Though bombarded with thin-is-in billboards, music videos and TV shows, a growing number of full-figured Black women reject society's claim that only the skinny are pretty, sexy and capable of getting the good jobs and the good men.
In years past, anyone who wore a size 14 or larger might have been viewed as old, matronly and downtrodden. But, today, when one out of every three American women falls into this category, the amply built can be found sporting the jazziest clothes, dating the hottest hunks succeeding in virtually every line of work. Members of this growing group are everywhere -- on TV, in film, in recording studios and in boardrooms. Living Single's Kim Coles and Queen Latifah are beautiful big women who continue to make significant strides. So are Jackie Harry of Sister, Sister and actress Loretta Devine of Waiting To Exhale fame, just to name a few. Others in this diverse and expansive group include legal correspondent Star Jones and gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong.
Actress Loretta Devine's plus-sized frame, she says, has never kept her from landing plum roles on such high-profile feature films as last year's holiday hit The Preacher's Wife. Her drive, ambition and talent, she says, have always made room for her.
Ann Nesby, lead vocalist of The Sounds of Blackness, is another plus-sized woman who has achieved success despite the public's obsession with thinness.
When DeLores Pressley was rejected by modeling agencies because she was twice as big as the regular agency models, she persevered to make her dreams come true and opened her own modeling agency for plus-sized women.
Although soul singer Angela Bofill has faced discrimination as a large woman, she continues to inch her way up the music charts with her trademark sultry sound.
Other plus-sized women, including Ebony Fashion Fair Show model Kareen D. Adkins, have also come to terms with their body size and are satisfied being just what they are today -- successful and full-figured.
These plus-sized women refuse to let society define who they are or limit them as women, lovers and professionals. They've come to terms with what they see in the mirror and have come to love their bigger-than-life image. They enjoy fulfilling lives, friendships and relationships, and are dominant forces in the workplace.
These women have learned to work with every bit God has given them. And although they aren't advocating excessive eating or saying that it's okay to ignore health risks associated with obesity, they do pose one vital question to their critics, as one big-bone beauty has said, "If we are healthy, vibrant and beautiful, why change?"
Loretta Devine has found little reason to change her beautiful, full-figured feminine look. The accomplished stage and film actress, who wears a size 14-16, says that at this stage in her career being bigger is better. "I get more work when I'm heavier than when I'm skinnier," she explains.
Devine gained between 30 and 40 pounds to portray the wide-eyed Gloria in the hit movie, Waiting To Exhale. But she admits that being in the size-conscious film business does present unique challenges for the full-figured woman. "Most plus-sized women are very aggressive and strong because they have to struggle for most things," she says. "Age, size and color-these things can work against us in this business."
Nevertheless, Devine still encourages her plus-sized Sisters to chase after their dreams, no matter what. "Don't let these things hold you back," she says. "Don't let any other stereotype they have block your dreams. You make them change the norm."
That's also Angela Bofill's theory. The voluptuous soul singer says her weight bounced up and down the scale after a rocky marriage and the birth of her daughter. Yet, through each life stage and subsequent dress size (She's been as little as a size 3 and as big as a size 23), the singer/songwriter has learned to love herself.
"Size doesn't determine one's worth as a person," says Bofill, whose latest album, Love In Slow Motion, reflects her confident spirit. "Love yourself as you are right now and go from there."
Personal hygiene and a sense of femininity and delicacy should play major roles in the life of the full-figured woman, Bofill suggests. "I get regular facials and pay attention to extra grooming, such as manicures, pedicures and hair," she says. "And I like ordering plus sizes from the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog. It's fun to wear sexy underwear and nightgowns. It makes me feel like a sex goddess."
Like many other full-figured Black women, Bofill says her weight has posed few problems on the social scene. "I've found that men are turned on to big, voluptuous women," says Bofill, who is divorced and currently dating. "The guy who is going to get me is the one who loves me big or small. I don't want any man in my life who is so shallow that he can't accept me for who I am."
Fellow singer Ann Nesby, who has taken a hiatus from her role as lead singer of The Sounds of Blackness in order to promote her debut album, I'm Here For You, agrees. The robust vocalist says the men in her life -- her husband, father and three sons -- support and love her unconditionally.
But on a more personal front, Nesby, who wears a size 20, says it's taken some time for her to come to grips with her weight. "As a child, I wore husky [size] and as a teen, I was always on the high-end of junior wear," she confides. These problems, compounded with a significant weight gain after childbirth and a failed marriage, she adds, helped to lower her self-esteem.
But eventually, Nesby says, a number of full-figured role models began to emerge. "I started seeing more full-figured women in the entertainment business, modeling business and in politics -- all with great self-esteem," she says. "I also began to see more plus-size stores and publications. But the most important turning point in my life was when I began to love myself for who I was as a person and realized my self-worth."
Nesby advises other women of ample proportion to do the same. "Don't sit around feeling sorry for yourself," she says. "You can be whatever you want to be with prayer and hard work."
It took that kind of dogged determination for DeLores Pressley of Canton, Ohio, to go after her dreams of becoming a runway model although she had been rejected by modeling agencies time after time.
"I always wanted to be a model but was afraid to consider it until I became an adult," she says. "At age 24, I decided that I was going to pursue my dream."
When she didn't find any work in professional modeling, Pressley began to model for churches and civic groups just for fun. Then, she volunteered her services as a plus-sized model for major department store fashion shows. But when she learned that the smaller models were getting paid top dollars for the same shows she volunteered for, Pressley made the ultimate move: She started Dimensions Plus, an image consulting firm and plus-sized modeling agency.
"I think that I was born a size 16," she jests. "At birth, I weighed 8 pounds and 10 ounces. Growing up, I was always large. But I never let that interfere with my accomplishments. I have dieted and lost weight, but it always seems to return. I really believe that I was created to be a large woman."
In addition to launching a successful modeling business, Pressley also founded the Ms. Plus USA Beauty Pageant for larger women 12 years ago. The size 20 businesswoman says she's learned to love herself through the years and to surround herself with people who love her just as she is. "My turning point came when I met my husband, Grant," says Pressley of her husband of 17 years. "My previous relationships ended because [men] were ashamed to be seen with a big woman. But size was never an issue for my husband. I cannot recall my size or weight ever being discussed. He is very supportive of my business, and he understands that it's more than a business to me."
Little by little, Pressley and other plus-sized women say they are increasingly being accepted in personal and public circles. "Finally, I believe society has come to the realization that everyone was not born to be thin," says Kareen D. Adkins, the plus-sized model for the 1996-1997 Ebony Fashion Fair Show. "I think more people have stopped judging plus-sized women and have begun to understand them more on a personal basis."
For years, Adkins says, her weight yo-yoed up and down. But even when she was smaller, she says, she was still self-conscious about her size. "Nowadays, it seems as though women are always re-evaluating themselves on the basis of size," she says. "But it shouldn't matter what others say about you just as long as you love yourself for who you are. If your size doesn't present health problems or extra stress on your body, then I say wear it well."
For the past few months, Adkins has been flaunting her full-figured wares across the runways of America, dazzling audiences in colorful pants suits, swaying dresses and furs, sassy short skirts and sultry beach wear. "I think a common misconception of plus-sized women is that we can't be sexy or feminine," says Adkins. "But during my performance each night, my goal is to be graceful, sexy and confident."
Personal image, Adkins says, is particularly important for the full-figured woman. She says plus-sized women should be careful to only wear clothes that fit properly. She also recommends that they exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week, to stay in shape. Under all circumstances, Adkins says, women of ample build should treat themselves like queens.
"Remember that you are special just as you are," she says to other full-figured women. "God created you for a special purpose. If he wanted us all to be the same size, we would be."
Lisa Cortes is another professional woman who has come to terms with her full-figuredness. "I used to sometimes wear vests to cover up," says the recording industry executive. "But now I'm freer. I don't try to hide. That probably has more to do with me gaining confidence in myself, maturing and not caring so much about what people think."
Cortes doesn't subscribe to the old stereotype that full-figured women are old matrons who just sit at home and eat bon bons all day. This astute businesswoman leads an extremely active life. "I try to eat healthy food and lay off things that aren't so good for me," she says. "I like to exercise and ride my bike. I take an African dance/exercise class. And my boyfriend and I go sailing, which is hard work." Cortes adds resolutely: "I'm not unhappy with my size now."
Besides, the recording exec says her size has proven to be beneficial in her line of work. "I've been told that I have a regal stature and that may work to my advantage," she says. "Sometimes, it may even be intimidating."
Nevertheless, Cortes and the other full-figured women featured here say they aren't afraid to put their God-given tools to good use. "Play up your assets," Cortes says. "If you've got great legs, which some people say I do, show them off. And you can bet that I do. This is sound advice for all women, not just plus-sized women. As they say, You have to work with what you've got."