There were literally no fat Black women or femmes
anywhere in the video that were not portrayed as
references to poverty (New Orleans video stills) or
desexualized, grieving mothers (note: they weren’t
even fat, but they were the only bigger bodied/non-
sexualized bodies within the entire visual album).
Now, when I brought up the lack of representation
up to other Black women and femmes, the first
- You just hate Beyoncé.
- Why don’t you critique Rihanna and everyone else who’s not Beyoncé?
- Beyonce can’t do it all!
- Why do you need to see yourself in something that’s about Beyoncé’s experiences?
This hyperresponsive clapback is what I always expect when it comes to Queen Bey. But the lack of understanding around why fatness is important (and a fundamental requirement, TBH) in a conversation with another Black femme about the portrayal of Black girl magic and Black femme supremacy is absolutely, unexpectedly disheartening.
Related: Oshun: The African Goddess Behind Beyonce’s Lemonade
I felt very empty when I didn’t see anyone who had a body like mine in such an iconic piece of art that has been hailed as a visual anthem for Black femmehood. Instead of assuming that my perspective and opinion on Beyonce’s current work and her role in creating this powerful art is based in vitriol, can we make room for other Black femmes to talk about representation in something that should inherently include them? Is it possible that Black femmes and women who value Beyonce can also give necessary thought to her work and platform? Is it possible to ask for representation in something about OUR historical trauma and pain, especially set in the Deep South?
Is it really too much to ask that Beyoncé include one or two cameos from fat Black women or femmes that are not desexualized, grieving mothers? Is it really too much to see fat Black women and femmes in the Deep South slaying the game (’cause we been here) incorporated in this powerful piece of art? Was it too much to give Gabby Sidibe a call real quick to channel that Southern Black Femme Gothic vibe she was servin’ in American Horror Story? Is it ludicrous to think that Amber Riley could’ve popped her pussy for real niggas somewhere in between “Hold Up” and “6 Inch?” She couldn’t do a feature with Jazmine Sullivan and get these Black fat thighs sanctified too?
Lemonade has themes of Southern Gothic, Black femme supremacy, Black magic, Black transcendence, Black religion and spirituality, betrayal and abuse, survival and resistance. In all of the beautiful visuals, poetry (written and adapted by Warsan Shire) and storylines, the vulnerability and struggle was never reflected in a fat Black body. And the limited representation in Lemonade could easily be quantified as accessory trauma tropes — in which we never see bigger Black femmes and women incorporated into a deep truth-telling experience like Beyonce and her thinner cameos, but rather as a tragedy in the background for effect.
Related: What Do We Mean By “Femme Privilege?” It’s Not as Simple as Everyone Thinks
Southern Blackness is inextricably linked to bigger Black femmes’ and women’s bodies. Our bodies symbolize the birthright of Black struggle while also representing the lineage to white plantation/white supremacist functionality. The rich history of the Deep South and the violence around troping, codifying and oppressing Black women and femmes is centered on mammification, sexual violence excused through hypersexual mythologies, denial of beauty, animalizing our humanity and utilizing our bodies as a literal and symbolic vessel for the continuation of slavery and subordination.
The references to mammification (caretaking, being everyone’s keeper) within Lemonade’s visuals, poetry and lyrics speak to a violence that is inherently constructed around fatness, Blackness, womanhood and femmehood. I imagine the Fannie Lou Hamers who have always been maternal figures to everyone around her, expected and praised for being that nigga for all the people in her life but never receiving love and protection in return.
I think about the Big Mama Thorntons singing their pain, creating innovative magic through resilience but getting their legacy and craft appropriated and snatched. Black fat women and femmes are always expected to play support systems to everyone in the world (even to other black women and femmes) while being politically denied healthy access to sexuality/sexualization, gender conformity and humanity.
In “Hold Up,” Beyonce says, “I don’t want to lose my pride, but I’ma fuck me up a bitch.” Anger codified upon Black women and femme bodies is constructed as a disparaging, limited identity that seemingly invalidates our humanity and our ability to be logical, emotional and multifaceted.
But this trope becomes very different when fatness is incorporated; we are looking at a completely different type of violence. Angry fat Black women/femmes are not given space to be rightful in their anger — or even human in their feelings. We’re coded as angry inherently because ugliness (through fatness AND Blackness) denies us the pride Beyoncé is referring to. Beyoncé’s pretty (constructed through thinness, smaller features and light skin), which hurts so badly, is also a privilege that allows her to be worthy of anger when a man betrays her.
This concept of denying Black fat femmes and women respect, fidelity and loyalty is also where the popular line, “And I can’t even get a text back” comes from. It is often used as a disparaging response when Black fat women and femmes, deemed too ugly for happiness and love, post pictures about their relationships. How different would it have been if a Black fat femme had been incorporated in the Lemonade visual? Could our view of beauty and love for Black women and femmes grow more complex if we saw a range of body types and sizes? What would this say about misogyny and betrayal from niggas (read: cis-het men or masculine folks) if we saw a range of different Black femmes and women claiming the right to be angry and burn everything down when they are fucked over? How would desire politics be reshaped if we saw a black fat woman claiming autonomy and respect?
In “Sorry”, Bey says, “MIDDLE FINGERS UP, PUT THEM HANDS HIGH, WAVE IT IN HIS FACE, TELL HIM, BOY, BYE.” All the while, Bey and my bae Serena Williams are fucking it up (read: twerking, being bad AF, black femme supremacy). But imagine if a fat Black femme was twerking and fucking it up with them. Imagine if they were putting their middle fingers up and weren’t sorry, because fuck these niggas!
Since Black fat femmes/women are always portrayed as unloveable, unworthy, ugly, angry and animalistic, the presence of our existence would call the entire song into question. Because how could ugly fat Black bitches be unbothered and unbossed about ain’t-shit niggas? How are they desired and fucked enough to even have the relationship problems Beyoncé and Serena have? And that’s exactly the point. Black fat bitches been here, been getting love, been fucking, been hustling, been getting fucked over, but we are still powerful, worthy, beautiful and in a political position to control who we give our labor, time and bodies to. We still deserve to put our middle fingers high and tell that boy, BYE.
Related: 4 Reasons Why We Need Fat Liberation
In the same song, she also says the infamous line: “BETTER CALL BECKY WITH THE GOOD HAIR.” There is a deep history of Black women’s and femmes’ humanity being compared to the purity, beauty and humanity of white women and femmes. Beyonce can drag Beckys (read: white girls) to hell, but can we also talk about how thinness (or proximity to acceptable body types), colorism, ableism and gender are also part of this larger critique for Black femmes and women everywhere?
Beyoncé has mad beauty-standard privilege, thanks to her light skin, her acceptable/thin body, able-bodied status, cisgender identity and heteronormativity. But when Bey reads white girls, it’s also praised and relatable because Bey is also on a beauty pedestal for being Black and exotic. If a Black fat bitch was next to her when she said that, would niggas still understand why Becky needs to be dragged?
Blackness + fatness denies us beauty proximity through the constructions of whiteness in ways Beyoncé and her Lemonade guests would never get shitted on for. It’s necessary to recognize that Black femme and girl pain is rooted in the policing of bigger bodies. We’re denied even the thought of sustainable and healthy love in any regard. Our clapback at white women would seemingly be read as a joke because we’re the literal opposite of white femininity (the most noted type of physical beauty). That’s why Black women’s and femmes’ pain and navigation of love has to be symbolized somewhere in this visual to really get Lemonade poppin’.
As we continue to examine and enjoy Lemonade, I search for the stories of fat Black femmes and women who have been raped, sexually exploited, beaten, politically ignored and are expected to remain strong, resilient — and silent– in their pain and experiences. I continue to search for the fat Black girls who are always the shoulder to cry on for the Beyonces of the world. I continue to question where the Aunt Jemimas (read: fat black women/ femmes in servitude) are, the fat black women and femmes who are tired of servin’ everybody, feeling like it’s them vs. everybody, feelin’ overwhelmed with people needing them and draining them.
I wonder where the Sheilas (Jill Scott’s character in Why Did I Get Married?) are — the fat Black women who are married to ain’t-shit ass niggas who continue to drain you of love and apologies while giving you nothing but self-hate in return. I wonder where the Big Mamas are at — the grandmas and nanas who always find ways to make Sunday dinner, who are berated for their physical health but never get asked about their mental health and grief from life in a world that was never created for their survival. I wonder where the little Black fat girls are who get told no one will ever love them or hold them or adore them — the Preciouses of the world who have experienced more trauma than care.
And I continue to wake up every day physically and emotionally TIRED.
My love for Beyoncé doesn’t come with silence or complacency. My critique of her doesn’t only happen when she’s dropping an album. The space I hold for her is not conditional, but rather intentional. I love Bey. I love Bey’s pop culture power and political growth. And I also hope to see Black fat femmes like me in her work centered on Black girl pain and Black girl magic — specifically because there is no story of black pain deeper than that of fat Black women and femmes.
There is no Lemonade for Beyoncé without the bitter violence against Black fat femmes and women. There is no Lemonade for any Black woman or femme without the sweet resilience, complicated experiences, beauty and existence of fat Black women and femmes.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, agender, Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet and the creator of Free Figure Revolution, a body positivity organization. She is currently working on her M.A. in Africana Studies at Morgan State University. Read more at Facebook.com/AshleighShackelford.
Akiba Solomon is the shit.
This goes without saying, of course. You don’t become an editor at The Sourceand the person behind the political humor column “What the F@#k” while there…and co-edit Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts…and work for Jane, Essence, and Vibe Vixen…and currently serve as editorial director for Colorlines without being the shit. But it bares repeating. Just in case anyone forgot.
Anyway, since she’s the shit and all, it’s natural she’d be a writing ass chick I love too.
DY: Since Saturday evening, both my Facebook feed and my Twitter timeline have been filled with Beyonce and Lemonade-related hosannas. Even those who usually feel the need to preface their Beyonce-related thoughts with stuff like “I aint on Beyonce’s dick like the rest of y’all…” are finishing those sentences with “…but Lemonade changed my life, b.”
This, however, hasn’t been you. At all. You’ve been very critical of it, especially the hour-long film accompanying the album. And if I recall you made similar criticisms when “Formation” dropped. So why aren’t you drinking the Lemonade? Do you just hate nice things?
AS: I do hate nice things like the sunshine, fresh cut peonies and Black girl joy.
Seriously, though. My feelings about Lemonade and a lot of Bey’s recent stuff are complicated. Please keep in mind that I am not a Beyonce hater. I think she’s beautiful, savvy and an exceptional performer.
Anyway, I watched Lemonade twice. I hated it the first time and liked (but not loved) it the second time. The first time was the night it premiered. I had zero context about Warsan Shire’s poetry, the multiple directors or the Oshun references. As a piece of art, I thought it was all over the place and I am sick of the gangsta-Bey novelty. As a piece of Black art, I thought it was another example of how poorly Bey deals with skin-color politics and antebellum imagery.
Starting with “Formation” and the Superbowl performance and now with Lemonade, Beyonce has been doing this very particular thing of reinforcing color hierarchy by using groups of darker-skinned, similarly styled women with afros or some other “natural” hair as background noise.
In “Formation” the video and the Superbowl show, Beyonce doesn’t place herself in community with these women. The lighting, her position, her lighter skin and long straight blonde hair make her the queen. That’s superstar stuff, but people want to make this stuff Nina Simone-level Blackness–just without the sacrifice.
DY: But couldn’t someone make the counterargument that the juxtaposition exists because Beyonce is the star and they’re literally the background? That she feels a kinship with these women. But since they’re her background dancers, both the uniformity and them existing in the background are understandably intentional?
AS: The “Formation” lyrics—”Mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas ‘bama”—tell a different story than one of that type of kinship. Beyonce is literally saying that Creole people are not regular-Black but special-mixed Black. Her construction makes it seems as if there is no privilege attached to being a more European-looking Creole rather than a West African-presenting Black ‘bama. Like, “yay, we’re all mixed and equal and pretty.” We all are mixed and pretty. But it’s bullshit to imply that we’re regarded equally amongst ourselves and the overall trick bag of White supremacy. Bey did not invent the Creole idea.(Read this essay by Dr. Yaba Blay, a dark-skinned New Orleanian of Ghaniain descent and a scholar of skin-color politics.) But it’s still troublesome to me.
The color thing happens again in the Superbowl performance. The darker-skinned women are now wearing black berets over fro wigs and black pleather booty shorts. Despite the Black Panther allusions, Beyonce, maintains her signature long, straightened blonde weave and rocks a special bodysuit that looks like it’s from the Jacksons’ Victory Tour. That juxtaposition makes the 50 or so darker dancers part of the set rather than actual human women.
In Lemonade, she does this on the bus with the darker women in the body paint and various African hairstyles.
Then she takes things a step further by having Serena Williams—one of the best athletes in the world and a dark-skinned woman frequently called ugly, mannish and a monkey—twerk and body-roll as she sits on a throne doing no such labor. People have argued that Beyonce is giving props to Serena because at one point she drapes herself over the throne the way Serena did on her Sports Illustrated cover. Plus they say that Serena “wanted this.” And, OK. Serena Williams clearly does whatever she wants. But none of that context explains why Serena is a twerk-maiden for most of her time in the video.
Finally on this, her constant antebellum imagery is confusing and it’s romanticized. Here we see Beyonce sitting in the center of group of darker women fanning herself. Or Beyonce alone, fanning herself. Or Beyonce bragging about Guivinchy (sp?).
I’m not a historian, but these images remind me of placage, quadroon balls and/or the fancy trade. I’m unclear why Beyonce is going back to this.
So the colorism and antebellum weirdness bother me, especially given how so many Black folks want to cast these cultural products as the ultimate declaration 360-degree Blackness–old Black, new Black, Afro-Futurist Black, Feminist Black, Rich Black, Slaying Black, Queer Black, ‘Hood Black, Southern Black, Real Black.
Yes, Beyonce is Real Black. But colorism and historical myths are Real Black too, and they suck.
DY: In your first answer you mentioned that your thoughts on Lemonade have shifted a bit since your first viewing. That you see it in more of a positive light now. (Or, rather, less of a negative light.) What changed?
AS: I watched it again a couple nights ago after skimming a billion think pieces and think-posts. I felt I was missing something. I was. This project isn’t as disjointed or unintentional as I thought and there’s a lot of symbolism I haven’t been exposed to before.I can now see why people are losing it. It’s an often beautiful piece with powerful scenes of Black male vulnerability, moms mourning their children slain by racist police or vigilantes, performance, love in many forms, baptism and Black women bonding.
I still feel the same about the color politics and antebellum shit, though.
DY: So, since you don’t like sunshine, fresh cut peonies, Black girl joy, and Beyonce’s Simply Creole Raspberry Lemonade all that much, what does catch your fancy right now?
1. VSB of course. It’s my favorite read.
2. The Hamiltones “Respeck.”
If you didn’t see it, Anthony Hamilton’s background singers turned Birdman’s terroristic threats on “The Breakfast Club” into an old-time gospel song with three-part harmony.
First of all, two of The Hamiltones sound like Bobby Womack. Second of all, while I don’t condone violence toward radio show hosts, Birdman’s repeated demand for “respeck” on his name is profound. (I’m joking. Sort of.)
3. Fantasia’s Prince tribute in Atlanta made me shout. People take Fantasia for granted. They should stop doing that.
You can follow and find Akiba Solomon here and here.