January 30, 2022

Disclaimer: Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Transcript: Body Shaming Black Bodies (Part 2) with Psyche Williams-Forson-Podcast 7


Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson is Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland College Park. She examines the lives of African Americans living in the United States from the late 19th century to the present. In addition to several journal articles and book chapters, her work on material culture and food has been published in her books Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World and the award-winning Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power. Her current book is on food shaming and race in America.

Charmaine: Welcoming

Tia: What you wrote in your book, ‘Making Houses out of Chicken legs,’ really resonate with those of us who do a lot of work in underserved communities, can you elaborate on how the mainstream culture’s perception on weight loss and body image effect self-esteem, self-confidence and ultimately the eating behaviors in people of color?

Psyche Williams-Forson: Well,  thank you for that, because you’re going to love my second book. I sit here editing the manuscript, I want to hear you all feedback on it. And I’m happy to talk. You know, as we talk more, in the next few minutes, happy to share what the new book is about and get your feedback.

Okay, the second book is right now tentatively titled ‘Eating While Black, Food Shaming and Policing in America.´ I go back and forth with my editor about the title of this book, but I’m pretty certain that’s going to be the title.

as I start this book with an African American woman who was between shifts on the Metro in the DC area going from one station to the next and it’s eating, only to find her picture posted on Twitter, right? Because she’s an employee eating on the train. I don’t know if you all remember that case, it happened a couple of years ago, a picture was taken by a woman at the World Bank, who had her own book coming out, but who posted this on Twitter and basically castigated this woman and shamed this woman for eating on the train.  Well, what she didn’t know or according to The Washington Post, what had happened was a policy had gone out where they said, they were no longer going to be issuing fines for people who eat on the train or listen to their music, or a number of other things.

But here you had this woman who felt like she knew more than this Black employee about her own job. Right? And so, I begged the question, what is it about Black bodies that makes you feel like we need to be regulated and policed,

So, there’s a whole thread here from Building Houses out of Chicken legs to eating while Black, which says, you are inferior as a people, you are unable to police yourself, you are unable to regulate yourself. So, we must step in and regulate you. And we’re going to do that with policies. We’re going to do that with continued misinformation. We’re going to do that with things like soul food, it has been ruled Soul Food diets are bad or Southern food diets here coded as Black are bad, but a Mediterranean diet is good.

Food Interlude:

Written by Content Writers Yasmin Mangum and Stephany Singh.

Sapna: I love what you’re saying Psyche ‘cause I had this thought ever since you were talking about the idea of shame and food shaming, and what you’re saying here, it’s all very much – again, I’m putting on my dietitian hat: No matter who you’re working with, what I love to tell my patients, clients, the students I’m talking to training to be future dietitians, is that we love to say every food fits and everything in moderation, but really what it comes down to is your relationship with food, right? Because it is an emotional relationship; there’s so much in terms of how we grew up and what we’re used to, so when you’re talking about it in terms of health, you do not want to tell people or have them create this unhealthy relationship with food, in terms of shaming them, right? You want them to still be able to enjoy the foods that they love. It’s just about, how do we create, like you were talking about, awareness, education, about how every food does fit, right, and so you don’t want to shame them with what they’re eating.

Psyche: Absolutely. We have relationships with objects in general. If you take a person’s phone you’re gonna have major problems. We are attached to our phones, we are attached to our pets, we’re attached to our clothing, we are attached to our things. Food is no different.

Sapna: Absolutely.

Charmaine: Right. Right.

Psyche: I think we forget that. Food is a thing, it is an object, it is a set of objects. You can feel as violated when you have your food taken away from you – or shamed or policed – as you do when your car is taken from you.

Charmaine: And when do black people become guilty of cultural food malpractice?

Psyche: Well, one of the stories I tell in the book is about going to – this had a profound effect on me – I went to a nouveau soul food dinner up at the Philadelphia Museum.  

 The end result, was a woman who said to the speaker or the chef, “Can you tell me how to get my mother from using pork, because every week she cooks greens she also has to use pork.” And she was very much admiring what the chef had done, and the way that he had seasoned his food. When he came out- he shared with us, “Well, more than likely you can’t achieve this taste,” because first of all it wasn’t just collard greens, it was 6 to 7 different kind of greens. Then he had soaked them overnight in black truffles. You can’t even really get black truffles unless you’re paying a hefty price. So now you’ve thrown your mother-in-law under the bus for something that you can’t even obtain. Now we can say shame on her, but there was an interesting energy in the room.

We were there with mostly millennial or younger folks, many of whom were vegetarians and vegans. So part of it was her own performance to be able to relate to this healthier way of eating, as I read it. In that moment. And then some of it also was, ‘I really want to eat better for myself and I want my mother-in-law to stop cooking this pork.’ What was left unsaid is, why don’t I just have two pots of greens, one with ham hocks and one with smoked turkey or no meat at all. You’re still cooking them in the same way it’s just a matter of seasoning them differently. That’s number one.

Number two, what is it that allows us to throw each other under the bus so that we look good in the eyes of others? That to me is a form of culinary malpractice. You don’t have to do that, but we’ve been taught as people – as black people – how to do that very well. In our jobs, in some communities, certainly in school and those other institutions where we find systemic racism. I’m not just blaming everything on racism, I’m telling you: you’re a good black, right? We’re going to promote you because you’re a good black. You say the right things, you’re so articulate, you do the right things, you don’t make any trouble.  Right? Who doesn’t want to feel like they are loved and appreciated?

That’s a human emotion. So when you see someone and their body is fuller of figure, and you’re svelte and maybe fit – when society says that is the standard, that is the model – standard of beauty, Victoria’s Secret is the standard of beauty, anything else means you’re obese. And you’re telling our children this from the time they were born up until the time the casket closes, then you’re setting people up to say, ‘I want to be the good black, I want to be the healthy black, I want to be the one who does the right thing because that makes me a good person.’ And quite frankly it’s all bullshit. They’re not going to love you any better, I don’t care what you look like. You are still subjected to the same forces of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, mental health… as anybody else that looks like you. So when we do these performances around food we should be very clear about how we are participating in those forms of malpractice, in those forms of self-loathing at times, in those forms of things that may or may not bring us or our communities liberation.


Food Interlude:

Written by Content Writers Yasmin Mangum and Stephany Singh.

Tia: And thanks for that powerful context. Which brings to mind for me, what I’ve observed, is that collectively every ethnic group that’s fond of, for example, eating chicken. Then there are so many different ethnic versions of fried chicken.

So now this goes back to that desire for white supremacy to maintain that dominance and superiority. So you think that and that concept of chicken also ties into the cultural malpractice in black culture, as far as the way we are perceived in terms of something even like chicken versus other cultures, when everybody likes it.

Psyche: Right. Well it’s different when other folks eat chicken than when black folks do it because of those historical legacies, right? Even if I go to the American-Chinese restaurant and I say, ‘I’m just gonna have the wings’, I could there, I could go over here in Adams Morgan in D.C., and I could get some fried chicken from west or east Africa… I’m gonna have a different experience there eating chicken, than I am if I go to Woodmont grill and order fried chicken.

I’ve done it and I didn’t feel any way about it, but I don’t know if you would necessarily find that to be widespread. Or they bring you the piece of chicken that can also be eaten with a fork and a knife, they’ll bring you (at the Woodmont Grill) a fried chicken breast, so you can cut that up. But then at the same time, anybody can order buffalo wings. Anybody, I don’t care where you are. But they don’t have the same connotations. Right? ‘Cos we’ll go to Glory Days, we’ll go to Buffalo Wild Wings, Apple Bees or any of these other eateries and order buffalo wings and it be perfectly acceptable, but to order fried chicken at Popeyes or KFC, that is sometimes a very different performance, even though those drive-thrus are constantly packed with all kinds of people. So that right there tells you it’s not about the food.


So let’s be clear, if there’s nothing else that I will say to dietitians, here’s what I will say: I know what you’re trained in. I was trained in a thing.  But I also have learned enough to know about white supremacy and anti-black racism. It’s so insidious, it’s so invisible, it’s so normal, that I don’t even ask questions about what’s not there, I focus only on what I have been told and how I have been trained. No offence to you all. Absolutely none.

But I am gonna call out your training, because where are the studies that say black folks are dying more rapidly because every single day we live with the trauma of being black. While that piece of food might tip me over, that may not be the thing that got me to right here. What got me to right here is I got to watch my mom and dad, or no mom and no dad, struggle every day. That’s the thing that got me right here.   Or, to be I don’t even know what centuries of health disease is in my blood because I don’t even know who my birth parents are. Or, I have mental illness which has gone untreated which has led me to diabetes. But you’re focusing on my diet.

 Sapna:  This is part of our assessment. What we call nutrition assessment with every single patient. Going back to the Devil is in the details: we are trained to be a detective, to find out the whole entire story and that is our job. I think what gets portrayed about our field is the bottom line. So when on one-on-one, we work in groups we talk about the full story, you know, and we train our students in how to do assessment and the interview. It’s a long, long process.

Psyche: As it should be.

Sapna: Yeah! We need all that data so that we can make those incremental changes and reduce risk. Because that’s what we’re trying to do, to plant the seed for when it’s feasible. Or just let them – I think when Charmaine was talking with her patients a million times with folks. Where the conversation is so long because, when you’re talking about food, you have to get the story. Because it’s: who do you live with? Where do you live with? Who does the cooking? What are the traditional roles of the cooking? Maybe it’s your kids because you’re working two jobs and you don’t have time, you know? What’s going on? What’s happening with the food is a long, long conversation.

You can’t make quick recommendations. When you’re working with the dietitian, it’s a minimum 6 months that you’re gonna be working with them because you’re trying to get to this sustainable lifestyle. Lifestyle changes.

Psyche:  Thank you all. I didn’t mean to talk so long, but I appreciate hearing this information. I’m open and always willing to be in conversations to learn more about how people navigate their material worlds – in this case, food.

So, thank you all so much for adding to my knowledge today about the important work that  you all do. Keep doing it!