Monday, August 20, 2007

When Slim Ain't In

I came across an interesting theory recently that gave me pause: "Big Black Women (BBW) in entertainment are destined for success because America loves the mammy image." Normally, I would have dismissed such an inherently racist, sexist and ignorant notion out of hand, but then as a Small Black Woman (SBW) I began to wonder.

The first Black woman to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in "Gone With The Wind." Who didn't love Nell Carter in her 80's sitcom "Gimme A Break?" Would Medea be as successful if Tyler Perry portrayed her more like Ru Paul? And who can argue with Monique's amazing success as a comedian and actress? Not I. I begrudge my sisters in the struggle nothing. But does this preference, real or imagined, put an SBW at a disadvantage?

To complicate matters there are quite a few sisters I can think of who's careers took a dive when they slimmed down. Remember Mother Love? When she began to lose weight, they replaced her with Robin Givens. The show was ultimately cancelled, of course, because who wants advice from an SBW with an attitude.

Was it really a contract dispute that led to Judge Toler replacing Judge Mablean on "Divorce Court?" Or perhaps Mablean’s days were numbered when she did a stint on "Celebrity Fit Club." Maybe she started looking a little too good underneath her judge's robes.

Before the talented Jennifer Hudson tackled the role, Jennifer Holiday brought the house down every night with her heart rendering rendition of "I'm Not Going" in the Broadway run of "Dream Girls." What happened to Miss Holiday? With a voice like hers she should have been a superstar. But she, like Judge Mablean, slimmed down and disappeared.

I hear you saying, "But wait Leighann. What about Tyra Banks?" What about her? While she still looks great, she is no longer in tip top runway, super model form. In fact the press has had a field day over her weight gain. But if Tyra subscribes to the BBW theory, she’ll carry those extra pounds right into a lucrative syndication deal, taking a page out of Oprah’s book.

Oprah took a lot of flack for her very public cycle of weight loss, weight gain. What made people so angry: that she had trouble keeping the weight off, or that she had the audacity to lose it in the first place? But Oprah's a genius. She didn’t begin the weight loss process in earnest until her media empire was firmly entrenched.

Does the average BBW in the public eye, slim down at her own peril? Americans pay lip service to the benefits of weight loss, but when it comes to Sisters, maybe they do prefer the image of the BBW. It's comfortable and familiar; the epitome of strength and stability. Is there nothing a smothering hug can't fix?

What's that? Oh, yes. The Weather Girls. No, I didn't forget about them. "It's Raining Men" is one of my all time favorite songs. Given the BBW theory they should still be topping the charts, right? But I think this may fall under the category of too much of a good thing.

Now that Starr Jones is taking up less space in the universe, it will be interesting to see if her career will suffer for it. Will people still be as anxious to hear what she has to say? God, I hope not. Sorry. I’m just not a fan.

But the bigger question is: in a media culture where the BBW image seems preferred, what's an SBW to do? Have I inadvertently harmed my comedy career by working out and slimming down even more? Thin doesn’t seem to be in for Black women unless you want to dance in music videos. Then the world is your oyster. I don't want to be a video vixen. The microphone stand at a comedy club is as close to the pole as I ever want to get.

Maybe it’d be different if I could sing. But then again, these days singing ability isn’t really all that necessary. If you can shake your hips and move your lips, the sound techs will take care of the rest.

I always knew a career in entertainment required sacrifices, but I wasn’t expecting anything like this. I’m left to wonder: is my weight, or lack there of, really what’s holding me back from super stardom? Will I have to bulk up like Barry Bonds and eat my way to a sitcom? I’ve always been heartened by the success of shows like "Girlfriends." But now I have doubts. Maybe in the public subconscious four SWB’s equals one BBW. Oh dear. Bring on the carbs.

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