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The weight of being fat and black in America is worth more consideration than goes into a cheap joke

A trio of new books lays bare the struggle of being large, African-American and considered too smart for the authors' own good.
Image: \"Heavy: An American Memoir\" by Kiese Laymon; \"Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body\" by Roxane Gay; and \"Thick: And Other Essays\" by Tressie McMillan Cottom.
"Heavy: An American Memoir" by Kiese Laymon; "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body" by Roxane Gay; and "Thick: And Other Essays" by Tressie McMillan Cottom.NBC News

The United States is not a particularly thin nation, any more than it is a particularly honest one. Consider, for instance, that according to the Centers for Disease Control, about 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. And yet, at the very same time, notions of thinness are imposed upon us in such a way that overweight people are needlessly dying from stigma and cruelty.

Even as medical science knows there are better treatments for overweight people, America would rather peddle in easily commodifiable lies than in unmarketable truths; this is as true of our nation’s literal weight as it is about the figurative weight of our nation’s racism.

But a trio of newly published books by black intellectuals deals with the connections between blackness, fatness and Americanness in ways which give us not just new language for weight, but for American discourse overall: "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body" by Roxane Gay, "Heavy: An American Memoir" by Kiese Laymon and "Thick and Other Essays" by Tressie McMillan Cottom.

“I have presence, I am told. I take up space. I intimidate,” Gay writes in "Hunger," both lamenting how she wants to “go unnoticed” because she is so visible and so openly watched, while also refusing to “hate myself in the way society would have me hate myself.” But, even as she honestly reveals the pain she experiences in a big, black, bisexual body, Gay doesn’t name the feeling as a failure of self loathing; she says, instead, “I hate how the world all too often responds to this body.”

From her perspective as a black woman and his as a black man, Gay and Laymon both lay bare many of the similar (if distinctly gendered) struggles of being large, black and considered too smart for their own good. Both write about how body dysmorphia is not just the domain of thin white women (Gay by recounting purging and vomiting; Laymon by detailing his excessive exercise and dehydration routines). Both write about how sexual trauma can lead someone living in a fat black body to believe they are neither entitled to caring touch, nor to making the first move towards a lover, nor to deserving intimacy at all.

Notably, neither of their memoirs are fat-to-thin tropes; rather, both grapple with the true weight of American black embodiment devoid of cheap sentimentality.

And yet, despite their raw pain, both "Hunger" and "Heavy" contain the potential for a wholeness and freedom which is unattainable through lies. “This is a book,” Gay writes, “about my body, about my hunger, and ultimately, this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood.”

To be wholly seen in a nation which wants fat black bodies to be the source of jokes at best and invisible or dead at worst isn’t easy. To “understand that no one in our family — and very few folk in this nation — has any desire to reckon with the weight of where we’ve been,” as Laymon discusses with his grandmother in his book, “means no one in our family — and very few folks in this nation — wants to be free.”

While open to readers of any race, Laymon and Gay are specifically writing for other black people who want to wrestle with the weight (literal, figurative, historical) of their American experience in order to be free.

In "Thick," sociologist McMillan Cottom explores her “social location” as a black woman who has long been “expected to be small so that boys could expand and white girls could shine.” The eight essays in her book do not constitute a memoir, but they do make personal use of her position as a black woman sociologist to understand this racist nation.

Building on a theory of “thick ethnography” developed by Roger Gomm and Martyn Hammersley, McMillan Cottom writes that she was, “Thick where I should have thin, more when I should have been less” — not just physically, but intellectually.

One of the places she explores how her “thinking was deemed too thick” is in her book’s second chapter, “The Politics of Beauty.” Here, McMillan Cottom returns to the backlash to a viral essay she wrote about Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Music Awards, in which she said “I am not beautiful.” McMillan Cottom brings a sociologist's lens to explain that “beauty isn’t actually what you look like” but is made of “preferences that reproduce the existing social order.”

What she, too, is engaging is a politics of refusal: A refusal to remain unseen or be self-loathing. “When I say that I am unattractive or ugly,” she writes, “I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it.”

Among those who deny McMillan Cottom beauty were the “many white women who wrote to me with impassioned cases for how beautiful I am” after her 2013 essay, offering “self-help nonsense that borders on the religious,” as if it were up to McMillan Cottom to find her own beauty. But she refused: “White women need me to believe I can earn beauty," she writes, "because when I want what I cannot have, they have become all the more when I want what I cannot have, what they have becomes all the more valuable.”

There is a special weight placed upon black public intellectuals, as Mychal Denzel Smith recently wrote in Harper’s — and it’s even more burdensome for those who are physically large and deemed unfit for the public eye. But as Laymon quotes his grandmother, one may need to be “heavy enough for everything you to be heavy for” in this nation.

Taken together, the collective genius of "Thick," "Heavy" and "Hunger" is in how they illustrate an American path towards wholeness through honest — if painful — reckoning. Discussing blackness and weight shouldn’t be relegated to the domain of sexist, racist “yo mama” jokes; the existential weight of being fat and black in America is worthy of the serious consideration they all bring.

And, like many black writers before them, they serve up questions that all Americans ought to ponder. What does it mean to be thick and heavy in this country? What would it mean to not just quickly feed our appetites, but to explore our deep, often insatiable hungers?

In exploring these questions honestly through embodied blackness, this trio of books is not a funeral dirge of misery and shame but, rather, Gay, McMillan Cottom and Laymon offer a feast of what the latter calls “black abundance.” They form a defiant, demanding cry for whole personhood, honesty and the rich bounty possible from the black literary and bodily experiences in America.