Perceiving the Black Female Body: Race and Gender in Police Constructions of Body Weight
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.
KeywordsAfrican American/black Women Body weight Police New York City NYPD Stop and frisk
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