THREE large black women walked in to The Brixtonian, the chicest bar in Brixton, south London, on Thursday night, and everyone stared. Their clothes were tight, they were dressed to kill, they commanded attention. 'I don't have to slouch around in my cheapest clothes, walking as if I was apologising. I take up space,' says Stephanie Jones, 33. 'If a man says to me, 'champion girl' as I'm jumping on a bus, I turn to him and say, 'Yes]' '
According to Stephanie, a sense of style, of the importance of dress, is crucial in the black community and intimately tied up with a sense of self-esteem. Anyone who lives in Brixton notices it: these wonderfully-dressed big black women who, if white, would only leave the house when they had to, and then dressed in something beige and shapeless from D H Evans. And if they wanted to dress up, where would they find the clothes? 'The designers see big women as having no social life, no partner, we never go out, we just stay in and eat,' says Stephanie, a health promotion officer. 'And because we're big we must be stupid,' says Fay Romans, 27, an information support officer for BT and part-time choreographer. 'We're too stupid to know it's bad to be fat so we must be on income support.'
Stephanie and Fay are both previous winners of the Big and Beautiful contest, an annual event for black women where contestants spend a small fortune on specially designed evening gowns and matching shoes. A similar contest, in the Caribbean, is a massive event, shown on television across the region and attracting major sponsorship. Why do black people regard size in such a different way from the rest of British society? 'Everything comes from within,' says Dianne Regisford, 25, a freelance journalist and PR consultant. 'You see racist imagery every day and you need a sense of self-worth to take it on.' Stephanie, Fay and Dianne train at a gym, because being firm is important to them, but they do not diet. 'Black people do have cellulite,' Dianne says. 'It's just that we don't go on about it as much.'
Research just carried out by the anthropology department of the University of Arizona has uncovered startling differences between black and white women's attitudes to their bodies. The survey, carried out among 250 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 found that 90 per cent of the white girls expressed dissatisfaction with their own bodies and 83 per cent saw dieting as a way of gaining self-confidence and exerting control. The ideal they struggled to live up to was 5ft 7in and 100 pounds (seven stone two pounds), what the researchers recognised as the figure of Barbie.
The black teenagers, on the other hand, had a far healthier and realistic approach to how they looked. Seventy per cent said they were satisfied with their weight and there was little emphasis on dieting. Where the white girls stressed thinness, the black girls emphasised shapeliness. Who were their role models? They didn't have them. The relative absence of black women in the media meant they did not have to live up to some impossible ideal and the available white images simply did not apply to them, they felt.
According to Mimi Nichter, director of the research, the questions were prompted by the experience of one of the black team members who is a nurse. 'Black women were coming into clinics with severe obesity and risk of coronary problems,' Nichter says. 'It was difficult to persuade them that they had a health problem because they didn't perceive overweight as being negative.'
Crucial to the black teenagers' view of their bodies was the sense that beauty came from within, that it was linked to confidence, pride and 'attitude': 'There was more focus on making what you have work for you,' she says. 'Their self-image is flexible while the white girls' self-image is static.' Political consciousness also had an important part to play in how the girls regarded each other. When the team asked white girls how they would feel if their best friend was thinner and more attractive than they were themselves, the response was: 'I would want to kill her.' The black teenagers on the other hand, according to Nichter, wanted their friends to look good in order that they could be a positive representative of their community. In other words, black pride and consciousness over-rode any personal jealousy.
The attitudes of black women in Britain seem to be remarkably similar. A trawl through the pages of the latest issue of Pride, a magazine for black women, reveals the following despondent plea for help to the agony aunt: 'I am an 18-year-old woman with a very big problem. I am 5ft 7ins and disgustingly skinny with bean-pole legs, bony ankles and a flat bottom. It worries me because even skinny black women usually have some degree of curves in that area.' In the letters page a reader complains that none of the finalists in Pride Face of '94 (a competition that takes places next Saturday) weighs over 10 stone. Given that the winner will receive a modelling assignment from the magazine, an upper weight of 10 stone seems extremely high compared with the emaciated models who habitually appear in Elle.
According to Azania B, editor-in-chief of the glossy magazine Visions in Black, which provokes comparison with Vogue, black women 'come from a culture in which the families believe that the fatter you are, the healthier you are. I would never run a diet in the magazine. I've noticed some degree of dieting and black women are becoming more weight-conscious, but others will make excuses, saying that the men want a voluptuous figure. African and Caribbean cultures like women who are shapely, but they don't like them thin.'
Azania B suggests that far more important than fashion spreads for young black women is the influence of music. She cites a recent chart-topper in America by the rap artist Sir Mixalot, which urged women to not to fall for the Cosmopolitan ideal. 'I like women that eat their rice and peas' he sings. Indeed part of the emerging anti-white rhetoric in rap specifically ridicules white women with their skinny bodies and stringy hair.
Visions in Black has had difficulty finding models for its own fashion shoots. The big model agencies such as Storm admit they have few black models on their books and many of these will not be based in Britain. Even if the magazine could afford Naomi Campbell, Azania is far from sure that she would want her. 'Finding models has been the bane of my life,' she says. 'The look you get from most agencies is very androgynous and it's not what we want.'
The fashion pages of Visions in Black are startlingly different from white magazines. The models, while not overweight, seem sturdier and healthier, more like women one would find in a gym than a studio. One beach photograph celebrates a large expanse of the model's thigh. Even so, on a recent fashion shoot in Jamaica local people told Azania the models were too thin. 'These people are happy, they're eating what they like' she muses. 'Maybe they've got the right idea.'
AT a Weight Watchers meeting on Tuesday night in Brixton, about half the 50 members were black and most were there because they have gained weight after childbirth. Josephine Nezavu, 24, is originally from Kenya and she confirmed that 'being African, being big is good'. Dressed in skin-tight black jeans, a waist-clinching belt and a black camisole beneath a denim shirt, she looked far from miserable about her size.
'I'm 12 stone 13 1/2 pounds and I'd like to be 10 1/2 stone' she says. 'My husband doesn't mind about my weight but if I can get rid of my tummy I don't care about the rest. I don't want to be skinny. Everybody in the family is big, the smallest size is 12. I used to be a 12 before I had my two children but I'd be happy to be a 14. I like Naomi Campbell, there's nothing wrong with her but I don't want to look like her.'
Josephine Little, 34, who runs the Brixton group, is one of Weight Watchers' few black group leaders. She joined having gained 30 pounds after childbirth which she subsequently lost. She is now down to 10 1/2 stone. Like other black women I spoke to, she pays little attention to the figures of models: 'I'm not a great reader of women's magazines' she says. 'I don't go after the unattainable. While there are prominent black people, I don't look up to them because of how they look, but because of their contribution.'
There is a subtle and complex difference in Josephine's attitude to her weight loss which was raised by the Arizona survey. 'The girls are young,' Nichter says, 'what happens to them as they get older and become part of middle-class white society? We only raise the question, we don't know.' Josephine Little would seem to provide the answer. For her, weight loss was important in giving her the confidence to get her current job as a trade union organiser: 'The weight is only a problem in terms of not being able to go out and do what I want to do. Losing weight gave me the confidence but it's not the end, it's the facilitator.' Despite her husband being completely uninterested in her weight loss, Josephine feels that achieving her career goals means being, if not skinny, then slim.
There is another warning which the Arizona survey had to consider. For most of the history of Hollywood, black women have been more or less invisible, save in the egregious roles of mammies, notably in Gone with the Wind. Throughout the Fifties Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt were virtually the only black women in the film industry. The girl groups of the Sixties gave exposure to a generation of black teenagers, but only those who could be partially transformed into a white ideal, such as Diana Ross, sustained their careers. It was not until the advent of Oprah Winfrey's show in the late Eighties, that a black woman dominated American television. (Oprah's own weight has see-sawed dramatically as her show has become more and more successful.)
This historic lack of visual representation in the media meant black teenagers looked to their own families for role models. When researchers asked the black teenagers who they would like to look like, they often cited their mothers and their grandmothers. 'This is very different from white society where there is a very narrow gauge of how you achieve beauty,' Mimi Nichter says. 'What we perceive as beauty has its upper age limits, say 35.'
But as more Naomi Campbells step on to the catwalk, and black women begin to lose their invisibility, will these varied, honourable role models change? 'Who controls the media?' asks black feminist Margaret Busby, co-founder of the publishers Allison & Busby. 'By and large these mothers and grandmothers are worthy of emulating. The qualities they display are great ones. But changing to fit into white society is a practicality if you're going to survive. Naomi Campbell is doing a particular job but the black faces you see in your newspapers are ones chosen by the white media, they decide who gets exposure. Naomi Campbell is all we see.'
The troubling paradox of the Arizona research is that as Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans fight to be recognised in a media which remains virtually entirely controlled by white men, the positive role models are likely to occupy a far narrower band than they do at present. The existing media ideal is young, blonde, pretty, heterosexual and able-bodied. Middle-aged women of any race or size are scarcely in evidence in the pages of any newspaper or in advertising, not at all on the catwalks. While they are nothing but proud of their size, Stephanie, Fay and Dianne are aware that, even now, not every black woman or man admires the way they look. In 10 years' time will Brixton Weight Watchers be full of black teenagers desperate to weigh seven stone? The irony is that progress can sometimes reap a bitter harvest.
Stephanie and Fay run PPS (Positive Plus Sizes) an annual event for all larger women. The next will take place in London on 10 December. Phone 071-272 8486 for information
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