My girls are chocolate just like their mama, with big, doe brown eyes like me and thickness like me, too, with those round hips and those bubble booties and arrow straight shoulders that square off wide—like the perfect topping on our curvy, coke-bottle figures. Knowing this makes me proud. I prayed to Sweet Baby Jesus In the Manger that I would a) have daughters and that b) they would look like me, too. But with three decades worth of self-hate over my curvaceous figure, carefully curated over years of ridicule from family and friends and acquaintances who labeled me fat because I couldn’t squeeze alla this into those stupid Jordache jeans, the last thing I wished on my daughters was the burden of fitting into the narrow box that is pop cultural standards.
But Mari and Lila are Black girls in America, and no amount of wishing and praying and burning of oils from the horns of golden unicorns will change the fact that random people who know nothing about them will take it upon themselves to look at their bodies and shame them for not being petite and lithe. And this tears me to pieces, because I’m a mama bear and I know what I’m doing to assure that my daughters are HEALTHY. Not skinny. Not Nikki Minaj phat. Not perfect for magazine covers or Drake videos. Just active, strong, healthy humans.
I say these things because I’m still fuming over this Huffington Post headline: Plus Sized Teen Tennis Star’s Success Is A Powerful Argument Against Body Shaming. Yes, in just 13 words, the editors there managed to both praise and slap the mess out of 18-year-old tennis phenom Taylor Townsend for being, I don’t know, bigger than the white girls on the court? More buxom than her opponents? For not being, by their own screwy account, as glamorous and skinny and straight-haired and blonde as, say, endorsement darling Maria Sharipova? No doubt after a bit of backlash, the website has since taken “plus sized” out of the title, but the story, stupid, outdated and nonsensical, remains: Taylor, who became the youngest American female since 2003 to advance to the third round at the French Open, was the subject of a piece that recounted a two-year-old story about the U.S. Tennis Association trying with all their might to bar the then-16-year-old Taylor from playing in the U.S. Open because she was, by their account, overweight.
What the Huffington Post story had to do with Taylor’s performance last week in the French Open, I don’t know. The girl was winning. That was a story. She’s young and kick-ass. That was an angle, too. She’s left-handed and, according to Sports Illustrated, is a “tactician and thinker” who “serves-and-volleys and charges the net and uses angles that never even occur to other colleagues.” That’s the best story coming and going. But the Huffington Post skipped over all of that and focused on Taylor’s body.
Here’s the thing: Taylor is a Black girl and a professional athlete in a sport that, despite the dominance and long reigning championship of Serena Williams and Venus Williams, will never make room for her in its narrow lens. A decade ago, fools were saying the same thing about Serena—making fun of her hair and ass and muscular arms and angular features and claiming she wasn’t a “healthy enough weight” to compete seriously—even as she proved to be a powerhouse on the court. Serena proved them wrong, of course; her conquests on the tennis court are legendary. And still, we are here, going for the jugular of a teenager who, by all accounts, is a great tennis player in the making. That she conditions and trains for five to seven hours a day and is physically up to challenges on international courts means nothing; reporters keep bringing up her weight and website comments sections are full of people debating whether she’ll develop heart disease or Type 2 diabetes or some other weight-related illness—not based on doctor’s records, mind you, but solely from pictures of Taylor’s body in motion.
It’s a familiar line of questioning/accusation that gets lobbed the way of black girls and women on the regular. Indeed, I’ve had people—even those who purport to love my girls—question whether their weight is “healthy” and whether we should “feed them differently” or get them to be “more active.” Never mind that they eat more vegetables and fruit than some of the vegetarians in our family, or that they play three different sports between them and run themselves ragged bouncing around and cartwheeling and running and jumping, swimming and playing around our house. People we barely know and people we love always feel the need to weigh in with their slick and not-so-subtle suggestions on how our girls can be “healthier”—read white girl skinny.
Here’s the thing: they are healthy. And they’re never going to be pop cultural-standard thin. They are not built that way because neither their mother nor father are built that way. They’re not white girl skinny because they’re not white girls. They are thick, chocolate, athletic powerhouses, and their mother is working hard to make sure they’re okay with it, despite that at every turn, they’re seeing headlines like that in the Huffington Post that say they shouldn’t be. I’m sure Taylor Townsend would be just fine with her body, too, if she didn’t have to open up every magazine, newspaper and TV sports show on the planet, only to see commentary on what she should be doing, rather than how dope she is—big breasts, thick arms and thighs, chocolate skin, natural kinky hair and all.
We say play your game, Taylor Townsend. PLAY. IT. TO. WIN. And be that beautiful, strong, athletic young woman working hard to be the next American tennis champion. We see you. And love you exactly the way you are.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.