Race and Social Problems

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 213–226 | Cite as

Perceiving the Black Female Body: Race and Gender in Police Constructions of Body Weight

  • Naa Oyo A. Kwate
  • Shatema Threadcraft


Representations of black women in US popular culture and public discourse frequently depict them stereotypically as fat and in need of policing for moral failures. As well, research has shown that black women are perceived and constructed as non-prototypical for their gender. Taken together, observers within a white-dominant social frame could be said to have difficulty correctly seeing black women’s bodies and gender presentations. In this study, we examined how black women are seen in the context of New York City Police Department (NYPD) stops and searches (known as stop and frisk). We examined how officers categorized black women’s body weight; investigated whether stops took place in public or private space; and assessed the extent to which body weight brought additional sanctions (i.e., being frisked). We used publicly available datasets from the NYPD’s stop and frisk program, in which stops numbering in the hundreds of thousands were recorded in yearly databases from 2003 to 2012. For each stop, officers record a number of attributes about the potential suspect and context, including race, gender, physique, date, and precinct. We conducted logistic regressions to model the odds of being categorized as heavy by race and gender, controlling for age, calculated BMI, location in a black precinct, and season of the year. Results showed that across 10 years of data, black women were more likely than white women to be labeled heavy. Black women were also much more likely than all other subgroups to be stopped inside rather than outside. Body size showed little association with stop locations or frisks. We interpret these findings as a reflection of black women’s positioning with regard to racial and gender representations and the disciplinary projects of the state.


African American/black Women Body weight Police New York City NYPD Stop and frisk 


  1. Abel, E. (2010). Signs of the times: The visual politics of jim crow. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bailey, C. (2010). Supersizing America: Fatness and post-9/11 cultural anxieties. The Journal of Popular Culture, 43(3), 441–462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bartky, S. L. (1990). Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture and the body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  5. Butler, J. (1997). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. In K. Conboy, N. Medina, & S. Stanbury (Eds.), Writing on the body: Female embodiment and feminist theory. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Carby, H. V. (1992). Policing the black woman’s body in an urban context. Critical Inquiry, 18(4), 738–755.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Center for Constitutional Rights. (2012). Stop and frisk the human impact. New York: Author.Google Scholar
  9. Center for Constitutional Rights. (2015). Daniels, et al., v. the City of New York. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). About BMI for adults. Retrieved December 4, 2014.
  11. Desmond, M., & Valdez, N. (2012). Unpolicing the urban poor: Consequences of third-party policing for inner-city women. American Sociological Review, 78(1), 117–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Eberhardt, J. L., Goff, P. A., Purdie, V. J., & Davies, P. G. (2004). Seeing black: Race, crime, and visual processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 876–893.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. El-Ghobashy, T. (2011, January, 7). Minorities gain in NYPD ranks. Wall Street Journal.
  14. Ferraro, K. F., & Holland, K. B. (2002). Physician evaluation of obesity in health surveys: “Who are you calling fat?”. Social Science and Medicine, 55, 1401–1413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Flegal, K. M., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Ogden, C. L. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999–2010. JAMA, 307(5), 491–497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Geller, A., Fagan, J., Tyler, T., & Link, B. G. (2014). Aggressive policing and the mental health of young urban men. American Journal of Public Health, 104(12), 2321–2327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Goff, P. A., Thomas, M. A., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). “Ain’t I a woman?”: Towards an intersectional approach to person perception and group-based harms. Sex Roles, 59, 392–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Grosz, E. A. (1994). Toward a corporeal feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Guthman, J. (2011). Obesity, food justice, and the limits of capitalism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  20. Harris, D. A. (2013). Across the Hudson: Taking the stop and frisk debate beyond New York City. Legislation and Public Policy, 16, 853–882.Google Scholar
  21. Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Lethem, J. (1999). Motherless Brooklyn. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  23. Lupton, D. (1995). The imperative of health: Public health and the regulated body. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  24. Masullo Chen, G., Williams, S., Hendrickson, N., & Chen, L. (2012). Male mammies: A social-comparison perspective on how exaggeratedly overweight media portrayals of Madea, Rasputia, and Big Momma affect how black women feel about themselves. Mass Communication, 15, 115–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Mbembe, A. (2003). Necropolitics. Public Culture, 15(1), 11–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Means Coleman, R. (1998). African American viewers and the black situation comedy: Situating racial humor. New York: Garland.Google Scholar
  27. Mitchell, M. (1936, 2011). Gone with the wind. New York: Scribner.Google Scholar
  28. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (2011). Community health survey. Retrieved December 4, 2014.
  29. New York City Police Department. (2009). NYPD celebrates women in policing.
  30. New York City Police Department. (2014). NYPD stop question and frisk report database: The stop, question and frisk data.
  31. Newsome, Y. D. (2003). Border patrol: The U.S. customs service and the racial profiling of African American women. Journal of African American Studies, 7(3), 31–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Payne, B. K. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Pogrebin, M., Dodge, M., & Chatman, H. (2000). Reflections of African-American women on their careers in urban policing. Their experiences of racial and sexual discrimination. International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 28(4), 311–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Purdie-Vaughns, V., & Eibach, R. P. (2008). Intersectional invisibility: The distinctive advantages and disadvantages of multiple subordinate-group identities. Sex Roles, 59, 377–391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rivera, R., Baker, A., & Roberts, J. (2010, July 11). A few blocks, 4 years, 52,000 police stops. The New York Times.Google Scholar
  36. Rubin, G. (1975). The traffic in women: Notes on the ‘political economy of sex’. In R. Reiter (Ed.), Toward an anthropology of women. New York: Monthly Review Press.Google Scholar
  37. Sacks, M. S. (2005). “To show who was in charge”: Police repression of New York City’s black population at the turn of the twentieth century. Journal of Urban History, 31, 799–819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Shaw, A. (2005). The other side of the looking glass: The marginalization of fatness and blackness in the construction of gender identity. Social Semiotics, 15(2), 143–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Solomons, N. W., & Kumanyika, S. (2000). Implications of racial distinctions for body composition and its diagnostic assessment. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71, 1387–1389.Google Scholar
  40. Stephens, D. P., & Phillips, L. D. (2003). Freaks, gold diggers, divas, and dykes: The sociohistorical development of adolescent African American women’s sexual scripts. Sexuality and Culture, 7, 3–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Stoller, R. J. (1968). Sex and gender: On the development of masculinity and feminity. New York: Science House.Google Scholar
  42. van Amsterdam, N. (2013). Big fat inequalities, thin privilege: An intersectional perspective on ‘body size’. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 20(2), 155–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Human Ecology and Africana StudiesRutgers, The State University of New JerseyNew BrunswickUSA
  2. 2.Department of Political ScienceRutgers, The State University of New JerseyNew BrunswickUSA

Personalised recommendations