This week, I watched Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls (2022) which premiered on Amazon Prime. The reality show focuses on thirteen contestants, vying to become one of Lizzo’s backup dancers, eventually accompanying her on tour. Lizzo created the show because when she asked dance companies for dancers, they rarely, if ever sent dancers who looked like her.
Instead of waiting for space, she created it.
The reality show is a true celebration of dance, dreams, and beautiful bodies—bodies that look like mine. The women are diverse in background, experience, and training; moreover, they come in every color, shape, and size. The show isn’t about being thin, it’s about being strong and authentic. Watching young women exist with no thought of achieving “thinness” was refreshing. In the show, they are valued, supported, and celebrated. They don’t have to play the fat, Black-girl stereotype because Lizzo created space for them to be complex, nuanced women going for a dream.
The show made me feel seen. For so long I hated my body and while I work to show it love, sometimes it can be difficult when whiteness, thinness or certain curves are touted as the standard of beauty. While watching the show, I couldn’t help thinking about one of the many reasons why I write romance. By writing characters that look like me, I create space for fat, Black women to be pursued, loved, and adored. The idea of space is interesting in that there are spaces fat, Black women are allowed to occupy and there are spaces we’re walled-off from.
Romance is one of those spaces.
Although fat, Black women exist in the billion-dollar romance industry, they don’t exist in abundance. And why is that?
Before I answer, let me introduce you to Ms. Vivian Stephens. Ms. Stephens is a 90-year-old Black woman, who in the 1980s, worked as a romance editor. Given a supply closet, an assistant and stacks of unread romance manuscripts, Ms. Stephens envisioned, nurtured, and spearheaded the U.S. romance industry as we know it today. Not only did she launch the careers of some of the genre’s most successful authors, but she also founded Romance Writers of America (RWA), a non-profit association that supports new and established romance authors. As the genre grew, Ms. Stephens was eventually pushed out of RWA along with editing all together. Although she started her own company, none of the authors she discovered followed her and eventually, she worked as a freelance editor and romance author.
On Black Romance Podcast, Ms. Stephens said that she ensured romance novels centering women of color, were written by women of color. She felt that if someone wasn’t familiar with the culture, they might use derogatory language and offend readers. And according to Ms. Stephens, romance novels shouldn’t offend. They should bring hope. She created space for Black women to write romance—to see themselves as lovable.
What’s interesting is that forty years later, RWA, the organization she founded and was subsequently ousted from, has come under fire for their insensitivity to race, culture, and ethnicity. In 2019, RWA suffered a PR disaster when a board member encouraged an author to revise portions of her novel that were culturally inappropriate and offensive. After a Twitter campaign, not only did the author not remove the content but the board member (a woman of color) was dismissed. Neither the genre nor the association lives up to the values on which it was nurtured. Today, the romance industry is dominated by white women. And since the 80s, it has managed to exclude Black women. Returning to my question: why are fat, Black women underrepresented in the romance genre?
You tell me.
When I read romance novels—novels where the heroine is pursued, and adored but I never see myself, what does that say? I’ll tell you. It says: Chantell, you’re not welcome in this space. The space of love and romance. I’ll go one step further and say that if the genre does have Black female leads, but they’re written by white women, what does that say? It says: Chantell, we’d rather have white women write for you, instead of you writing for you. That’s how much we don’t want you here.
When I sent my manuscript to my editor, I panicked about what comes next on my writing journey. Ultimately, I must share my work. Share it in a space that says through its actions, that I’m not welcomed nor am I worthy of love. But then I learned about Ms. Stephens and realized that as a Black romance author, I’m not the interloper. I’m not trying to break into a white-woman-dominated industry because I belong in this space—a space that was built by a Black woman. A woman who supported authors, created stories of love, and made sure everyone was welcomed. I’m a Black woman and I’m creating and claiming my space in a genre that wouldn’t be what it is today without the perseverance and ingenuity of a Black. Woman.
If you watched or read anything about Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings, then you know that being a Black woman in the United States is taxing as fuck. When we enter a space, our hair, voice, body, mannerisms, intelligence, and appeal seem to threaten people. We must navigate microaggressions, sexism, racism, performative allyship, and dangerous liberalism. And you mean to tell me that after enduring that shit, I get to escape to a romance novel where the lead has alabaster skin and silky, strawberry blonde hair?
It’s a no for me.
The music industry didn’t create space for Lizzo or her dancers, so she created it herself. The romance industry hasn’t created space for fat, Black women, so I’ll create it myself. Then after I create the space, I intend to fill it with fat, Black women who are complex, lovable, sexy, and intelligent. They are adored, pursued, and worshipped as the goddesses they are. There’s something about knowing history. Let someone else tell Ms. Stephens’ tale, she was just a lady who worked as an editor. But when you dig for the truth, you realize there’s no romance industry without her.
That empowers me. Fuels me. Encourages me.
Gone are the days of people dictating which spaces Black women can occupy. Gone are the days of erasure. Of regulating imagination. Of picking and choosing who’s worthy of love in a billion-dollar industry of fiction writing.
Black romance writers have unleashed their vivid imaginations, challenging stereotypes, unconscious bias, and marginalization. If you didn’t know, we’re all one hundred percent that bitch and we’re creating and claiming what’s rightfully ours.