I cannot lie, I like "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix-A-Lot. Mostly I find the beat and cartoonish rap irresistible. But part of the reason I enjoy it is because, as one, I appreciate the unabashed celebration of black women with large behinds who do not fit the predominant beauty norm prescribed by American beauty magazines and popular culture.
However, the celebration also objectifies women in a way I find uncomfortable and creates it's own standard (e.g. "itty-bitty waist") that puts pressure on black women to meet. Centuries after Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman (known as "The Hottentot Venus") was displayed in freak shows and only mere decades after her preserved body parts were removed from display in a French Museum, the worth and value of black women is still reduced in too many minds to a single body part.
Recently, there have been two tremendously thoughtful examinations of why glorifying the gluteus maximus can be troubling.
It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand
Tami from What Tami Said found that big, black booties "intrigue" Jezebel's readership. Tami was troubled by comments from Jezebel's mostly-white readership on a post about fascination with what Tami calls a "hip hop booty fest:" Straight Stuntin magazine.
I have to admit that I might not be so bothered by this post if it had, say, been posted by my blogsister Professor Tracey on Aunt Jemima's Revenge. Why? Because as a blog with a predominantly black readership, AJR feels like a place where "we" can discuss black pop culture without the judgment or generalizations of the mainstream. Something feels icky about a readership of mostly white women evaluating a black magazine that objectifies black women and, for the most part, deeming it acceptable. The amazed ogling of black behinds in a mainstream has shades of Sarah Bartmann:
Some of these women's asses seem to defy gravity. I am actually dumbstruck by them. I know, I know we aren't supposed to relegate a woman to her parts, but I just feel kind of humbled by the two asses in the third picture. Kind of like being in ass church. I feel reverence and awe.
Do these women have cellulite that was Photoshopped away? Or do darker skin women just not get cellulite the way my white ass does? Or is that one model onto an anti-cellulite secret with her cupcake diet?
Even among other women--among other so-called feminists--our physicality is deemed freakish, something to be weighed and pondered and questioned. And I do realize that the OP is a biracial/black woman and several black women, including a model who will appear in a future SS issue, participated in the comments thread. The fact remains that for the majority of readers, this post represented a bit of cultural tourism, as evidenced by the comments and questions about black beauty standards and black women's bodies that the piece elicited.
It hard not to bristle when white women profess "reverence and awe" for the confidence some black women have in their non-skinny bodies, that they as white women feel they cannot aspire to, when it comes by way of appreciation and fascination with the celebration of our objectified bodies.
As mentioned in the comment Tami featured above, the Jezebel post pulled a snippet from Straight Stuntin of a model named "Seven" talking about her "cupcake diet."
SS: How do you maintain your figure? Diet and exersize? [sic]
Lmao! I'm on a cupcake diet! I walk to the bakery buy a cupcake eat half there, walk back home and eat the other half, I figure the calories I burn balance themselves out, plus I pass a gym coming and going! Everybody wins!
Years ago, BlogHer CE lainad wrote about Black women and body image and shared with us the story of video dancer, Buffie "The Body" Caruth and her description of how she maintains her "tiny waist and large behind:"
In this article Carruth admits that when she was younger and quite skinny, she started taking nutritional supplements to enhance her curves. It is revealed in the article that she does not exercise (which is not a sin), eats mostly junk food and still relies on supplemental milkshakes to keep her now - famous butt a larger than average size. She is a sexualized figure, not perceived as a real person, whose shape caters to the stereotypical sexual preferences of "real" black men. With no other marketable skills besides her looks “that are evident, anyway" Buffie the Body has essentially make her living from her butt. But is she going to pay for sacrificing a healthy diet in order to make a living?
And, this notion, that somehow black women escape having to succumb to the pressure to diet, drives some of the reverent commentary from white readers at Jezebel and elsewhere. They praise black women for reveling in their bodies that don't conform to dominant culture stereotypes and OMG! they also don't have to diet and exercise. Lucky. And then these women, who not only get to have and eat their cupcake, are rewarded with that most precious of prizes - the ogling and affection of men, like Sir Mix-A-Lot and the readers of Straight Stuntin
The Male Gaze
That prize, however, might just be a booby prize. At Racialicious, Latoya Peterson deconstructs Black Booty Body Politics:
I first became aware of the male gaze when I was twelve years old. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I realized that a guy pulled up behind me on a busy highway, inquiring if I needed a ride somewhere and telling me how pretty I was. Until that point, I thought men only catcalled girls who wanted attention. I had friends who wore tight skirts and low cut tops and makeup, all things that were generally forbidden in my mother’s household. My outfit that day had passed muster with her - a blue baby tee, wide leg jeans (as went the suburban style in the 90s), white reebok classics. I looked my age. And yet, for some reason, men reacted to me differently.
The note slipped to me in 9th grade was the beginning of the realization that despite my best efforts, the most remarked upon part of my body would be my ass. More polite people would talk about my figure and point out all the benefits of being a classic hourglass. Less polite people would quote song lyrics at me (Whoop, whoop, pull over, that ass is too fat!) or make rude remarks about what they would like to do with my ass. It never seemed to matter if I was a size 10 or a size 18 - my body shape would not be denied, no matter how many pounds I packed on.
Over time, I learned different strategies to cope with the attention I received. A large part of coping was reclaiming my body and learning to embrace my curves as a part of my own sexuality. In order to do that, I had to learn to separate the ideas projected on to me by others and understand how I felt about my own body. I discovered the affirming power of hip-hop - as well as its destructive objectification of the black female form. Just as Mark Anthony Neal informs his feminism with the acknowledgment it can be difficult to reconcile feminist principles with heterosexual male desire, it can be difficult to fuse cultural beauty standards, popular perceptions of the female form, and still come out with something resembling a healthy sense of the sexual self.
(As with Tami's post, both Latoya's post and the comments are must read.)
And that's the million dollar question. How do we tell women of color that they are beautiful even if they do not, can not, fit into a white woman's beauty myth most prized by our culture without turning it into a sexualized reduction of personal worth measured by the relative size of a single body part that is just as damaging to the body image of women of color as the disgust for non-size-zero body shapes and sizes?
I remember dancing with this guy, and he kept rubbing
on my booty. I don't remember how I stopped him, but I remember
him saying, "If I can't get my feel goods, then I ain't dancing with
you", and he walked away.
When the dude on Saturday kept grabbing my wrist, I flashed back
to that night in Hayward. I also began to think about Cynthia Grant
Bowman's essay on street harassment and how it affects women.
She discusses how it impacts our ability to be ourselves, our ability
to function and just have serenity in our day to day lives on the street,
and the ability to move from point a to b in the street without the threat
of violence or 8 million cat calls, hey shorties, what up boo, hey miss, etc.
yennenga at Live Journal: The Women of Color and Beauty Carnival
Talking about this in public is difficult, and I know there are plenty of people with fierce testimonies who refuse steadfastly to share them in public. Women of color in the blogosphere have learned repeatedly and the hard way that when we share our experiences they will often be the subject of voyeurism, condescension, and further exploitation, sometimes even by people who consider themselves our allies. Responses to Kiri Davis' film A Girl Like Me so often start and end at 'Black women have low self esteem, how sad'. Discussions of women of color and body image start and end at 'In the Black culture it is fine for Black women to be fat' as if Black culture is a monolith and Black women are some how all women of color, all at the same time.
BlogHer CE lainad on The Women of Color and Beauty Carnival
I say all this to set the stage for an issue for women of color: we do, for the most part, completely enjoy our bodies and all the curves and softness that comes with it even until the point of annoying our fairer sisters on the feminist front.
We have asses that are round and cushiony and we like it.
Our hips are wide and sway side to side and we work that shit like there’s no tomorrow.
Lips are ours and belong to our culture as normal and a part of who we are and how we chew our food and kiss our loved ones.
We make no excuses for these things. In fact, when women are marking off the laundry list of what they dislike about themselves I am, secretly sometimes, feeling sassier and happier inside because I’ve learned to like my body. Really like it.
Afrodescendiente: Thinking About Bootay
I, like most of my female relatives, have a “flat ass”. It took me about 30 years to figure out what the hell people were talking about since I do have a big ass. I got no top curve. After having my last baby, I had some rump, which I lost. I gained about 5 lbs this spring and all of a sudden every male I know, including my brother, has commented on my new found “shape’. “Nothing but a dog wants a bone”, my brother had warned me.
In the South and Puerto Rico, you had better have some ass. So while I object to objectification,it doesn’t bother me too much to see black men making magazines that admire black women and their asses. I know women who do want to be admired for what they are rather than be held to a standard they cannot achieve.
BlogHer CE Suzanne Reisman: Why are Women's Bodies Public Domain?
Throw race and ethnicity into the mix, and we see how the public domain of women's bodies becomes even more entrenched in a negative way. Diary of an Anxious Black Woman cites a post by Michael Anthony Noir at the Vibe blog Critical Noir about a Salon.com article by Erin Aubrey Kaplan about Michelle Obama's butt. In both Noir's post and the discussion ensuing at Diary of an Anxious Black Woman, writers point out that the history of black women's bodies includes the idea that "the idea that black women's bodies were accessible and available to any--and all" (Noir), or more succinctly, as one of my favorite former bloggers Pseudo-Adrienne said at Diary:
Yeah, nevermind her Ivy League education, her career, and her devotion to her children and husband. NO! Let's belittle all of her educational, professional, and family accomplishments (and her *humanity*), and gossip over her ass, as if she's no different than the nearest video-girl! (eye-roll) Ah, another shining example how women's-- especially WOCs'-- bodies are public domain...thanks ingrained, societal misogyny and racism!
From pia at Adios Barbie: A Bodylovin' Site For Every Body: Slip of the Tongue (several years old but certainly worth viewing now)
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