Just recently, singer, performer, and flute extraordinaire, Lizzo reached a milestone in her career by topping the Billboard charts at number one for her single, Truth Hurts. In heavy rotation on pop and hip-hop radio stations, Truth Hurts has become an anthem for everyone. Women, men, boys and girls…the LGBTQIA+ and hetero communities, all stan the greatness that is Lizzo. And as communities link arms to sing along, there is one group in particular whose appreciation for Lizzo carries with it a long history of discrimination and dehumanization for simply existing as she does.
For the fat Black community, Lizzo not only represents a force of talent in the spotlight making a name for herself. She also represents the antithesis to the “Mammy” stereotype often casted on fat Black women along with the demeanor that accompanies it. Considering this, the question burns in the hearts and minds of those living in larger bodies, does acceptance of a figure like Lizzo equate to acceptance of those who possess the same demeanor AND body that she does? Are we as a society really ready to accept that fat Black women are more sexy than they are “brave?” Are we ready to accept that fat Black women have always seen themselves as great and talented, yet it has been weight stigma glazed in white supremacy that has inhibited our ability to excel? What happens when the “Lizzos” of the world are not making music and entertaining the masses? What is to be said about the “Lizzos” that are your neighbors and family members?
The Audacity of Being Fat and Black with Confidence
While those who are fat are not expected to have confidence at all, listening to the opening of Truth Hurts, Lizzo makes her declaration sure, “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that b****.” Twerking on stage with skill and finesse, Lizzo exudes confidence with a surety of her body’s abilities. She is not reminiscent of the fat Black mammy whose main purpose in life was to be the caretaker of others. Nor is she the depiction of the sassy fat Black woman who is full of strife, using deception to get what she, in society’s eyes, could not otherwise qualify for. Quickly, Lizzo dispels any idea that what she does is a minstrel of sorts. Rather, she puts on a show relative to that of her smaller counterparts, obliterating the myths steeped in weight stigma that one cannot be fat and active, or fat and skillful, or fat and confident. Furthermore, Lizzo has no problem sharing the stage with other fat Black dancers, reinforcing the premise that we are a community of many, and she is not alone.
In Sabrina Strings book, Fearing the Fat Body: The Origins of Fatphobia, Strings lays out another way white supremacy was weaponized against larger Black bodies to offset its desirability and morality. Strings argues, based on her research, that throughout the 19th century, fat Black bodies were framed to be immoral due to the alleged excessive amount of food they inherently needed to consume. Coupling this the already derogatory beliefs about Black people, the Protestant church encouraged restraint among its White parishioners, leaving Black folk who possessed larger bodies and practiced Christianity to internalize the stigma placed on them. Furthermore, this also made it permissible to attach other negative attributes to living in larger bodies (i.e., laziness, gluttony, etc.), ultimately framing weight stigma as we know it today.
As Strings and others invested in fat liberation point out, the stigma associated with weight is not about health. Rather, it is a tool used by those in power to wield, with the assumption that if utilized properly, their status within our society’s hierarchy will remain intact. Thus, the goal of weight stigma is to keep people who live in larger bodies abased, shamed, and regretful for what they have allowed. It is to see their identities as “spoiled,” wasted, and only redeemable through the attainment of a smaller body. Lizzo spits in the face of this system.
Lizzo as a Spokesperson and Representative? Well Sort Of
Seemingly enough, there is a certain naivety to think that because Lizzo’s music is climbing the charts, being played on the radio, and is accepted into the homes of millions of listeners, somehow those who look like her will be as well. That with the melodic tune of the Truth Hurts chorus, families will start to see fat bodies as great, able, and valuable. However, ironically enough, with the acceptance of an “other,” the United States has this weird thing where they whitewash your identity to be simply “human,” something the mainstream can easily digest.
For Black celebrities, with fame comes the caution to not become too “political.” Just ask Lebron James, Colin Kaepernick, and Mo’Nique. This is not a new phenomenon. History shows us that speaking up for the lives of others deemed unworthy has cost celebrities their careers. Ultimately, the goal in silencing what some define as “identity politics,” is so that those who are marginalized will not use their platform to raise awareness and create social change. In Lizzo’s case, she is currently making a wonderful stand against weight stigma, however, the song topping the charts, making her most visible, is left open to interpretation by the listeners as to who that “100% that b****” can be. Thus, it is easy to listen to Truth Hurts and never hear Lizzo’s “truth.” It is easy to accept the message, while discarding or whitewashing the messenger.
Lizzo’s Contribution to Fat Communities & Abroad
So, where does this leave fat Black women? Interpersonally, changed. Lizzo is the representation some of us have been waiting for! She is the self-confident auntie who egged us on to dance in the kitchen. She is the fashion forward cousin who encouraged us to wear that crop top and booty shorts. She is the best friend who reminded us of our worth when a romantic prospect stopped calling. She is our queen that inspires us to liberation in the face of a system that is hellbent on reminding us that we do not belong. Systematically? This is left to be seen. The quest to fight weight stigma is a long and hard one, often taking victims along the way.
What can be encouraged is that Lizzo’s message not be whitewashed for the masses. She is a talented artist who has had to face weight stigma, coupled with racism (and still does) relentlessly on her way to fame. She has a story that should be told accompanying her music. Listeners should strive to put her lyrics into context to understand her as an artist and learn more about the world fat Black entertainers live in. For it will take more than a fat Black woman topping the charts to eliminate weight stigma, even against herself. Many will love to listen to Lizzo’s music and despise her body all the same.
Lizzo is an anomaly within the music industry, walking in the footsteps of the Jennifer Holidays, Izora Armsteads, and Martha Washes (The Weather Girls). She is a light to the fat community. A treasure to those that understand that you cannot separate the personal from the political when you live within the margins of society. May she continue to give us music that uplifts our spirits, while giving us interviews that stir us to question our assumptions of body acceptability in society.
Joy Cox, PhD is a body justice advocate using her skill set in research and leadership to foster social change through the promotion of fat acceptance, diversity, and inclusion. She currently sits as the Chair for the Association of Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), and hosts the podcast, Fresh Out the Cocoon which focuses on the lived experiences of Black fat women.