Sonya Renee Taylor writes for Playboy

A Fat Black Politics of Desire

The author of "The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love" on race and desire

Art by Favianna Rodriguez

When the Australian reporter called to ask me my thoughts on the article and photos in PLAYBOY featuring pop singer Lizzo, I promptly put the journalist on hold and googled the pics. I love Lizzo, but the thought of perusing a PLAYBOY magazine had not occurred to me since 1991, when I “found” a decade’s worth of old issues stacked in my uncle’s dresser drawers like bars of gold. Snooping through his things when he lived in our basement was a regular activity of mine, particularly because he had so much porn. Thumbing through those pages, I learned everything and nothing about my own sexuality, my own desirability.

Desire, according to my uncle’s magazines, was blonde, clean-shaven, thin and white. Desire was red lips and a pouting mouth, and desire appeared to always be posing suggestively…with fruit. Uncle had other magazines. They were explicit and crass: black girls with pendulous breasts squirting milk or sprawling spread-eagle with their fingers rambling through thick black pubic hair.

Every running joke I’d ever heard about PLAYBOY seemed to focus on how people read it “for the articles,” an allusion to the supposedly more sophisticated palate the magazine was said to cater to. Erudite people read PLAYBOY. Those tasteful people (read: men) didn’t want smut; they wanted beauty and class. They wanted thin, white, clean-shaven visions of desire. If the women in PLAYBOY were classy and beautiful, by default the women in the other magazines, the women with skin and hair like mine, must be smut. Dark girls were carnal but not desired. They were indeed objects of lust but not of beauty. If what I deduced about desire and beauty from these magazines was true, then what would I, could I, be as a sexual being in this body?
The fat black woman’s body has always been a marvel—even when the world found it grotesque, it found it spectacular.
The fat black woman’s body has always been a marvel—even when the world found it grotesque, it found it spectacular. When Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was abducted and enslaved by European colonizers to be exhibited naked in a cage beside a baby rhinoceros, it was the epic swell of her butt and thighs, her pronounced labia and deep brown complexion that induced white folks to pay their money to gawk at her. This is what fat black girls like me came to expect for our bodies. I knew men might watch my ass sway beneath a sundress when I walked to the corner store in July. Men would spit their hunger toward me, spectators graciously detailing the myriad ways they would consume this prey set in motion before them. Of course it was my duty to appreciate that someone might want to devour me, that someone might want this undesirable body.
Not until I saw myself reflected in the brilliant tapestry of other black women—women I desired—did I begin to see desire and beauty as possible in my own being. But those women were not in magazine spreads. They were in kitchens in Oakland and Baltimore. I met them in mediation circles and at marches. Black women pouring into the streets to protest the murders of unarmed black bodies—it was in these sacred spaces that I saw how we are lovers and healers, desired and wholly beautiful. It was black women who told me I was a being of magnificence and sumptuous delight, and it wasn’t until I began believing them that I was truly liberated into the fullness of a sexuality formed of my own definitions. Lizzo is gorgeous in her spread, but she is we—fat black girls have always been worthy of desire and respect, and we never needed a magazine to tell us that.

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