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Elephant in the Room

By Dr. Joy Cox

Returning back home on a high from the ASDAH conference, I mulled over in my mind both the growth and attempts to do so that took place over the weekend. As my phone continuously vibrated due to the notifications from the Facebook conference group, I thought of all the ways an effort for inclusion and diversity had been made. I thought of how attendees of the BIPOC preconference expressed feelings of gratitude and thankfulness for having a designated space. I thought of how great it was to work with a team of activists that desired to see change in ASDAH and society as a result of us coming together.

As the Chair of Diversity and Inclusion Committee, seeing these things come together effectively was by far the most satisfying accomplishment of my involvement in conference planning. For so long intersections have been the “elephants in the room.” Yes, we are visible and often invited to be present, however having a designated, carved out space is hard to come by. Our lived experiences are not talked about in depth. People see us, but do not bother to engage. Understanding that inclusivity has been an intentional goal ASDAH has striven for in the last decade, it was an honor to assist in facilitating both the preconference and efforts towards inclusivity, ensuring that the designated place previously envisioned became a reality.

Somewhere between switching flights and trains, I received a message from a member of NAAFA inquiring if I’d be interested in speaking to a reporter from the Huffington Post regarding my lived experience as a fat Black woman, and while I expected networking after the conference, never did I think this would lead to this.

Fast forward to September 19th. Once again, my phone was vibrating continuously with congratulations and comments of encouragement from those reading the piece released by Michael Hobbes. I rushed to read the article, scrolling down the page admiring the photography and stories of those featured. When I got to my section, I noticed that although Michael and I had spoken at length about my experience as a fat Black woman, much of that story was missing. In fact, much of any talk relating to intersections seemed to escape the article, which left me feeling a bit uneasy. My mind went back to the thoughts of satisfaction I experienced after facilitating the BIPOC preconference and accommodations during the conference. I remembered the looks and remarks received from the attendees expressing how they truly felt heard and included. I also started to think of these matters and how it feels to be included without really being included.  Accompanying a link to the piece, Michael asked for my feedback, which I provided. He followed up with an invitation for me to include my thoughts about what wasn’t seen in the original article. I obliged.

When the second article was published, I again rushed to read it. This time, although much more of what I said had been captured, still much of what I said about  intersections was not. As I scanned my written words, the feeling of being seen and not heard began to creep in. Was I being forced into the role of the “elephant in the room?” Was there something about my story and comments not considered palatable for the masses? As I wrote in the caption accompanying the follow-up article, “What is it about a Black fat body that doesn’t sell? What is it about a Black fat body that is seen as doubly offensive?” The all too familiar feeling of being the elephant in room was as present as the feelings of accomplishment knowing I had served a community of varying intersections so often overlooked for the sake of fatness in our community. As I sat contemplating what to do, I reflected on the first article published and realized that much like what I found to be true in my own research, that intersections are often overlooked, if not downright sacrificed, in the name of fatness, particularly in predominantly White cis-gendered spaces. While I found Mr. Hobbes’ article to be enlightening about the treatment fat people receive from medical professionals, I also found that there was a blending, if not erasing, of the ways these interactions are made more complicated when intersectional identities are introduced. More so, even among those in our own community, though there was much critique about various sections of the article, matters of intersectionality were absent. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that Blackness, queerness, disability and the like are all too often seen as a sidebar in the conversations of our lived experiences of fatness, as though these are pieces of our identity that we can remove like clothing. And while many may draw a false equivalency between diversity and inclusion, for those marginalized, we are well aware of the difference.

To be the only fat Black woman represented in the piece, I felt it necessary to not allow my words to go unheard. I refused to be the “elephant in the room.” I thought the “extra” not included in the quote I drafted to Mr. Hobbes was just as important as what was. You can read my quoted statement here.

To give full context that which was written, you can read my full statement on fatness and Blackness below:

As I sat, read and processed what was written in the article, I started to look deeper into how I fare as a Black woman within the context. I thought about how my interactions needed to be escalated before anyone took me or my mother seriously. How my experiences are sometimes disregarded because there was a lie told that Black communities don’t experience fatphobia. Other groups do not have to deal with the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype. Feeling trapped in a vicious cycle that inhibits you from advocating for yourself is exhausting, and in the case of medical attention, if you are Black and poor, you can forget it! Not only are you shunned due to your blackness, but also because your insurance or lack thereof isn’t respected.

Black women aren’t seen as smart in comparison to their counterparts. They are not perceived as refined or well-mannered. Asserting ourselves is always seen as more hostile despite us doing less. We are penalized for both muting and owning our voice. Our pain is disregarded in comparison with other races. This is still noted in medical books to this day. Our strength is acknowledged with contempt. They expect us to be strong while simultaneously chastising and penalizing us for it. We carry these truths with us to every doctor’s visit. Every board meeting. Every social outing. We are aware of stereotypes. We’d prefer not to fit the bill.

For so long we have sat and suffered in silence. We have endured violence at the hands of medical professionals who claim to know better but lack in doing so. We are ridiculed in society for having the audacity to enjoy life in a larger body. We are depicted as “mammies,” hypersexual, the clown, or downright desperate. We are the ones that can cook your meals, comfort your hurt, and still never be good enough to marry. We are ascribed caregiving roles without question because, you know, Big Momma ALWAYS will take care of the house!

We are encouraged not to try. Our gifts, talents and creativity often stolen and repurposed by White women just as fat. What is it about a Black fat body that doesn’t sell? What is it about a Black fat body that is seen as doubly offensive? Other races do not have to answer this question like we do. Being Black and fat (and woman) is to be in a constant state of battle. We battle to say it loud, “I’m Black and I’m proud!” We battle to fat in peace. 💚

Joy Cox

Dr. Joy Cox is a fat acceptance advocate and researcher using her skill set to foster social change through the promotion of diversity and inclusion initiatives. Dr. Cox currently serves as the Chair of Diversity and Inclusion for the Association of Size Diversity and Health, and recently completed her PhD which focused on matters of identity, intersectionality and political action within the fat acceptance movement.

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