How Queen Latifah Helped Me Build Self-Esteem As A Fat Black Girl

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My first time encountering Black media legend Dana Owens, aka Queen Latifah, was on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” At some point in elementary school, I was watching reruns on BET, and Will was meeting yet another female guest star. I was surprised when I saw Dee Dee; she was nearly as tall as Will and had what my granny would call a “fuller figure.” It was the first time any woman on the show, let alone a love interest for Will, looked like me.

Plus, she was awesome. When Will made an inadvertent size reference, she bagged on his skinny frame and big ears. She won him over with her sense of humor, and was never afraid to call him on his shit. This wasn’t the first time I wanted to emulate a TV character (I’d had a whole thing with Susie Carmichael from “Rugrats” and Francine Frensky from “Arthur” at that point). But it was the first time the character looked so much like me: not just Black, but tall and plus-size too.

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Will Smith and Queen Latifah as Dee Dee on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Eventually I learned who Latifah was as my mom rented her films. I loved watching her run a business in “Beauty Shop,” take a luxurious vacation in “Last Holiday,” and solve a crime investigation with no training in “Taxi.” She was no-nonsense, gorgeous and funny, taking each day one step at a time. She showed a vision of what adulthood could be, if I shaped myself in her image.

My most active season of Queen Latifah fandom was fall 2007, when I transferred to a new middle school. Many of the kids at the majority-rich, majority-white school had already chosen their friends years prior, and in addition to being the new kid, I physically stood out. I was nerdy, nervous and quiet; many teachers didn’t know what to make of me, let alone students. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

“Hairspray” came out that year, and all I knew of the musical was that Queen Latifah sang in it. My parents gifted me the DVD for my birthday, and I spent the next several months learning every song, every dance routine, watching the special features nonstop. Motormouth Maybelle’s song “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” was awkward, with all the innuendos I didn’t understand, but I belted out her finale verse in “You Can’t Stop the Beat” over and over until I could do it while dancing. Singing “I Know Where I’ve Been” in all its rebellious, hopeful glory pushed some of the sadness of those first months at the school out of my body.

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I like to remember my time watching “Hairspray” every night for months as endurance training for facing the world, or replenishment of my self-esteem. I had been pushed into an environment where I had to face what other people think of me every day. In elementary school, bullies or boys would make fun of my weight every now and then. But questions of whether or not I belonged there never even crossed my mind. In middle school, everyone was commenting on how differently I acted from how they thought someone who looked like me should act. Oh, you’re so smart. You use a lot of big words. How come you’re so tall?

Queen Latifah, center, in the 2007 film “Hairspray.”

If it wasn’t enough to hear about how strange I am, I also had to do physical education instead of recess for the first time, and participate in weekly mile runs where I was reminded about my size and fitness level when I always came last. Kids would joke how I’d have all As except in P.E., in that way that kids will casually throw your deepest insecurities in your face. Under their gaze, my Blackness and my fatness became a source of shame. I learned to suppress them and focus on blending in until I could go home, turn on the TV, and think about Motormouth Maybelle instead of myself.

I didn’t know it back then, but I was only engaging with one side of Queen Latifah’s work. My focus on her rom-coms and “Hairspray” fit what I wanted to see in myself through her, that I could be loved, admired and successful. That’s what I needed from her back then.

But childhood doesn’t stay. I grew up, left that damaging environment where I was put into one box, and needed to discover the full me and work my way out of it. In middle and high school, my lane was “super-smart Black girl who didn’t act Black,” as my classmates would say, and I was OK with it. But then I went to college, the racial justice movement rose up in the face of multiple shootings of unarmed Black people, and I realized I wanted to get in touch with the cultural heritage I had pushed down to fit in. That’s when I discovered Queen Latifah, the rapper.

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Learning about Queen’s early rap career helped me see how the way she carried herself informed her whole career. Her rap was always about showing that women have an uncontested place in the culture despite how male rappers viewed “females.” In order to be a fan, I’ve always had to ignore the way that rap hypersexualizes or promotes violence against women. When I learned about hip-hop on drives with my dad, he mostly played gangsta rap, dominated by men calling women bitches. His favorite female rapper was Lil’ Kim, but he never played her for me, saying she was too vulgar (but he had no problem playing “Natural Born Killas” by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, which terrifies me to this day).

Queen Latifah performing in 1993.

Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

I didn’t even know about the female rappers who spoke out against women’s objectification until the first time I heard Queen ask, “Who you callin’ a bitch?” on “U.N.I.T.Y.” That same ethos of calling out men’s shit and commanding space for yourself was apparent in every role I loved her for. I just didn’t have the name for it back then.

Another trait from Queen Latifah that I’ve always loved is how she’s done so many different projects in her career. Looking through her IMDb, there’s film, television, drama, comedy, action, romance, animation, producing, writing, directing. Not only has she done everything, she’s gotten acclaim for so many different roles and genres. She’s won a Grammy, an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award. She’s produced biopics that give her favorite singers their flowers, as well as competition shows giving up-and-coming rappers a stage. “Hairspray” wasn’t even her first musical; before that, she was in “Chicago,” and she was nominated for an Oscar for it. Her success reminds me that I never have to keep myself in one lane. I can do anything I want, led by a guiding principle.

My Queen fandom has waned since its last peak, when “Living Single” was added to Hulu in 2018 and became my personality for a full year. I never got around to watching “The Equalizer” or finishing the last season of “Star,” and 13-year-old Quinci would be very disappointed.

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Maybe it’s because years of therapy have helped me build a strong sense of self, or that I want to keep my childhood vision of her trapped in amber. Social media reminds fans that celebrities are imperfect humans who can’t be put on a pedestal forever, and we may not agree with them on every stance or issue.

Even though I don’t need her to be everything for me anymore, Queen Latifah was the role model at a time where I struggled to discover who I actually was outside of the narrow boxes the world made for me, and despite who people thought a fat Black girl was supposed to be.

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