Black men’s body dysmorphia needs to be discussed more openly among us
I remember wanting to drop fire in my belly... to burn the fat.
by Donnie Moreland
This essay discusses body dysmorphia, self-harm ideation, and fatphobia.
I remember wanting to drop fire in my belly. Wanting to light a match, open my mouth and drop it in to burn the fat. This was one of the engrossing illusions I obsessed about, from age thirteen until an age very much near the time of my writing this.
And about writing this, and whenever I provide any anecdotal account of the internal, I assume a risk. As a cis-het Black man, if absent rage, grief or gratification there is little communion with men like myself, concerning my words as evidential. Rarely, are there words in corroboration of my struggles. But—and the following is more of an affirmation for the fourteen year old me, who daydreamed of taking kitchen knives to his inner thighs—we do suffer.
Steven Underwood, in the article Black Boys and Bird Chests, or the Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia in African American Men, brings to words a tension unspoken by many Black boys, and to which I attest, when he proclaims: “To be frail in a Black space is to be seen as less than Black.” I want to take this argument one step further to suggest this “Black space” as a temporal space, from which our self-image is not only informed by the immediacy of interpersonal interactions, but unseen historical impressions and multi-spatial psycho-emotional navigations to include the digital.
There is an intersection of harm which we acknowledge for those in community whom identify as women, or trans or otherwise queer (so my pathos won’t read as novel, nor should it, given how radical healers/ theorists such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde or adrienne maree brown have answered the question of what the mirror should suggests of the Black body). But these harms are too often denied of/by an ethos of Black male-ness which advises a performance of privilege that invents a delusion of eternal interior fortitude.
Coupled with the residue of eugenic presumptions about the impossibility of a Black interior existence, body dysmorphia, as with other disorders, becomes illegitimate on Black men’s bodies especially, both inward and out. But, again, we do suffer. And we suffer publicly.
From Luther Vandross to Ronnie Coleman, the wounds of dysmorphia associated with the body of cis-Black maleness, living in and loathing the body which cannot perform by those terms, we should want to begin locating these sites of secret wars with our flesh. To affirm our bodies, no matter how they present.
Mapping my body dysmorphia is mapping my body along the geography of the Black body, the Black male body, from the hold to the present. Charting through body politics absent political agency. Charting a body, politically unseen, but having been used in acts of consumption where the fungibility of that “unseen” body in toil, sex, domination and fantasy fuctions as the measurable genesis of contemporary American capitalism.
It’s when that body becomes visible, on some warped spectrum of maleness post-emancipation, that mapping becomes a complex exercise in translating the dissonance between a body in performance of maleness and a body which can never be validated in that performance in the social imagination.
It’s Jack Johnson’s mastery in the ring and the concerted efforts to economically, physically and emotionally castrate him into a station of subservient un-maleness. It’s Kevin Hart’s bare back, post accident, as the video preview frame for his 2020 Men’s Health expose declaring his body functional and his person, still marketable, in spite of his profession having more to do with his mouth than his muscle. It’s James Baldwins readings of how white America objectifies Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier as objects of sexual speculation, and yet employs them to be recorded, and archived as eunuchs to be cucked by the erotic potentiality of their white counterparts.
So not only is mapping the Black body, more body dysmorphia, mapping the body in contest with the boundaries of a conventional standard, but the body denied access to that standard and yet still bemoaned for the failure to assimilate. Quite literally giving Black boys a ruler by which to measure themselves to men having “achieved” the ideal of the masculine, but limiting by how far the Black masculine ideal can emit itself into the canon of Western properness. And yet, we still hurt ourselves, or are hurt in the exercise of sculpting a figure which can never be sculpted, leaving space for our bodies to be mocked, no matter the cultural currency we feel we’ve amassed.
Superstar: On (Re)mapping the bodies of our Gods
I think it’s well overdue, a conversation about what was done to Luther Vandross. As a performer, Vandross’s contributions to the form are rarely spoken about with proper regard and yet so much of his public life was observed within the vocabulary of body politics. The adjectives “Big” and “Skinny” were placed in front of his name to denote his performance value by those who contended at one weight he was more capable than at another weight. For us, his weight and body were as much ours to assess of appropriateness as his music.
The venom of shaming served with the sugar of a cultural lexicon that presumes humor as a softener for intention. That is the “Black Space” through which he navigated. He also faced smearing by white music critics like Roger Caitlin, who in his 1991 Hartford Courant article, To Luther Vandross Fans, He’s Always In Fine Shape, argued that Vandross’s fluctuating weight would limit his overall success in the Popular Music arena.
According to Caitlin, “No one has ever doubted that Vandross’s luxuriant soul voice — which will resonate at the Hartford Civic Center Sunday night — has been anything but right on the money whenever he’s opened his mouth to sing. It was when he opened his mouth to eat that problems arose. His wildly fluctuating weight throughout his career has paralleled the fluctuating success of his hits on the pop charts. Consider this unscientific survey, which we’ll call the Luther Vandross Hit-to-Weight Ratio.”
The nauseating historicity of a white man’s criticisms of a Black body’s potentiality, in work, due to their speculation of performance contributed to by “imperfections” is as much the molder of that “Black Space” as anything coming out of the Black public forum.
In considering the dimensions of what was, and in some cases remains to be, the “wanted” body of Black male performers—with what we know about Vandross, heteronormativity and dysmorphia—there doesn’t seem to be much that Luther could have done to escape or reconcile the masculine ideal which not achieving “held him back” in the presumptions of men like Caitlin—something that assumedly weighed more than all of his catalog.
New Body Politics
And this conversation is rarely about health, because health and the body’s appearance are rarely synonymous. While musing on swallowing fire, I was reading body building magazines. Musclemag International, Flex and Muscle and Fitness I read fervorously, noting training programs and undergoing these torturous workouts designed for no one. I was floating in between the compulsive ruminations to lose weight and build muscle.
The men I admired, like Ronnie Coleman—a Black eight time Mr. Olympian who was bigger, stronger and more vascular than any competitor—were the manifestations of the Black masculine ideal and a marker, for me. Years later, after my interest in the sport waivered (with an education on steroid use and the magazine publication industry), I watched the documentary, Ronnie Coleman: The King. I was leveled by how the man who was once a pillar of physical achievement had shrunken and had lost all sustainable means of physical mobility due to injury.
Coleman has always denied steroid use, but it’s clear that he had hurt himself in pursuit of a perfection deferred (a proper discord on race, Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler as the Great White Musclebound Hope to be had at a later date) and here I was, for so long, in pursuit of him. To look at Coleman in 2008, was looking at a body of lies and yet, was regarded as a sanctum of health. But as I’ve learned, health is a life well lived, in pursuit of pleasure, the erotic and a kindness to the body, this Black body, that is rarely given by others. A kindness denied by the state.
Health has nothing to do with shape, an infatuation which shifts often in the legacy of a Protestant imagination of capital and profit. Health is the discussion which, as Black men who have subscribed to a cis-heteronormative ethic, we must be a part of with our kin who’ve communed in symposium on the subject, and whose wisdoms necessitate an affection for the Black body that is required to survive in this world.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.