For three years, I taught at an all-women’s, historically black college that had also been my alma mater. One semester, after students had been reading articles by bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and also, Naked–a collection of first person essays written by black women about body image–I showed students pictures of women in bathing suits and exercise gear and asked for their instant reactions.
The pictures I cut out were from magazines that were geared towards men as well as those geared towards women. I expected that the images from men’s magazines like Maxim and King would promote lively discussion, while I assumed that the students would be more or less neutral to the images they saw every day–the images from the women’s magazines.
I was wrong.
For the most part–with the notable exception of images of celebrities like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan–my students were indifferent to the pictures of the white women. But some of my students–too many, I felt–labeled the pictures of black and Latina women “too sexy,” regardless of whether the image had come from a men’s magazine or a women’s magazine. “Why does she have that on–she has no business having that on,” one student said of one black woman in exercise attire, “too much of her meat is hanging out.” Another student glanced at a picture of a black women in a bathing suit, a woman whose pose I didn’t feel was terribly provocative (she was standing with her hand on her hip, but the focus of the picture didn’t seem to be her body), and labeled the picture “disgusting.”
It bothered me then, and it saddens me even more so now, that these intelligent, talented black women associated the women who looked most like them with a sexuality they saw as immoral and uncontrollable. “We just can’t wear things like that,” one of my students told me in our class discussion, after I asked why she disliked so many of the pictures of black women.
“You mean, black women can’t wear swimsuits or workout gear?” I returned.
“We’re just built like that,” the student explained. “We have bigger butts, breasts, thighs–so when we wear something it looks more indecent.”
I’m afraid that the idea that black women’s bodies are somehow “indecent” isn’t going away any time soon. This year, there was all that talk about Michelle Obama’s figure; I also remember when the website Jezebel posted pictures from a black man’s magazine. The reactions were interesting: While some women thought the women in the pictures were being horribly objectified, other women were pleased simply to see a non-mainstream body type celebrated. I get it–I understand the desire to be seen as attractive–but I also know that the media alone won’t make us feel good about ourselves.
I grew up in the era of both the “Rumpshaker” video and the girl group TLC, whose members showed a woman could be crazysexycool in baggy shorts and a t-shirt if she wanted to. Yet even with these dual, competing images, I had trouble accepting my body.
Growing up, I had the kind of body you saw in fashion magazines: long legs and a slender, curvy frame. But I lived in south Georgia, where my body was far from the ideal. My best friend–who is short and voluptuous, with a fuller butt and thighs–had the kind of figure that was admired and sought after. So while we were both cute girls, we represented two different kinds of African-American beauty (we also had the skin color thing to deal with–I have dark brown skin; my friend is much lighter).
It wasn’t until after high school, when I lived in New York and spent a summer in Los Angeles, when strangers gave me compliments and encouraged me to model, that I began to take notice of my body, to see it as attractive. I also began to realize that the compliments my friend received: “Do fries go with that shake?” or “It must be jelly because jam doesn’t shake like that” were more sexual than those I received.
Was this because my body fitted more closely with a European ideal of beauty? Did that make me less black? Less sexy? And then again, what was so wrong with being sexy?
It’s hard on both black men and black women when, for so long, another culture has defined our sexuality. For our daughters and sons to be comfortable relating to each other, we have to avoid viewing ourselves solely as sexual objects while also rethinking the idea that characteristics (a round butt, large thighs) the black community views as sensual and lovely are somehow “indecent.”