Mumble Sauce is a summer 2019 column about how DMV Black communities uplift healing and creativity in the face of gentrification, displacement, policing, and incarceration. This is installment three of 10.
I tasted pigs feet for the first time when I was around 20 years old. I stared down at the hunk of meat on my paper plate, unreasonably fearful of the taste, and let it grow cold before I lifted a morsel to my lips and tore off a bit with my teeth.
I pushed the plate away from me on the TV stand I was sitting in front of in the den of my grandparents’ house. My close family was congregated for a holiday. Pigs feet and chitlins are a delicacy to several people on my dad’s side—except for my father himself, who understood why I neglected my plate. My uncle went to the store to pick some up about an hour before. Everyone remarked how they’d be nothing like how my grandmother used to make them.
My grandmother cooked pigs feet all the time. I remember the overwhelming smell, coming into the house as a small child and immediately knowing what atrocity was occurring—grandma’s cooking pigs feet again!—and staying as far away from the kitchen as possible. But it didn’t matter. The stench of boiling pigs feet tends to fill up a whole house.
As childish as I am about pigs feet, I miss that smell. I miss my grandmother.
My grandmother was a fat woman. Her rolls provided a perfect platform for hugs, and her warm brown skin looked beautiful draped in yellow. One of her favorite shirts was a lemonade-colored short-sleeved blouse that had rows of tiny ruffles sewn across the fabric. She’d greet me and my sisters when we came home from school like a golden sun rising behind the stone steps of her Upper Marlboro home.
I want to see myself the way I see my grandmother. Instead, I’ve spent much of life policing my body, reminding myself of all of the things I need to change in order to become beautiful. I would have traded anything to have long, flowing hair and lighter skin in elementary school. I made a pact in middle school with one of my closest friends to get breast augmentations as soon as we turned 18. I started obsessively exercising as a teenager, supplementing my already strenuous track and soccer practices with frequent bike rides, crunches, and waist measurements. I researched liposuctions and fat transfers in college. At my lightest weight, I still found rolls to pinch and poke as I stared at my lean frame in the mirror.
There’s no way to quantify the amount of energy I’ve wasted over the fear of becoming fat. Our world has a peculiar history of categorizing fat Black people’s bodies as spectacles meant to be judged, mammified, fetishized, or criminalized.
I often think about an experience that fellow community organizer Amber J. Phillips, a fat Black woman, had while she was traveling on an American Airlines flight to D.C. in 2018. A white woman called the police on her because Phillips’ arm was touching the woman’s as they sat next to each other on the plane.
Eric Garner, a fat Black man from New York who passed away in 2014, also crosses my mind. An NYPD officer choked him to death, ignoring Garner’s cries that he couldn’t breathe. People have tried to claim that Garner’s weight caused his death ever since. The union attorney representing the NYPD officer who killed him recently argued that Garner didn’t die from being choked, but from being “morbidly obese.”
Most frequently, I remember Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman born around 1789 near the warm and hilly terrain of the Gamtoos River in South Africa. Like many Khoisan people, Baartman had large fat deposits around her bottom and hips. Baartman was enslaved by Dutch farmers as an orphan and labored near Cape Town until a British doctor, noticing her ample bottom, had her sent to London to be a part of an exhibit. The doctor put her in a circus show where she had to dance for audiences that ogled her body in disgust and amusement. She engaged in sex work to support herself and started drinking after her popularity dimmed. Baartman passed away in 1815, in her mid-twenties and far away from home.
Fat discrimination, in many ways, developed as an extension of the marginalization and “othering” of Black people. This discrimination is palpable. Fat people experience poorer treatment from doctors, discrimination in hiring and lower pay, bullying, and judgment from strangers. Poor fat Black people are especially harmed by this, as they are judged for their Blackness, for their fatness, and for their poverty.
The weight loss industry has made billions of dollars capitalizing on our fears of fatness. Research shows us that these fears are irrational. Thin people are often just as likely to be unhealthy as those who are fat. The commonly used Body Mass Index (BMI) is shown to be biased against Black people and an ineffective way to assess someone’s health. And diets frequently don’t work: Many dieters don’t lose weight, and those who do are destined to either gain it back or live their entire lives in a state of near-starvation.
I’m familiar with that near-starvation feeling. I’d rather not feel it again. I’ve gone from a size six from my last episode of disordered eating to now being a size 14. While I’m larger than I have ever been, I still experience privilege compared to the way society treats my loved ones who are poorer, darker, and fatter than I am. And I’m still working on looking at my new protruding belly, rippled with purple stretch marks, as something to be praised, not policed.
Our society tells us that fatness is something to be eradicated. But many African communities have historically associated fatness with beauty and abundance. This isn’t surprising to me—I see it all the time. Hess Love, a fat Black advocate and writer in Baltimore, radiates this energy. And I see it flowing through Je’Kendria Trahan, a D.C.-based fat Black nonbinary healer and one of my closest friends, who creates art affirming the beauty of sags and rolls.
Beauty and abundance are what I see in my grandmother.
My grandmother’s spirit often visits me without warning. She reminds me, sucking her teeth and cocking her head to the side, that my body is worthy because it is mine. Sometimes these visits happen when I’m making a cup of coffee. Or she’ll come to me when I’m walking outside and notice a bush full of roses that resemble the ones that used to grow in her front yard. Other times I am laying in bed, about to go to sleep, my fingers tracing the shiny stretch marks running along my belly, tiny purple rivers racing toward my womb.