful than helpful. I'm hopeful for the day that the vulnerability and diversity of who we are leads to the introductions of how others see us.

Steve Dietl/NBC

Shows like Grand Crew (with Nicole Byers) and Good Girls (starring Retta) normalize the various dimensions and desirabilities of Black plus-size women. I can't wait for others to follow suit. We can make you laugh, but we're not your laugh track. We can give great advice, but we're not your therapist. We can be sassy, but we can also be sensitive. We are desirable, worthy of unveiling our layers, and beautiful enough to stand next to our girls and be seen as an equal and not just a support for their narratives.

Just as we've fought over the years to have a seat at the table, being satisfied with just having a seat is half the battle. Now that we have a seat at the table, it's on us to make sure we're all seen. Regardless of whether we're plus-size, thin, tall, short, dark-skinned, light-skinned, have natural hair, and/or have relaxed hair - we are more than a single dimension.

Just as important as it is for that young teenage girl to see a plus-size woman on the screen, it's equally as crucial for her to proudly stand in the truth of who she is as a whole: beautiful, flawed, funny, desirable, loved and fly as hell.

We deserve to be seen through the whole, flourishing, transparent lens that proudly shows that off.

Featured image by Raymond Liu/HBO

When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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