Bodies are complicated. In addition to the indignity of merely having one, the way it constantly needs maintenance and has such a limited warranty, bodies are one of the primary ways we interact with our world. And our world is racist. It’s Always Been Ours: Rewriting the Story of Black Women’s Bodies is Jessica Wilson’s attempt to sort through how anti-Black racism permeates diet culture and eating-disorder treatment when it comes to Black women. I found it super insightful and easy to read; Wilson is making a valuable contribution to what should be a much larger conversation. I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.
First, my positionality in the conversation on body image, body liberation, and most importantly, race and racism. I’m a white woman, and I am tall and thin. I have the economic purchasing power to ensure I can buy the Healthy foods and products we’re supposed to buy, and I have the privilege of looking such that when I choose to buy junk food, people don’t roll their eyes or mutter under their breath as I do so. My upbringing, education, and access to opportunities and healthcare—none of these things have been adversely impacted by racism; if anything, I am the beneficiary of white supremacy in our society. My identity as a transgender woman complicates this story of privilege. As Wilson herself notes in this book, queer bodies also get policed. I have a complicated relationship with my body and how I am read (or not read) as conforming to feminine beauty standards. But mine is a white queer body, not a Black queer body; I don’t intend to equate my struggles with body image to the struggles faced by Black women and people of marginalized gender experiences.
As I hope I made clear in my introduction, I loved this book. However, I’m also not the best qualified to critique it—Wilson explicitly states in her introduction that this book is intended for Black women. So I just want to foreground the voices of some Black reviewers: Christina, Sarah, and Nariah on Goodreads. As I discuss my impressions of this book, keep in mind that my opinion and perspective aren’t as attuned to what Wilson is trying to accomplish as those of her target audience.
When I started reading It’s Always Been Ours, I was expecting a book that discussed medical anti-Black racism and threw lots of facts about Black women’s bodies at me. I thought we would get a lot of history of anti-fatness and wellness culture. Indeed, these elements run through the book. However, Wilson more explicitly and emphatically grounds her narrative in discussions of white supremacy and the need to dismantle it. In other words, this book is actually very aligned with a lot of the antiracist reading I’ve been doing, a perfect addition to that shelf, if you will.
Wilson is critical of any analysis of eating disorders and diet culture that acknowledges racism’s role in these issues as only one of many factors. She observes,
When we relegate racism to “the roots” of diet culture, we send the message that, sure, racism may have played a role in the development of the quest to shrink our bodies, but if we are able to dismantle diet culture, then racism will, by proxy, be destroyed as well. That’s not it. Diet culture is not the driving force behind the ways our bodies are under surveillance by society.
This hit me because I am absolutely guilty of minimizing racism in this way. Look, language is complicated. The terms we use to describe the struggle are always evolving. Sometimes—especially, I think, those of us who are more verbose—we trip ourselves up in our desire to be as expansive in our terms as we can be. When that happens, we actually end up erasing important differences (a good example of this is the tendency to lump together very disparate experiences under the umbrella label of “BIPOC”). So I appreciated Wilson’s adamant stance that we treat racism as baked in to diet culture. In other words, there should be no conversation about Black women’s bodies that does not explicitly centre the role of white supremacy in creating the standards for those bodies.
This thesis might seem obvious. Yet Wilson shares many stories from her experience as an eating-disorder specialist that belies this. Most of her patients come to her seeking quick fixes, reassurance, granular plans to adjust their eating habits to help them feel better about their bodies. They resist doing the work she asks them to do to dig deeper. Similarly, her colleagues (particularly her white colleagues) resist her attempt to discuss diet culture and eating disorders in this way. In other words, there is a deep, structural desire to maintain the status quo.
Although Wilson’s intimate narrative positions her as the brave rebel and maverick in this scenario, she undercuts self-aggrandizement by sharing examples of her own development along this axis. She critiques her performance in her first two years as a dietitian, recapitulating this at the end of the book by sharing how a longtime client of hers noted that, years ago, her advice would have been dramatically different. In this way, Wilson reminds us that no one comes to antiracism work already knowing all the answers. Doesn’t matter how you are racialized. We all internalize white supremacist ideals as we grow up, and it takes work to unlearn that (that is exactly what getting “woke” meant, after all, before the right decided to appropriate and distort the term). Wilson’s very personal and careful anecdotes of her experiences both as a practitioner and a Black woman are the heart of this book. To others in positions of power (and I count myself as one of these in my role as an educator), she is saying that every day is another opportunity for you to do better. To the Black women reading this book, she concludes on a note of celebrating Black joy. She wants Black women to know that their bodies—whatever their shape or size—are not a problem.
On that note, however, I was also happy to read such a deep and incisive critique of the body positivity/fat liberation movements. I have heard a little bit about this here and there, particularly how it intersects with Instagram. Basically, there is a fine line between advocating for a positive view of one’s body, especially when one is fat, versus enforcing a kind of toxic positivity that can backfire. Wilson draws on the experiences of activists in this space. While none of what she has to say in these chapters strikes me as particularly new, it’s all a very useful summary of these issues.
Again, I’m a very thin woman. I won’t pretend I don’t have body image issues or a complicated relationship with food. But I can generally find clothes that fit me, and people don’t look askance when I wolf down a cheeseburger. It’s Always Been Ours establishes how, for Black women of any size and shape, food is just another item on the list of mental gymnastics they complete each day. Hair too kinky? Eating too much or too little? Clothing too tight or too loose? When you add anti-Black racism on top of misogyny, you get misogynoir, as Moya Bailey coined, and it’s a hell of a thing.
Speaking of new vocabulary, this book introduced me to the term food apartheid. This term complements and builds on the idea of a food desert (which I was already aware of); as Wilson explains, it clarifies that such areas are not naturally occurring but rather deliberately constructed as a result of racism. Neat! (The learning, not the racism.)
It’s Always Been Ours is moving, well organized, funny, and helpful. This is a book about racism. Its language is more accessible than that of an academic press book, its stories more personal. But it is a book about how our society polices Black women and what Wilson thinks we should do about it (hint: resist). She challenges us to do better instead of simply going along with the narrative of the status quo because it is easier and lets us stay comfortable in the power we have. I’m glad I picked this one up!