Post racial, my ass: High school teacher rants about “fat butt Michelle Obama”


When you make comments about the size of the very fit Michelle Obama, you are feeding into a very particular beauty myth and standard:

During a debate-type discussion about current affairs in his class on Jan. 27, Grisham blamed the school’s low-calorie lunch offerings on “fat butt Michelle Obama.’’ He also added, “Look at her. She looks like she weighs 185 or 190. She’s overweight.’’

I do not desire to split hairs about what body sizes and shapes are more beautiful than or valued over others. That’s an entirely subjective enterprise, but I do know that our culture has a history of placing an emphasis on a beauty standard that excludes fit brown bodies, subjecting those bodies to dehumanizing abuse and ridicule. And as Krissah Thompson notes, this kind of criticism of the shape of Michelle Obama’s posterior hearkens back to Saartje Bartman, the “Venus Hottentot,” whose body was a featured spectacle in the World’s Fairs in late 19th century.

“We have a history in this country of white people not showing adequate respect for and devaluing the bodies of black women, and this most definitely falls in line with that,” says Ayana Byrd, the co-editor of the anthology “Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts.” (Grisham, Limbaugh and Sensenbrenner are white men.)

The focus on this first lady’s posterior has historical antecedents. It reaches back to the imagery of Hottentot Venus, a woman from what is now South Africa whose naked body and pronounced posterior were paraded in shows throughout 19th-century Europe. On to the selling and trading of black women’s bodies through slavery.

It’s why Caroline Wozniacki’s caricature of Serena Williams’s very fit body in competition was offensive.

I doubt that Grisham and Caroline Wozniacki are aware of that legacy of devaluing bodies of brown women when they make these remarks or dress in ‘costume.” That’s not an excuse or pass; it’s an acknowledgement of the privilege of never having to know.

But most assuredly, Rush Limbaugh is. The bloviator of the right wing noise machine is very aware of the tactical advantage of demonizing brown bodies. The “fat Michelle Obama’” meme is designed to undermine any goodwill the “Let’s Move’” fitness campaign could garner from the right and doubly serves to other Michelle Obama in the ongoing narrative that her body and person do not represent “traditional” America. It is the deepest and weirdest irony that Limbaugh, who is not of small size, attacks the First Lady in this way, let alone, how “fat” isn’t applied ever to him. Or, how in the presence of powerful women who oppose their views, fat and fat shaming become verbal weapons in weaksauce arguments on policy.

It also appears Grisham has a particular disdain for more than just Michelle Obama. In that same class, he also voiced his disdain for homosexuals. “I don’t believe in queers,’’ he said. “I don’t like queers. I don’t hate them as a person, but what they do is wrong and an abomination against God.’’

That’s just great. He’s teaching fitness and health, friends.

So, gentlemen, the tide is changing. We’re going to keep calling you out on your BS. And you, dear America, you’re going to be okay about the size and shape of black women’s bodies. In fact, all bodies. I promise you.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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