Thick Culture: A Review of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s ‘Thick: And Other Essays’

I dove into Thick: and Other Essays (The New Press) expecting a body positive paean, an ode to thick bodies. Foolishly, I didn’t even think about thick minds, thick personalities, thick topics. The lens through which I considered thickness was narrow, and Tressie McMillan Cottom was about to teach me there was so much more to being “thick” than just the amount of space your physical frame takes up.

In the book’s first essay, “Thick,” McMillan Cottom writes, “I was, like many young women, expected to be small so that boys could expand and white girls could shine. When I would not or could not shrink, people made sure that I knew I had erred….[I was] thick where I should have been thin, more when I should have been less.” This can be read both literally and figuratively and offers a delicious space for rebellion against prescriptions for women (and especially Black women) to take up less space physically (i.e., thin culture) and metaphorically; for women to shrink their personalities, their talent, their wit, their words, and their bodies in order to make room for the bigness of men. McMillan Cottom pushes against this to make room for the women who yearn to grow but are encouraged to shrink: “thick is not just about bodies, but about capaciousness, about being a black woman who ‘thinks for a living’—who is paid, and well, published, and often.”

Thick occupies a wonderful, liminal space between academic text and memoir. In this work of quasi-auto-theory, McMillan Cottom parses stories from her life into sharp essays, weaving personal moments seamlessly with cultural metanarratives and critical theory. Easy to digest yet smart and topical, Thick is an excellent resource for writers and a thoughtful, evocative read for everyone. It is the college lecture you always wanted—a hybrid of personal narrative and academia, teaching you a whole lot without ever boring you. Readers can enjoy the essays one at a time or all at once—each features a fresh and unique thesis, but they all tie back to the same themes, forming a coherent whole.

I expected Thick’s second essay, “In the Name of Beauty,” to be a body-positivity panegyric about the intersection of Blackness, thickness, and womanhood. McMillan Cottom offers no critique of the pervasiveness of thin culture in the beauty industry, however, but rather points to the fact that “when white feminists catalogue how beauty standards over time have changed, from the ‘curvier’ Marilyn Manroe, to the skeletal Twiggy, to the synthetic-athletic Pamela Anderson, their archetypes belie beauty’s true function: whiteness.” McMillan Cottom argues that, “when I say that I an unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it.”

Layered on top of this critique of a white paradigm of beauty is a critique of beauty as an inherently capitalistic process. For McMillan Cottom, the desire to be beautiful becomes a demand, a market, and ultimately a transaction. Beauty is here argued as the only form of capital guaranteed to women and white women posed as the owners of this capital. Evidence abounds, from the pale foundations that have historically dominated makeup stores to the white woman-targeted ads in lifestyle magazines. The essay offers a counter-narrative against traditional, white woman-peddled notions of “self-love.” “If I believe that I can become beautiful, I become an economic subject,” McMillan Cottom writes. “My desire becomes a market.” She argues that self-love is a way of marketing beauty as a product—and not only to conventionally beautiful women, but to every woman who knows that beauty is the best capital she has to offer.

In her essay “Black is Over (Or, Special Black),” McMillan Cottom offers a nuanced examination of the many ways one can be Black in America, and especially in American academia. She posits that being “black-black”—that is, Black and American—is less valuable to the intelligentsia then being “ethnic black”—Black and from somewhere else: Jamaica, Haiti, Nigeria, etc. She recounts the assumptions that she is an “ethnic black” on account of her exceptionality; because she is intelligent and successful, it is assumed that she either is or wants to pass as a different sort of Black than “black-black.” “The false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap,” McMillan Cottom writes. “It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.”

McMillan Cottom’s essay “Black Girl, Interrupted” is a harrowing narrative about the ubiquity of sexual assault and violence for Black women: “the easiest way to locate the girl in a story about a [black] woman was to search for the sexual trauma.” McMillan Cottom speaks about Black girls’ bodies, how the passive emergence into puberty is too often read as a sign that a Black body is “ready”—as if sexual readiness can be read on the body and as if sexual readiness is synonymous with (unspoken) consent. The essay is reminiscent of Edelman’s conception of the symbolic, figurative “Child” for whom sexually is erased and innocence is assumed—except here, Black girls are othered and excluded from this paradigm of “Childhood”: “[a black girl] does not need the protection of childhood, for she has never been a child.”

In “Girl 6,” McMillan Cottom laments, “I wanted a black woman to have a job as an opinion writer at a prestige publication.” She analyzes the ways this has been denied to Black women writers: some write for Cosmo and Teen Vogue (overqualified writers whose thick, capacious work is squeezed into these narrow publications’ pages) or Black women writing for prestige publications part-time (while supporting their writing by teaching, working other jobs, or writing regularly for less prestigious publications). McMillan Cottom questions why Black women’s opinions aren’t considered valuable by prestigious publications (and by extension, the general public)—or at least valuable enough to hire one of many talented, Black, female writers as an opinion writer. By simply asking the question and examining its implications, McMillan Cottom is carving out her own venue for Black women’s voices to be heard.

You can read this series of essays in bite-sized chunks or as a fluid whole but regardless, it’s not going to be an easy read—though it’s just over 200 pages, it’s going to be thick.



Isabel Armiento

Isabel Armiento studies English at the University of Toronto, where she is Editor-in-Chief of a campus newspaper and actively involved in several other campus publications. Her work has been published or is pending publication in The Mighty Line, Lemon Theory, Adroit Journal, Antithesis Journal, and elsewhere, and she won third place in the Hart House Literary Competition for prose fiction.

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