I am like my mother — obsessed with ‘80s and ‘90s R&B. In her thirties, she sat at her vanity pressing powder and brown liquid onto her face while Debarge, Blackstreet, Keith Sweat, and Jodeci whined to her from the stereo.
In my thirties, I play my favorite Jodeci song, “U And I,” on repeat in my headphones while I hinge and press heavy weight with my hips at the gym. It is the right tempo for my desired time under tension:
U and I could be one
I prefer slow, yearning music in my ears as I load my body under barbells and cables:
Sorry I left you, left you crying
Since you’ve been gone
I’ve been all alone
During my workouts I imagine the possibility that my mother and I are almost the same person, the same spirit — my appetite for men is first hers, but my hunger for machines is only mine.
My younger sister calls me Voodoo Pussy. She often jokes that I am just like our mother, the way men become mesmerized by my sex appeal and grace, the way men become obsessed with me and my body. They yearn for me the way they yearned for my mother until she died. They loved her high cheekbones, her big laugh and big eyes, her hips swaying in black wrap-around dresses and sheer pantyhose, her blood maroon lipstick, her Angel Fire perfume, and black high heels. She commanded every room and every street. I watched men watch her walk. They could not help themselves when she passed them. They had to tell her she was beautiful. I heard men shout that they would drink her bath water.
Several men have come to me claiming that they are my father. I figure it is their way of saying they had indeed slept with my mother or had even loved her. My actual father is the most whipped. When I talk to him on the phone, he tells me stories about how they fucked around in empty parking lots while she was with my stepfather, and how he helped to raise my older brother before she left him for Randy. Randy, my stepfather, used to tell me stories about how he sat outside her apartment window on numerous occasions while they were broken up and watched her sleep with a new lover.
I look nearly identical to my mother, and men watch me, too. At the gym, I see their eyes set on me through the mirrors as I push and pull weight. I know they especially love me lifting in crop tops and my big ass wrapped in seamless NVGTN leggings. Some approach me and tell me how much they admire my intensity. They share workouts and playlists and ask for my number. The more muscular men ask to carry my weights though they know I can lift them.
When I leave my men, they behave like my mother’s men. My ex followed me to another lover’s house a few days after I kicked him out of my apartment. He knew where I was going like he had followed me there before the breakup. Eventually, he moved into the building next to mine as if there were no other available apartments in all of Lawrence, Kansas.
In my poem, “if my mother were alive,” the speaker imagines sharing intimate details with her mother about her sexual relationships with men. She imagines that they would laugh about how awful her mother treated her stepfather. Mostly, though, the poem thinks about the agency and womanhood her mother achieved through choices she made regarding her body and relationships. The speaker questions some of her mother’s decisions, but mainly the speaker yearns for her mother’s unabashed sexuality and power to own herself despite the double jeopardy of being Black and a woman:
I want a chance at my own body.
What links me to my mother is desire, especially the desire for desirability. Like my mother, I have grown and shrunk my body, sometimes exercising to align with standards of beauty and femininity, and sometimes lifting weights to subvert these norms. I love how big I’ve built my lats, traps, and biceps. As a Black woman, I understand deeply the experience of being denied womanhood because I am Black, and often femininity because I am a dark-skinned Black woman. The first poem I remember writing and sharing was called “Pretty, I’m not” – I can’t recall the poem in detail, but I remember that I wrote about being called “blackie” by fellow teenage classmates – that by that term they meant I was not beautiful. Like many dark-skinned Black women, I learned that being attractive meant having a lighter complexion. Men told us to our faces that we were not usually their type and that we were pretty to be dark-skinned. My mother was also a dark-skinned woman, however, I recognize that her larger body further complicated her confrontations with respectability politics, and her journey toward self-hood and sexual agency.
When I was a teenager, my mother often told me that she wanted to be my size, which was the size she was before she carried me and my six siblings. She had just turned thirteen when she gave birth to my eldest brother. She gave birth to my second eldest brother, my two older sisters, and then me between ages eighteen and twenty-one. She had my younger siblings at twenty-six and twenty-seven — except for them, we all have different fathers. Young and unaware of the fetishization of fat Black women, I wondered how my mother could be wanted by so many men in her large body yet yearn to be smaller. It is not that she did not love herself. I understand now the real failure of our family and community to love her. In “Bad Bitches Only,” Sesali Bowen writes that it is “fake ass body positivity that allows people to uphold unrealistic body standards, shame women for not meeting them, but still demand that we embrace our bodies.” You know the myth: that “Black people aren’t fatphobic – and bigger Black women, by extension, are confident and unaffected by their size…”
When she was 36, my mother made the decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery. She told us that the surgeons would cut her stomach down to the size of an egg to limit her eating. Before deciding, she tried exercise and fad diets. I remember the dozens of weight-loss shakes and supplements taking over the refrigerator shelves. A few times, she took me to L.A. Fitness with her, and we strode on the ellipticals and power walked on the treadmills. I’m not sure what gave her the idea to have weight-loss surgery, but I remember waiting in the car with my younger siblings while she attended her appointments at the gastric bypass center on Schrock Road in Columbus. Despite her decision to have the surgery, I did not understand how badly my mother wanted to lose weight until I read her journal. She wrote pages about her body – that she was fat, that she hated her fat body, that her last partner hated her fat body. She wrote often about her desire to be a slim woman.
Daddy says I am too big.
I keep trying to lose weight.
I wish I wasn’t fat.
Tima keeps telling me I need to lose weight.
It was after her death that I understood the way her desire dug deep into her body until it became a sickness. My mother was 37 when she died at Ohio State’s main hospital after trying to shrink herself.
I did not want my mother to have the surgery. As fake positive as it sounds now, at 15 I wanted her to love herself, to stay the confident woman whose strut and royal princess wave was a command performance. She was so beautiful, she seemed weightless. I had never considered how heavy she was to herself – or rather that she was shrinking herself for us.
The complications of the surgery and septic shock are what ultimately killed my mother. Aside from her previous surgeries, including six c-sections and two surgeries for hernias, it seemed that her body began deteriorating the day the doctors cut and rearranged her stomach and intestines. I never got the feeling the doctors took her suffering seriously, though she was admitted to the emergency room several times. In addition to several infections and pancreatitis, she experienced various allergic reactions to medicine that required the amputation of her left breast.
On the days closest to her death, she had daily panic attacks that made it difficult for her to breathe on her own. Each time, I held her in my arms until paramedics arrived and the attacks subsided. Some mornings she would call me into her bedroom to lay with her while she slept. She was much smaller — lighter — than she was the morning she took me with her to check in for the surgery. It was that morning — seven months before she died — that I thought about asking her to change her mind, but she was overwhelmingly excited. My mother smiled big and often, but her smile was bigger that morning. It was as if she was finally getting something she wanted. I loved seeing the excitement radiate from her. She bopped to the radio the whole way to the hospital.
In “Racial Disparities in Bariatric Surgery Complications and Mortality…,” Walsh et al examine racial disparities in operative outcomes. They conclude that “Black patients have higher odds of readmission and multiple grades of complications (including death) compared with White patients.” Watching her die, I did not think about race or even womanhood. I only thought about losing her. Now I believe my mother, a Black woman, died trying to remake herself.
When I first became serious about exercise I was in my mid-twenties. I started at 200 pounds and lost over sixty pounds with the help of a personal trainer and by going to Pilates, yoga, spinning, and strength-training classes regularly at my gym. After a few years, I became a fitness instructor myself, teaching seven to eight cardio, core, and mobility classes a week. Looking back, I had lost what I think now as too much weight. I was tiny – hard and lean. I was obsessed with eating vegan and clean. I wouldn’t eat anything that would threaten the six-pack I flexed on Instagram. I drank a gallon of water and ate six small meals mostly every day to boost and maintain a high metabolism. I wanted to stay small. I felt fit and slender.
I gained a little over thirty pounds during the COVID-19 shutdown while gyms were closed. I did at home workouts and tried my adult knees at running. Despite my best efforts to stay lean, my body grew thicker and heavier. After the gyms reopened, I returned eager with an 8-week weightlifting program. I first intended on losing the weight I gained during the beginning of the pandemic; however, the powerlifting parts of my workouts shifted my focus to developing strength. Though I am still very much plant-based, I began to eat more food to fuel my body and feed my muscles. I challenged myself to go heavier – I picked up big dumbbells and lifted them to failure. Over the last few years of lifting, I’ve grown bigger biceps, quads, and shoulders, a leaner back, and a stronger posterior chain. These days, I enjoy my glutes hella big and round, and my belly a softer shape.
Lucille Clifton’s poem “homage to my hips” was first published in her collection Two-Headed Woman in 1980, then republished in her collection Good Woman the year my mother gave birth to me. The poem fearlessly celebrates womanhood and confronts traditional/patriarchal ideas about femininity and beauty. The speaker’s hips are mighty and magic. She boasts,
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
The line these hips have never been enslaved is the middle line of the poem. The first seven lines hint at a confrontation with the speaker’s history, specifically her experiences with racism and sexism — namely slavery and white standards of beauty and femininity. In the second half of the poem, the speaker’s hips are free. They lure and disorientate men. They do as they please.
Some scholars read Clifton’s poem alongside their discussions of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was captured by Europeans in 1810 and exhibited at various freak shows for her described grotesque and protruding buttocks. She was often naked and caged while spectators groped and prodded her. The discussions of Baartman’s experience are often conflicting. Some scholars argue that she had little to no agency, and others argue that she used her own exploitation to reclaim her body as an African woman. In “Even with the Best Intentions,” Natasha Maria Gordon-Chipembere argues that African American women writers who believe Baartman participated willingly in the showcases oversimplify her experience and ultimately oversexualize her in the very same ways her white captors dehumanized her. She explains that it is impossible for Baartman to reclaim the Black voice when her voice has always been absent. I can agree with this, though I am moved by Morgan Parker’s persona poem “Hotentot Venus,” in which Baartman’s voice is very much present, and her yearning for agency and value is almost a demand:
I wish my pussy could live
in a different shape and get
some goddamn respect
In my essay on oppositional poetics, I examine poems like “homage to my hips” and “Hotentot Venus” as a part of a tradition in Black women’s literature where Black women writers confront racist, sexist images of Black womanhood and Black women’s bodies. I explore, in their art, women’s complex subjectivities, as well as strategies of resistance against the oppression they experience in their specific political and social lives. My own poems articulate theories and concerns in Black women’s art and literature, especially those related to experiences of erasure, sexual and racial violence, and pleasure and healing. I came to my own writing and interests in Black women’s feminist writing thinking about my mother’s choices regarding her body, and the sadness and anger she left with us in her journal. I wish I had known oppositional poems when my mother was alive — perhaps to read to her to dissuade her from the surgery, but to think about the history and the power of our bodies together.
My obsession with lifting heavy weights also emerged from my interests in the body, as well as from my obsession with moving and communicating meaning through movement. As much as by Jodeci, I am fueled by my mother’s courage and Black women’s oppositional poems where the resistance, the strength, and the grit are palpable. When I decided I wanted bigger glutes, I began incorporating barbell hip thrusts into my leg day workouts. On Mondays, I press my heaviest with three sets of hip thrust pauses. On Wednesdays, I push through four sets of 1 ¼ hip thrusts. On Fridays, I power through another four sets of b-stance hip thrusts – 15 reps each side. I almost always puke from the lingering tension in my glutes after the last rep. Most of the women at my gym crawl away from their bars after each set, too. We shake our heads at each other for enduring the tension on purpose. I encourage my women Instagram followers to lift heavy and to practice progressive overload if they want to maintain their voluptuous figures or to build their asses. And not exactly for men and beauty, but to take up space in the gym – to take all the heavy plates and dumbbells and the squat racks and the benches — to make men wait until we are done.
More than growing rounder glutes, though, hip thrusts are to me an assertion of poems like “homage to my hips” and the speaker’s quest for identity, survival, and autonomy. Like poetry, they are an act of survival – vital to my strength and endurance – a language I learned about my body communicated through physical action. I feel deeply connected to hip thrusts. They are heavy and difficult, and they are provocative and erotic. I lean on Audre Lorde to say, hip thrusts are “an assertion of the lifeforce of women.” I have always been a powerful woman, but I am more deeply powerful because of hip thrusts.
I imagine teaching my mother hip thrusts if she were alive: where to place the barbell on her pelvis, how to press through the heels as she hinges at the hips, how to keep her knees narrow and parallel, to keep her chin to the chest, to squeeze her glutes at the top of the movement, to lower her hips slowly and with control. It is not that I want her to make a different choice to lose weight or to reshape herself. I want to see her body in raw form again. I want the grit she had giving birth to men’s children to reemerge. This time, to push only her body. I want her breath to power each of her reps. I want to see my obsession crawl through her until she is alive — tired, but her big eyes smiling at me, her big hips as powerful as they always were. I imagine she would hip thrust to songs by Blackstreet:
Don’t leave me, girl
Before I let you go
before I let you go
We would sing together, hinge together, rest together. All the men would watch us just as they do when I am in the gym without her. As they did when she walked this earth. I imagine, when ready, my mother would teach me how to break my hips to give birth to a daughter who would likely become us.
 Sesalie Bowen’s Bad Fat Black Girl
“Racial Disparities in Bariatric Surgery Complications and Mortality…,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7223417/
 “Even with the Best Intentions” https://www.jstor.org/stable/4066764