Black Booty Body Politics

by Latoya Peterson


Whose Pussy Is This?
Now I have to ask this question
Cuz you mothafuckas keep disrespectin’ my shit
In every line that your lame asses spit
I’m forced to hear about my pussy
That is always on sale
A hot retail item
wrapped in plastic
for $12.99
And this shit is drastic
Bcuz everyone thinks they too have ownership of something that belongs to me
And I do not agree with this [...]

—”Whose Pussy Is This?” by Chyann L. Oliver, published in Home Girls Make Some Noise

It all started with a note, surreptitiously passed to me in health class in 9th grade. My friend poked me across the aisle, and handed me a bit of notebook paper. In pencil, the note read, “Toya got a big ole butt, oh yeah!”

Sigh.

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.


Reclamation

Sir-Mix-a-Lot penned the definitive hip-hop tribute to the booty back in 1992.

And while the line, “red beans and rice didn’t miss her” is still one of my all time favorites, I want to examine a different part of Mix-a-Lot’s song. During the song intro, you’ll notice a white girl talking to her friend Becky. It’s this speech that draws my interest:

Oh, my, god. Becky, look at her butt.
It is so big. *scoff* She looks like,
one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
But, you know, who understands those rap guys? *scoff*
They only talk to her, because,
she looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
I mean, her butt, is just so big.
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like,
out there, I mean – gross. Look!
She’s just so … black!

Laying aside for the moment that a large posterior is a “black thing,” the other assumptions in the monologue are ones I’ve often seen applied to black women. Our asses and bodies are “low class” or pornified, in contrast to a more high class (or high fashion) image of a woman – to be thin. Curvy women’s physiques are considered nasty or gross. Even the simple act of donning a pencil skirt or a button down shirt becomes sexualized if you are curvaceous. This is one of the things that made Mix-a-Lot’s song so appealing – he acknowledged all of those negative perceptions at the beginning of the song and then preceded to cut a track saying that haters can go to hell.

Hip-Hop provides a kind of refuge for us curvy women. Our forms are often lauded and celebrated, by both our selves and by others. One of the major albums for me in my high school years was Trina’s Diamond Princess. Trina’s cocky flow and obvious pride in her body served as a series of anthems for me, particularly when confronted with the drastically different beauty standards my white classmates accepted as ideals. While her lyrics were still problematic, I was able to lose myself in the overall spirit of the song.

I learned to adopt her swagger as my own, and continued the practice of cherry picking what I liked and ignoring the rest of the lyrical content. I was able to adapt any song to my own needs, freeing up one aspect of my sexuality while overlooking the intent of the song.

Last summer, I found myself heavily into the DJ Laz remix “Move Shake Drop” (note: this video displays the lyrics). Now, I caught myself on my way to a feminist conference singing “I like booty and tig ol’ bitties/booty and tig ol’ bitties/booty and tig ol’ bitties/booty and tig ol’ bitties!

The absurdity of the whole situation was not lost on me.

In an article soon to be published in Bitch Magazine, I convened a group of fabulous progressive women to discuss why exactly we were able to move on the dance floor to misogynistic lyrics, yet still function in a feminist fashion. After 21 pages of chat discussions with Raquel Rivera, Gwendolyn Pough, Marisol LeBron, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, and M.Dot, I was no closer to an answer. However, one of the common themes that emerged was the idea that we use the hip-hop space in ways in which we need to, and much of that space includes the complex navigation of sexuality. Our creations of the space are wholly our own, but they can be influenced by outside forces.

Like male rappers and their sexual desires.

In addition to female lyricists who love themselves, male rappers are often the ones penning the lyrics to many a dance floor tribute – and featuring women whose bodies inspire tribute. The picture gracing this post is of Ki Toy Johnson, a video model most famous for her work in OutKast’s “The Way You Move” video.

I remember watching this video and being awestruck. Here, finally, was someone modeled as beautiful that I actually wanted to look like. While being confronted daily with images of supermodels and actresses in the glossy pages of the magazines I read, very rarely did I feel any compulsion to look like the girls in the magazine. Why would I? Their reality was far from my own. Even in my best shape, I was around a size 10. As far as I was concerned, girls like my best friend who were naturally size 0s or 2s were more or less born that way – no diet or exercise regime can permanently alter what nature gave you. No matter what, you are always working with your own body.

Moreover, a lot of the ideals represented things I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be white. I didn’t want to be skinny. I don’t want my legs and arms to be the same size. I enjoyed my curves. And Ki Toy Johnson represented a completely different ideal, to be 100% toned and still curvaceous. Not only did Johnson represent a different ideal, she represented one that appeared to be attainable. Her body is similar to my own. I found myself thinking If only I put in the effort, the hours at the gym…I too could attain that physique, become part of the ideal. And in some way, men affirming that this ideal was indeed desirable and wanted helped to go a long way toward undoing some of the narratives surrounding fuller figured women in my own mind.

So, when Dodai penned her piece on the women in Straight Stuntin, I could understand, partially, where she was coming from. Just as she admired the bodies of the women in those pages, I admired the physique of Ki Toy Johnson. It is wonderful to see a different type of ideal presented. It is wonderful to see a curvier body being recognized as beautiful.

But at what point do we begin fetishizing our own exploitation in our desire for representation?

Exploitation

Much of the history of the Black female body commodification has been founded on the general logic that the black female body equals sexuality and sexuality for women equals their worth. From “Hottentot Venus to Josephine Baker to the modern-day “Video Vixen,” the Black female body at one time served as the site of projection for White moral fears and sexual fantasies, and it now does the same for Black audiences. Such projections have continuously and consistently informed Black female identity in the Western context and further affect the ways in which women of African descent value and/or devalue themselves. As a result, the conceptualization of the Black female body as an inherently sexualized body has historically and contemporarily affected perceptions of women of African descent in both local and global media. [...]

— “Performing Venus ~ From Hottentot to Video Vixen” by Kalia Adia Story, originally published in Home Girls Make Some Noise

In the quest to develop a healthy sense of sexuality, we are prone to societal input and norms as a way from which to understand our behaviors. So while I may personally celebrate my curves, thanks to music videos and centuries of dehumanization, my body is often seen as the property of others. While many people voice appreciation for my body and how it is shaped, both men and women often feel as though the simple presence of my ass allows for them to take whatever action they see fit.

When my best friend threw me a Bollywood/Hollywood party for my 22nd birthday, she enlisted the help of a family friend so we could properly wear our saris. The other girls passed without comment. When it was my turn to be wrapped, she checked out my gluteus maximus and declared I was lucky to have such a high and round rump, before giving it an appreciative slap while tucking in the folds of cloth. This was not new behavior. Women in my family would playfully slap my ass while trying to figure out “how I stole all the butt in the family,” or other girls in gym locker rooms would somehow be unable to stop staring at my ass while I changed from towel to pants.

And don’t get me started on the liberties men think they can take. Most of the oft-ignored hollering takes the form of “Hey, girl with the big ass…you know I’m talking to you!”

This idea that my behind has somehow become communal property is intertwined with the history of race and gender in our society.

In her essay “Performing Venus ~ From Hottentot to Video Vixen,” Kalia Adia Story notes:

Being told such things as, “bend over and touch the floor” to “It must be your ass cuz it ain’t yo face…I need a Tip Drill.” Black women continue to be rendered and ordered to move their assets and figures for the entertainment and arousal of male and female desire.

I include female desire here because within a capitalist, patriarchal and racist society, Black women have just as much invested in the exploitation and destruction of the Black female body as Black men do. While watching commercial hip-hop music videos, Black women have the ability to Other Video Vixens. By viewing commercial hip-hop music videos, Black women secure their own sexual performances as virtuous and pure, and indulge in the notion that the Video Vixen is not a figment of the imagination at all, but a reflection of a real woman who lacks the moral capability to make productive choices in their lives. In addition, within a capitalist, patriarchal and racist society, black women are socialized to see misogyny as erotic. [...]

The othering extends beyond the realm of music videos. In some ways, the possession of a body marked other allows people to project whatever ideas and fantasies they have upon you. It is an image distorted through the lens of pop culture. Story continues:

The Video Vixen, and the “tricks” she performs with her body, not only helps to make albums sell and videos play in rotation, but it also affects the identity, self-esteem, and body image of Black girls and women. Her body, particularly her behind, has not only been stereotyped as the body that all Black women have, but has been projected as the standard body type for all black women. Thus, because of the standards projected by the Video Vixen image/body type and the subsequent aesthetic and sexual value placed upon their buttocks, many women, particularly those of African descent, who do not have large buttocks believe that they are somehow “abnormal” and to a certain degree do not feel as if their bodies are Black.”

This is a major point. As it so often goes with stereotypes, there can only ever be one representation of the other. In this case, it is the idea that all black women have large behinds, and more to the point, desire them. As a result, one can read all manner of studies conducted through a white lens, that will indicate that black women do not have body issues or weight issues they way that white women do.

In the anthology, Colonize This!, writer Sirena J. Riley deconstructs some of these ideas in her essay “The Black Beauty Myth.” She vividly describes her struggles with weight, bulimia, and eating disorders, and the conflicting messages she received from her own family as to what was “ideal”:

For a few years, I actually did eat and exercise at what I’d consider a comfortable rate. But after that year of intense exercising, it was impossible to maintain my significant weight loss. I just didn’t have the time, since it wasn’t built into my schedule anymore. I settled in at around a size 12, although at the time, I still wanted to be a “perfect” size 8. This actually was the most confusing time for me. I kept telling everyone that I still wanted to lose twenty pounds. Even my family was divided on this one. My grandmother told me that I was fine the way I was now, that I shouldn’t gain any weight, but I didn’t need to lose any more. She didn’t want me to be fat but thought it was good that I was curvy. Meanwhile, my grandfather told me that if I lost twenty more pounds, he’d give me one thousand dollars to go shopping for new clothes. And my mom thought that my skirts were too short and my tops too low cut, even though as a child, she has prompted me to lose weight by saying if I stayed fat, I wouldn’t be able to wear pretty clothes when I grew up. What the hell did these people want from me?

She then explains why the marginalization of women of color in discussions of body image is so problematic:

Discussions of body image that bother to include black women recognize that there are different cultural aesthetics for black and white women. Black women scholars and activists have attacked the dominance of whiteness in the media and illuminated black women’s tumultuous history with hair and skin color. The ascension of black folks into the middle class has positioned them in a unique and often difficult position, trying to hold on to cultural ties while also trying to be a part of what the white bourgeois has created as the American Dream. This not only permeates into capitalist material goals, but body image as well, creating a distinctive increase in black women’s boy dissatisfaction.

White women may dominate pop culture images of women, but black women aren’t completely absent. While self-depreciating racism is still a factor in the way black women view themselves, white women give themselves too much credit when they assume black women still want to look like them. Unfortunately, black women have their own beauty ideals to fall perpetually short of. The representation of black women in Hollywood is sparse, but among the most famous loom such beauties as Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nia Long, Iman, and Angela Basset. In the music scene there are the young women of Destiny’s Child, Lauryn Hill, and Janet Jackson. Then, of course, there’s is model Naomi Campbell and everyone’s favorite cover girl, Tyra Banks. Granted, these women don’t necessarily represent the waif look of heroin chic that plagues the pages of predominately white fashion and entertainment magazines, but come on. They are still a hard act to follow. [...]

As much as we get praised for loving our full bodies, many young white women would rather be dead than wear a size 14. They nod their heads and say how great it is that we black women can embrace our curves, but they don’t want to look like us. They don’t adopt our presumably more generous beauty ideals. White women have even told me how lucky black women are that our men love and accept our bodies the way they are. I’ve never heard a white woman say she’s going to take a cue from black women and gain a few pounds, however. In a way it is patronizing, because they’re basically saying, “It’s OK for you to be fat, but not me. You’re black. You’re different.”

This idea of difference is seized upon by well meaning women (of all races) who seem to think that black cultural norms are like a get-out-of-beauty-jail free card. Though as Riley notes, they do not want to look like us, there is a comforting idea in the myth that somehow, the idea of “thickness” is a much more “enlightened” way of looking at the female physique. However, this is not the case.

As Alex Alvarez wrote back in 2008:

More and more Anglo women are exposed to the idea that “thick” is a compliment and allows women to break free from the slim body associated with high fashion, high culture and exclusivity. In reality, this is merely trading one set of handcuffs for another. In the end, regardless of the intent, it all adds up to misogyny and using language as a way of demonstrating superiority over the female body. Case in point: This helpful guide to defining “thickness.” [NSFW]

The idea of thickness is in itself dictating an ideal that is unattainable for most. Far from the construction of fatness, thickness connotes a certain type of body that is acceptable. It is categorized by a full body tone, nice sized breasts, a small waist, a flat stomach, a shapely behind, and nice looking thighs. That is a lot of body parts to get coordinated. The idea of thickness also erases black women who do not have the type of body that is lauded in music videos. Two of my close friends are envied by their white coworkers for their frames. My best friend, as I mentioned above, is naturally a size zero or two, with a petite stature. My other friend is a tall and glamorous size four. They jokingly lament how they have the perfect body – if they had been born white. As black women, however, they’d each like another twenty pounds and a few inches of hips and ass.

Ideals are fickle, shifting things.

Reconciliation

Even after my mother married at twenty-one, she continued to have several “boyfriends.” There had always been men who coveted her, and she used this to her advantage at a time and in a country where dark-skinned poor women like her had few opportunities outside of telephone operator, secretary, or teacher to make money. Colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy created an economic seperation between light-skinned Black women and white women as smart women of leisure and dark-skinned black women as thick-headed laborers. [...]

The line is thin between empowerment of “femme” and its potential self-destructiveness. I wonder if it was like this for my mother. She turned to sex work out of necessity. This is not something I have to do. Femme brings with it what we have learned about what it means to be female and woman in this country and culture. As many times as I have felt empowered by it, I have also found the power of my femme affect slipping away, leaving instead the ways I feel defeated, inept, unable to handle difficult situations. Rationally, I know these are the messages of the oppressors and colonizers. Still, I have competed with other femmes for the attention of butches and transgender men. I have both claimed and loathed the titles of Jezebel and Hoochie Mama after having an affair with a woman who already had a wife. And even though this particular relationship was damaging, my femme self finds pride in having been able to steal this woman away from her partner, if only for a moment. Sometimes I hate that part of me. [...]

My femme dance is reassuring to men. But there is also power, art, objective, resistance in it.

—”Femme-Inism”, Paula Austin, Colonize This!

I highly doubt there is ever an easy way to reconcile the sexual self with what is influenced by society. Or to reconcile our love/hate relationships many women have with our bodies. When we engage in behavior that is seemingly contradictory, to me, it’s just a way of coping. This is why many women use the realm of lyrics and music videos to tap into their own sexuality while still rejecting the sexist messages promoted. Or why one may wish to dress to accentuate their own curves while rejecting the idea that the shape of their body makes them community property.

It’s a complicated question, as life so often is. What one woman finds empowering, others may find limiting. We like to default to the idea that a woman’s choices are all the matters, but we also ignore that fact that our choices are not made in a vacuum. These ideas may seem contradictory, but they are not. A more apt way to describe how we inform and interact with our sexuality is to look at our sexual behavior as a flow chart, with a series of inputs, outputs, and results that shape who we are.

How do we form a healthy sense of self, of body, and sexuality? Who do we look toward as role models and ideals? How do we learn to love our selves? The paths to understanding are as varied as the women seeking them.

And there are no simple answers.