Curator's Note

“If it wasn't me then would you even get offended? Or
Is it just because I'm Black and heavy? Y'all don't hear me though

  • “Special,” Lizzo (2022)

Whether or not you like her music (and for a long time I did not), there is something delightfully familiar about Lizzo. It’s delicious and delightful how lightly Melissa Viviane Jefferson seems to walk. There is much to say about all Lizzo has accomplished throughout her career as a fat[1] Black woman, in spite of these longstanding systems of fatphobia, colorism, sexism, racism, and beauty standards. She is one of the most successful pop stars of our time – garnering millions of albums sales, hit singles, three Grammy awards, a size inclusive shapewear-based clothing line named Yitty, a new album Special released to critical and commercial success, and even an Emmy-nomination for her size inclusive dance competition show Watch Out for the Big Grrrls (further known as WOFTBG). Yes, many have recognized and lauded her for these accomplishments.

However, what I find most interesting about the choices Lizzo has made throughout her career is her constant, visceral insistence that consumers of her music engage with her entire humanity and emotional depth as a fat Black woman. Nowhere in her work is this reckoning clearer than in her recent album Special. Here, we are privy to her inner life in ways that do everything to undermine what Kristen J. Warner might call “plastic representations” of those in bodies like hers.[2]

Through a Black feminist understanding of “interiority,” I want to highlight a few of the ways that Lizzo lays bare in her inner life – in part subverting plastic tropes of the mammy, the “sassy” or “funny” Black/fat friend, and the fat Black woman’s body as spectacle. There are limits and complications to Lizzo’s ability to subvert these images that I will also mention; however, ultimately the work of Lizzo’s Special reveals a negotiation and navigation systems which were never built to center bodies like her own.


As argued by Sabrina Strings, modernity has been shaped in part by the intersection of fatphobia, anti-Black racism, and gender subjugation. Strings maintains that the thinness as a beauty, corporeal, and health ideal has always been a racialized project.[3] Indeed, the curvy, “thick,” African-descended woman as spectacle has deep, colonialism-informed roots. Depictions of the mammy in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also did work to other and subjugate a large, subservient, and eager-to-serve caricature of fat Black women.[4] Across the world, the well-known case of South African Khoekoe woman Saartje “Sara” Baartman of the early nineteenth century reminds us of how lucrative looking at a woman—by way of her most intimate body parts—can prove in the context of colonialism, other-ing, and empire. However, as suggested by the work of N. Gordon-Chipembere and Elizabeth Alexander, Baartman could potentially “return the gaze,” looking while also being looked at. [5]


Elizabeth Alexander also contributes to the idea of interiority, through her 2004 work The Black Interior. Here, Alexander maintains that Black interiority is the spaces that have the potential to “identifying complex and often unexplored interiority beyond the face of the social self.”[6] Meanwhile, Darlene Clark Hine thinks about the “inner lives” of Black womanhood by way of her theorizing of the culture of dissemblance. Joan Morgan later reminds us that interiority may have much to do with embodied sexuality.[7]

Sexuality as a way to lay bare fat Black women’s vulnerability and inner lives is a thread that runs through Lizzo’s recent work. Nowhere is this more visible than on Track 9 of Special, titled “Naked.” While well-trodden terrain, Lizzo’s metaphorical use of “naked” as synonymous with vulnerability and intimacy just hits different coming from a fat Black woman and read through the lens of a fat Black woman like myself.

The song opens: “Welcome to my body, I know it's nice to meet it/ Fantasies been written 'bout the beauty and the sweetness/ Can I be discreet with you? Will you keep all my secrets?” While we may have seen Lizzo’s body publicly, we haven’t really gotten a chance to “meet” it so intimately and on her terms. Later, the chorus sings in part: I'm a big girl, can you take it? /Naked.” In the face of the constant hyper sexualization of fat Black women, these lines re-frame engaging with “a big girl” physically and sexually as an exclusive privilege that is not entitled to the weak or easily intimidated.

Lizzo is constantly aware of her hypervisibility and the ways in which her body has been constructed as a discursive space, while also disavowing this construction. “Naked” states: “All the conversations say I should feel a way/I don't care what people think or spin or sway.” In this moment, Lizzo articulates a disavowal of beauty as a concept, noting: “Beauty is a gift, but curses everyone that chase it/ I wish we could live without no body expectations.” The set of lines is a double entendre that imagines a world without both anybody’s expectations (made “nobody’s expectations” by way of use of African American Language grammatical features), as well as “no body expectations”—or expectations that deem certain bodies desirable, valuable, and/or sexual.

While in “Naked” Lizzo speaks to the naked body’s connection to vulnerability, she is also often naked in the literal sense in her public life. To promote track 11, “If You Love Me,” Lizzo went nude on the video-based social media platform Tik Tok. In Season 1 Episode 4 of WOFTBG, she directed the plus sized contestants in a nude photo shoot that aimed to push them to a new level of vulnerability and body confidence. Meanwhile, Lizzo herself is no stranger to gawking and criticism for baring too much in the outfits she wears in her private life.


While there is something to be said for the discursive work of Lizzo’s Special in carving out a space body acceptance, there are of course limits to this work. Much of her content is indebted to both the mainstream “body positivity” and “self-care” movements—both of which are decidedly capitalist and individualistic.[8] Her lyrics and content don’t often speak to the material conditions of everyday fat individuals – rarely calling out, for example, size discrimination as systemic in the context of employment. Indeed, when critiqued about her body, she often replies with quips about being rich and successful.

While Lizzo occupies a fat Black body, she is also wealthy, cis, able-bodied, heterosexual (as far as we know), and very pretty/feminine presenting. However, her show WOFTBG did prominently feature dancers of all races, some of whom were both queer and trans. Perhaps with more diverse folks in the studio, in front of the camera, behind the camera, and pushing their pen via lyricism, we can begin to open up more spaces for all bodies to be safe, valued, respected, and Special (Cringe. I am sorry).  


[1] Throughout this piece, I am using the term “fat” as a descriptive, politicized term to describe larger bodies. I am following in the tradition of those such as Susan Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue (Random House, 2016) and Andrea Elizabeth Shaw’s The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women's Unruly Political Bodies (Lexington, 2006)


[2] Kristen J. Warner, “In the Time of Plastic Representation.” Film Quarterly 71, no. 2 (2017): 32–37.


[3] Strings, Sabrina, Fearing the Black Body: the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (New York University Press, 2019)


[4] Tracey L. Walters, Not Your Mother’s Mammy: The Black Domestic Worker in Transatlantic Women’s Media (Rutgers University Press, 2021)


[5] N. Gordon-Chipembere, Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman. (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2011),


[6] Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior: Essays, (Graywolf Press, 2004, 4-5).


[7] Joan Morgan, “Why We Get off: Moving towards a Black Feminist Politics of Pleasure,” Black

Scholar 45, no. 4 (2015): 36–46.


[8] Rosalind Gill and Ana Sofia Elias. “‘Awaken Your Incredible’: Love Your Body Discourses

and Postfeminist Contradictions.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 10, no. 2

(June 2014): 179–88.

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