Let's talk about the black female body. Now, let's talk about the gaze.
Like all women, black women's body types are vast and varied, short and tall, big and small, voluptuous and stick thin. So when I say I wasn't impressed last year with the Vogue feature on big butts being aesthetically pleasing now that white women have adopted and accepted the extra posterior weight, or the #kyliejennerchallenge this year, i'm not lying. This has sparked a major outcry amongst black women. Something so trite as the objectification of body parts has garnered major reactions. I thought about the song Unpretty by TLC that talks about how what others do and say affect how a person feels about themselves and it got me to thinking about my own daughter and her own beauty. I wanted to give perspective so that later in life when I teach my daughter about true beauty, I could come with some context of how society deems her versus how she deems herself.
Because history always gives me the framework by which I try to base my knowledge.
Everyone will want to point to Sarah Baartmann, a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus.
**According to popular history, Saartjie Baartman (more commonly known as Sarah or Sara Baartman) was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa. When she was barely in her 20s, she was sold to London by an enterprising Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop, accompanied by a showman named Hendrik Cesars. She spent four years in Britain being exhibited for her large buttocks (steatopygia). Her treatment caught the attention of British abolitionists, who tried to rescue her, but she claimed that she had come to London on her own accord. In 1814, after Dunlop's death, she traveled to Paris. With two consecutive showmen, Henry Taylor and S. Reaux, she amused onlookers who frequented the Palais-Royal. She was subjected to examination by Georges Cuvier, a professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History. In post-NapoleonicFrance, sideshows like the Hottentot Venus lost their appeal. Baartman lived on in poverty, and died in Paris of an undetermined inflammatory disease in December 1815. After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, then displayed her remains. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her brain, skeleton and genitalia until she was buried.
Beyonce. Nicki Minage. Janet Jackson. Aren't they all a version of the modern-day Sarah?
For the past year, I have struggled with writing a piece about beauty, because on the one hand, I think that society focuses too much on the surface and not the grit. But I also know that as a society, black women and their features are seldomly looked at as beautiful unless it is in the context of a wanton and sexual manner, or unless fair skinned women are praised for it.
So this is to my daughter Aqmeri, who's beauty is that of an inquisitive young girl. who's thirst for knowledge surpasses any conventional beauty standard.
Everyone can have body issues. Heck Janet Jackson talks about her struggles with her image and seeing herself as beautiful. I remember back in the day, people would constantly tell my sister she was pretty and then go on to talk about how "nice" I was.
People always say my children are "absolutely gorgeous" and I always smile and say thank you, but there's a part of me that wonders what that's like to constantly hear as a young child. Growing up, I didn't have that feeling. Don't get me wrong, I never felt like I was ugly, but I didn't necessarily feel "gorgeous". I never had complete strangers come up to me and tell me how good I looked. I never had relatives or friends of my parents remark on my looks before they said hi to my parents. I just never had that feeling. So I always wonder is that a good or bad thing to hear as a child.
Lupita N'Yongo talked about a being black and being looked at as being beautiful and I listened to her speech knowing what that feels like and feeling the exact emotions that she felt about being young and being beautiful.
As a black woman, I think it's important to have a good sense of confidence in your personal appearance. As I have gotten older, I can say that I have developed that confidence, but it wasn't always there. I went to a very small, mostly white school my entire life. It certainly had it's ups and downs regarding socialization for the african-american students. There is a film on being black and going to a prep school that details this extensively, and it mirrors some of my experiences. But being a black woman sometimes exacerbates this. I never dated anyone in school. I never had a boy who liked me and I always attributed that to my black skin and my features not being pretty enough to be liked. I remember having a huge crush on a guy for years who I would have considered a friend in school. But once he found out that I liked him, he stopped talking to me. I was crushed.
I didn't start feeling pretty until I entered college. With it's diversity of students, black men on campus started to notice me and would remark on my looks. At first I thought it was just men talking and would treat it as such. In the back of my mind, I could hear my mother's warning about men in college, but I slowly started to accept that maybe I wasn't unatttractive. Now in my thirties, I can say that I am more comfortable in my skin. It's still hard to hear sometimes when people tell me that I am attractive, but I at least accept it. I silently attribute it to me being nice and having an overall pleasant disposition, but I don't shy away from the compliment like I used to.
I think beauty can exude through you no matter what your external attributes look like. I've heard of plenty of people talk about how ugly or beautiful someone was based off of their personality. I would gather to say that internal beauty will last a hell of a lot longer than external physically pleasing qualities. Because who can engage with a beautiful trophy?
I believe that women should not rely on just looks to try to sustain themselves in life. I believe that women should not rely solely on their looks to try to attract men. But I also know that we live in a society where the images of black women do not grace the covers of magazines like our white counterparts. I do believe that we should let black women know that the features that they were born naturally with, fuller lips, darker skin, curly hair, are attractive too, and not just because the greater masses now view them as acceptable. Black women do not grow up with images of themselves that other people want to be like. Beyonce and Tyra and Janet are but a mere few to the many images of white women who I can name who grace the covers of magazines regularly that are admired for their beauty.
So to Aqmeri, love all of yourself, and love others. Trust me, your beauty willl ooze through your actions and deeds. Your looks will be a mere bonus.
**From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia