Why we black women are happier with our bodies than our white friends
Body confident: Soul singer Mica Paris
As a teenager, I was so naturally skinny that my friends called me Boney M. Then, when my career as a soul singer burgeoned, so did I.
I had my first daughter, Monet, when I was 22, and put on a bit more weight. When I walked into my record company soon afterwards to discuss an album, they said: ‘Mica, you have to lose weight. You look like two people living in one body.’
Of course, that stung. From that point on, I entered a cycle of yo-yo dieting. I’d slim down for an album release, then pile on a few pounds, then lose them again ready for the next round of publicity.
My battles with weight have been many and well-documented, but, finally, I have managed to strike a balance in my attitude towards it. And it would seem I am not alone — among black women at least.
A recent study has shown that black women are inherently happier in their own skin than white women — even if they weigh more. Two-thirds of overweight black women said they had high self-esteem, compared to only 41 per cent of thin or average-sized white women.
Why is this According to the research commissioned by the Washington Post — the most comprehensive study of its kind in decades — white women focus too much on what nature has given them, while black women have a ‘deeper’ appreciation of beauty.
And I think I know why this might be. Caribbean men love curvaceous women. I apologise for reinforcing a stereotype, but it’s a fact.
You won’t find any man in Jamaica — where my family come from — casting appreciative glances at a skinny female. In my culture, women have hour-glass figures, generous bosoms and wide hips.
Flat chests, skinny midriffs and size zero are boyish; women with those characteristics don’t get a second glance. Look around, and you won’t see many skinny black women. We’re likely to be built generously and we’re not ashamed to celebrate our curves.
Take the time four years ago, when I appeared on Strictly Come Dancing. Craig Revel Horwood poked constant fun at my weight, but I truly didn’t give a damn. I knew I was big and beautiful, and I loved myself. I took the view that if Craig didn’t like it, he could darned well lump it.
Since then, I have lost weight, but I didn’t do so to please him. I lost weight for my health, and because I feel better when I’m slightly thinner. I’m a 42-year-old mother-of-two now, and a size 12. I certainly don’t want to be any smaller, because, like most black women, I am aware that losing too much weight can make you look gaunt and old.
'We develop our own ideas about what it means to look good, rather than relying on magazines and television shows to tell us'
So I’m statuesque and loving it. I’m leggy, tall — 6ft 3ins in heels — and I go in and out in the right places. I haven’t a clue what I weigh. I only know that I’m happy with myself if swags of flesh aren’t hanging over my knickers and bra when I strip down to my underwear. I like to be fit, and this — rather than a compulsion to whittle myself down to skin and bone — is what motivates me to go to the gym.
Like most black women, style and grooming also play a huge part in my self-image. We develop our own ideas about what it means to look good, rather than relying on magazines and television shows to tell us, as, apparently, white women tend to do.
All this chimes with my own observations. This obsession with measuring up to a perceived image of feminine beauty, propagated by stick-thin magazine models, seems to be a peculiarity of my white, British friends.
It incenses me that fashion continues to hold up size zero as the ideal.
Thankfully, I don’t know any black women who aspire to be skeletal, and even if we did, nature decrees that we shouldn’t be. We’re made with breasts, bottoms and well-developed quads. As the American survey found, we do not aspire to unfeasible skinniness when we lose weight. Instead we look to emulate Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Michelle Obama, all of whom are muscular and curvy.
Inspiration: Mica says black women look to emulate stars such as Queen Latifah and
Michelle Obama, who are muscular and curvy
I realise — and the survey bears this out — that black women are more prone to diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure because we are more likely to be obese than white women. So, like 90 per cent of the black women surveyed, I believe living a healthy lifestyle is vital.
I eat healthy, traditional, Caribbean food. Salted cod, snapper, green bananas, yam and callaloo (water spinach) are staples. Rice is a Sunday treat, so if I stick to what I was raised on, I won’t go far wrong. Much of what I am today is down to my upbringing. A tribe of relatives helped raise me — that’s the Jamaican way — but I lived with my grandparents while Mum and Dad worked.
My grandmother was a force of nature, my grandfather a Pentecostal minister: we were taken to church six days a week. So every day we wore our Sunday best; you had to if Grandad was in the pulpit. He never let me harbour self-doubt. Insecurity didn’t come into his repertoire. He thought it was disrespectful to him if I worried about how I looked. When I had a crisis of confidence at the age of about 13, he scolded me: ‘We’re all the same flesh and blood, so if you are ugly, so am I!’ he said.
'I believe women — black or white —
owe it to themselves to set time aside for grooming'
Gran raised eight children and had no room for introspection or self-pity, either. She’d say: ‘You feel blue You ain’t doin’ enough. Get busy!’ No matter how full our lives were, we had to pay attention to our appearance. You didn’t step out of the door looking slovenly or unkempt — the grown-ups made sure of that. My mum, Cherry, is in her 60s and dresses to the nines.
She has immaculate hair and nails and wears a spritz of Yves Saint Laurent perfume just to go shopping. However busy she is, she sets aside a day each week to go to the steam room, have a pedicure and get her hair done. Glamour is her by-word; good grooming is ingrained in her.
It’s in my genes, too, and the survey shows it remains a priority for black women, with 28 per cent saying that being physically attractive is ‘very important,’ compared to 11 per cent of white women.
Style guru: Mica was amazed at how clueless women were about looking their best when she co-presented What Not To Wear with Lisa Butcher
I believe women — black or white —
owe it to themselves to set time aside for grooming, not because vanity
is laudable but because, when we look good, our self-esteem soars. When
I co-presented What Not to Wear with Lisa Butcher, I couldn’t believe
the self-neglect I encountered. It shocked me to see so many women — all
white — who had given up on themselves.
had the potential to be beautiful, but they hadn’t been to the
hairdresser in years. Their clothes were scruffy and dowdy, and they’d
burdened themselves with commitments to such a degree that they’d lost
any sense of self-worth. So I’d
sit these women down, work on their wardrobes and polish up their style,
and there would be tears when they saw the rut they were in.
Then, when they realised they had the capacity to look smart and classy — and that it wasn’t self-indulgent to devote time to their appearance — their self-confidence would flourish. It’s a positive upward spiral after that. You want to preserve the pleasure that comes with someone noticing how good you look, so you exercise and cook healthy food. Finally, you realise that the time you spend on yourself makes you, and those around you, happier.
So I tell my white girlfriends: ‘Don’t obsess over size zero — invest time in yourself instead. Choose the right outfit. Do your hair and make-up. Treat yourself to a pedicure. Then your self-esteem will soar — and everything else will follow.’