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Keeping Up Appearances, Getting Fed Up: The Embodiment of Strength among African American Women
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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 5.2 (2005) 104-123



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Keeping Up Appearances, Getting Fed Up

The Embodiment of Strength among African American Women

The body holds meaning. The fact that this thought takes us by surprise itself reflects significantly upon a culture that is seriously divided within itself, splitting itself off from nature, dividing the mind from the body, dividing thought from feeling, dividing one race against another, dividing the supposed nature of woman from the supposed nature of man.
———Kim Chernin, The Obsession ([1981] 1994, 2)

There is a profound problem of embodiment among women in U.S. society. Across social classes and racial backgrounds, the female body is afforded limited rather than full access to a range of human needs and possibilities. Such societal restrictions in turn lead women to develop and demonstrate their frustrations through their bodies (Bordo 1995; Chernin [1981] 1994). Given that women experience their bodies in an inequitable social context, feminists view women's body problems as reflective of their "ambivalence" toward the gender roles accorded them (Perlick and Silverstein 1994). From this view of the body as a social entity, feminists voice a healthy suspicion toward the mainstream views of disorder in the female body as primarily signs of psychological frailty or physiological dysfunction. Thus feminists view the body problems that predominate among women—eating disorders, hysteria, anxiety, and depression—as expressive, embodied protests against the social reality of restrictions, [End Page 104] devaluations, and violence directed at women (Breuer and Freud [1895] 1955; Jack 1991; Perlick and Silverstein 1994). This connection of the personal with the social renders the alleviation of these problems as dependent not simply on psychological or medical treatment but on fundamental transformations in the social meanings and societal opportunities available to women.

In this essay I extend the feminist concern with embodiment to the experiences of black women. I maintain that the dominant image of the "strong black woman" is a limiting rather than empowering construction of black femininity and that it rewards women for a stoicism that draws attention away from the inequalities they face in their communities and the larger society. Focusing on the work of black feminists who have critiqued the gender role of strength and data from an interview study with twelve black women of diverse weights, I connect their construction of "strength" to the reality of compulsive overeating among black women. In the process I suggest that this "body problem" may be productively viewed as a muted protest against the intense selflessness mandated of "strong black women."

To Be Black and Female: Performing and Embodying Strength

"De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin' fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!"
———Zora Neale Hurston(1937, 29)

Taken from the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the epigraph notes the exasperation of the grandmother of the central character as she makes a critical observation: the social treatment of black women in a racist, sexist, and classist society leads to the view that they are "beasts of burden," who must labor for others above them in the social hierarchy. While few black women would readily identify with being "mules," a consistent thread in black feminist theorizing draws attention to the selflessness, abuse, expectations of superhuman abilities, and inequalities faced by women who see themselves and are viewed as "strong black women." As I maintain in this section, the dehumanization of black women into deviant beings, into "mules of the world," is centrally a problem of embodiment or [End Page 105] of how the valuation of bodies in society affects the experience of living in those bodies.

Over the past thirty years black feminists have noted the problematic assumptions that are attendant on the image of the strong black woman. As "female Atlas[es]," strong black women are encouraged to take pride in their capacity to endure and overcome adversity and to survive the physical, economic, and...