Body Shaming Black Women in Media
Journalism does not make room for people who are different. Many of the internships are unpaid, making it difficult to afford if you’re not born into a wealthy family. Women and women of color are often underpaid in newsrooms for performing the same duties as our counterparts. The leadership at many organizations is composed of mostly white women, some white women if you’re lucky. And don’t get me started on LGBTQIA acceptance. Journalism criticizes other industries for its mistreatment of women, but it has not—until recently in the wake of sexual harassment allegations—thought about how to create an environment that is welcoming to diverse individuals.
So, I’m not surprised—in a country that doesn’t welcome diversity and a field that doesn’t embrace diverse workers and their narratives—that Demetria Obilor, WFAA’s new traffic reporter in Dallas, was shamed by a viewer due to her size, wardrobe, and natural hair, Today reported. Jan Shedd, a viewer, left a critical comment about Obilor’s aesthetic, word spread on social media, leading to a flood of body positivity support from everyday viewers to celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Chance The Rapper.
Obviously, this is wrong on several levels. Obilor is a beautiful black woman with an impeccable figure. She looks healthy and glowing. Her dress compliments her shape and skin tone well and is in line with the form-fitting attire of other broadcast reporters. Even if the outfit was not of one’s particular taste, you could always focus on the traffic report.
In addition to illustrating the racism and sexism that women of color still face in media, this incident brings to light the underlying classism that comes with a black woman's hairstyle and wardrobe choice. This moment brought back memories of my start in journalism. More to the point, I began to understand that my shapely figure, my hair, and my attire were going to create hurdles in my career advancement.
Crafting a proper work wardrobe takes time, especially for women. While male reporters or editors may meander between button-ups and slacks or full suits, women must look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Is this too much?” “Will people take this the wrong way?” “Might this give the wrong impression?”
I found myself asking similar questions years ago. Following my internship at Crain’s Chicago Business, I started working full-time for a weekly I freelanced for occasionally. Among other red flags, my weight and subject became a subject of scrutiny at work.
One evening, after a work meeting at a South Loop Starbucks, my then boss accompanied me as I waited for the bus. While we were discussing wanting to go to the gym to get healthier, my boss said, “You’re fine. You just need to work on your tummy.” I stood there, wearing a pair of navy blue slacks, a navy blue tank top, and a beige blazer, briefly in awe of what I just heard.
“I’m fine with weight. I’m happy with my shape,” I shot back.
“Well, do you want to have children?” she asked in an attempt to pivot to a different, equally intrusive subject.
It was the first of several incidents during which my appearance was a subject of critique. Some dresses were approved; others were shot down in private meetings and in front of other coworkers. On an unseasonably cold day in July, I wore a grey tunic which stretched down above my knees. I wore a set of black leggings which left my ankles and tops of my feet exposed. With the exception of a lace pattern on the back of the tunic, most of my body was covered.
While sitting in my boss’ office to edit the week’s newspaper, my boss remarked that my outfit was “cute” but that it was not quite right for work because of the way it fit my body.
“You don’t want men to respond to you that way,” she advised.
I scoffed at her and continued editing. All the men on staff were old enough to be my father or my grandfather. Thankfully, none of them had harassed, assaulted, or made unwanted advances toward me. But when I thought about it later on, I wondered why men in the workplace, especially men of their age, couldn’t be held responsible for their actions. The burden of controlling men’s behavior fell upon women. We must watch the way we dress, the tone of our voice, know when it’s appropriate to smile…
A few minutes later, after I overheard a colleague mention that my boss wanted to talk with me about my wardrobe, too, my boss, a colleague, and two young, unpaid interns (all of whom are black), walked into the room for an impromptu lecture on proper work attire.
I won't make assumptions about the socioeconomic statuses of these interns, both of whom were young, smart black women. But I will say that I couldn't afford to build a robust work wardrobe even with my paid internships. Sure, there are nonprofits like Dress for Success that help remove women's achievement barriers by providing them with proper work attire and a support system. But in media, an industry so full of elite privilege that it expects most interns to work for free, where is the support for people of disadvantaged backgrounds who need help navigating an industry from which they've been excluded?
During a staff meeting, another outfit of mine gave my former boss pause. Upon my early arrival, she gazed at my sleeveless black dress which hung above my knees and said, “Here you go again with these short dresses.”
At this point, I was owed money for freelance articles and photos published before I came on staff, and my payroll information was not taken until I began working. Not only did I stand there before my colleagues feeling overwhelmingly embarrassed, I was also on the verge of being broke while waiting for my wages.
“I checked my bank account this morning, and I didn’t see any deposits in there. So I can’t buy any new clothes until I get some money,” I responded as calmly as I could.
It’s bad enough to not pay interns enough to cover their rent, transportation, and other expenses. But the failure to compensate young journalists well also leads to a social workplace inequality. Young journalists, especially those of different backgrounds, typically don’t have the generational wealth to support unpaid work nor can they afford to go all out on a wardrobe right away. But more importantly, we need to stop shaming women. There’s a difference between kind mentorship and outright derision.
After seeing criticism of Obilor’s outfit, these and other memories of feeling humiliated about my work attire came rushing back to me. While it does comfort me to see the support she’s received, we’re still lagging in support of up-and-coming journalists, let alone societal beauty standards. I’ll be glad when women journalists are free to be judged not by the length of their hemline but by the veracity of their reporting.
Have you ever been body shamed at work? How did you handle it? Tell me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.