Friday, January 7, 2011

The Racist Body

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I've talked in the past about my experiences with diet and body image, and included in there a little bit about how my cultural and racial identities shape it. But I don't think we at Not Another Wave have contributed much to conversations about how body image- particularly how it's marketed, and to whom- shape and influence a general culture in the US that perpetuates racist body norms and expectations.

In western Europe and its subsequent colonies, it's been a long-standing tradition to compare the bodies of African and Indian slaves and indigens with the bodies of the culturally declared norm, the White European. This happened (and continues to happen, but we'll get there in a moment) to both cis men and cis women, in efforts by the imperialists to prove European superiority over the Other. Where European men were classified as intellight, African men were childlike. Where European men were tall, Indian men were short. Where European men could be gentlemen and restrain themselves around European women, African men were hyper-sexual. As an article in The Western Journal of Black Studies put it,
Colonial invasive powers bring with them their own myths, beliefs, and forms of colonial ordering which create a bifurcated form of hierarchy that is designed to distinguish between the natives and the colonizers, a form of hierarchy where the colonizer (white, good, intelligent, ethical, beautiful, civilized) is superior in all things, while the native (dark, exotic, sexually uncontrollable, bad, stupid, ugly, savage, backward) is inferior.

The discourse of opposites, of lauding the "Us" and demeaning (and even criminalizing) the "Other," was justification for invasion, dominance, and control. Rudyard Kipling went so far as to refer to it as "the white man's burden," explaining that it was a "moral imperative" that Europeans colonize the Other, for the sake of the Other.

The discourse of Us vs. Them that the European colonists applied to their subjects was also, of course, applied to female bodies and the identities of women. Similarly to the discourses used to subjugate African and Indian men, European discourses painted African and Indian women alike as childlike, subservient by nature, and hyper-sexual. African and Indian women, in the colonist eye, represented the constant threat of temptation into every sin the Christian European imagination could come up with. To support this discourse, European soldiers actually kidnapped a woman from South Africa, nicknamed her the "Hottentot Venus," and paraded her around as a sideshow attraction in Great Britain and then in France. Of particular interest to spectators were her butt and her labia, which were both described as "abnormally large." Think about it: in the day when a person's cranial shape was supposed to determine intelligence and personality, an "abnormally large" pubic and posterior signalled a lot about supposed sexual appetite when compared to the "normal" physique of European women and their "normal" sexuality.

I go through all this because I think it has bearing on current discussions about bodies and their shape here in the US. There's a lot of publicity given to the "majority" culture pressure that is put on White women to be thin, which has a whole field of feminist research devoted to it. As one blogger rightly puts it, "This is about power. It's about wanting women to be small in the world, to take up less space, literally and metaphorically." It also relates to sexuality. Twiggy became popular among White women during a period of time when White women's sexual options were expanding drastically, thanks to advances in hormonal birth control and the emergence of the second wave feminist movement. While everyone's figure is different, the overall effect of weight loss is a body that's contained, restrained, and thus- depending on your build- significantly de-sexualized. The use of clothing to highlight curves only goes so far to refute this argument; accentuating one's breasts, hips, or butt is acceptable and often encouraged, but if a woman's breasts are "too" big, or her hips "too" full, she's "too" sexual. As another blogger put it, "It is...crucial to mention the mental anxiety caused by constant badgering by the chauvinists of the world, and the sexual harassment that seems to find large breasted women because of the stigma that goes with large breasts; and that is that those women must be 'easy'." Essentially, the loss of weight to maintain a minimally curvy body feeds directly into an ages-old series of assumptions about White women- particularly that they shouldn't be "overly" sexy.

What I'm trying to get at is that the whole "thin is in" movement really is a very White-centric movement. While pictures of women laughing alone with salad- one of the trademarks of the weight loss movement- occasionally include a woman who's presumably of African descent, the vast majority are White. And those who are Black have been, for lack of a better term, "whitenized," with light skin, controlled hair, and Romanesque features. Essentially, they are the Other as the European colonists wanted them to be: under control, "saved" from themselves, and "just like Us."

This brings me to the topic of another, less marketed-by-health-companies body standard: the standard of Thick (or Bootylicious). We've all heard it mentioned, either by rappers (especially in Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back"), activists, our friends and families, or our partners. Instead of pushing the ideology of thin, the Thick movement promotes curves and planes that would make fashion designers fall over. It's the idealization of a body that's slender (but still curvy) through the breasts and waist, and flares into a round, perky set of hips and bum connected to a pair of muscular, curvy legs. Is it a hard ideal to live up to? You bet, and don't ask me how hard I worked before I discovered that my butt wasn't built to be perky. But I digress- the point is that the ideology of Thick has become a high-held standard for many women, particularly Black women, instead of the skinny White body. And while I'm thrilled that women of any race could reasonably look to that shape as an example of how many body types are sexy, I'm also concerned about the cultural influences, both from Black and White sources, that have given shape to the Thick ideal.

Latoya Peterson on Racialicious gives a great breakdown of the idea of Thick and the meanings and validation it can carry for the women who identify with it. The valorization of a large butt, for those whose basic body shape involves one, is hugely liberating in a world that's dominated by images of bodies with flat or hardly existent butts. At the same time, however, I find it hard to forget the features that Sarah Haartman was famous for- particularly her posterior- and I have to wonder how much influence the earlier European readings of Black female bodies has had on the current uplifting of Thick. If large breasts on a White woman still read as a measure of her sexual appetite and ability to consent, does the size of a Black woman's butt get interpreted that way too? If so, is the valorization of a Thick body type simply a marketing scheme designed to re-sell the image of the Other? One of the authors of Colonize This!, Serina Riley, addresses the same problem:
"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.'"
For me, the fact that Thick is so strongly associated with Black women and Black identities is the part that's concerning: while I understand the desire to have ideals and cultures separate from those of the White hegemony, I also have a hard time believing that the Thick ideal in particular is really all that liberating.

The counterargument, of course, is that many cultures in the US find great pride and power in reclaiming images, ideals, and vocabulary from their discriminatory pasts. Words like cunt, nigger, queer, and bitch have all been reappropriated by cultural movements to confront the bigotry that used to dominate them, and there's merit to the argument that the current chart-toppers of hip-hop, who valorize overindulgence in sex, drugs, and violence, are manipulating stereotypes about Black men to gain power over the White imaginations that created them. Sex workers forming unions and declaring pride in their trade are refuting the myth that they're the victims of pimps and johns. In theory, if the stereotype is being used and evolving in the hands of the people it's supposed to harm, its creators- the ones doing the harming in the first place- lose their weapons. In theory. Whether or not it actually works that way is a debate that merits its own article.

Regardless, the point remains that the "ideal body" that's promoted in magazines, billboards, newspapers, TV, and movies that are marketed towards the hegemonic (predominately White) culture is really only intended to be ideal for a specific group. The current popular ideals for White women and Black women, I think, retain a lot of the racist and sexist assumptions that were prolific during Europe's imperialist years, and contribute to a culture that still believes Black women have uncontrollable sexual appetites as compared to White women. Furthermore, the notion of separate ideal bodies is offensive in its own right- that anyone from any culture should be expected to live up to a standard based on a small percentage of the population. Even if it were unproblematic to assume that Black and White women should have completely separate body goals, the fact remains that not all Black women are built to be Thick any more than all White women are built to be skinny. Instead of idealizing bodies based on stereotypes and minorities, we should be idealizing the people who are happy and comfortable in their natural shape. Instead of buying into a diet industry that's upholding racist ideals about bodies and appetites, we should be investing our time and energy in other ways to improve ourselves, such as challenging the idea that self-fulfillment comes in wearing a particular dress size. Let's do away with the Madonna vs. Hottentot Venus dichotomy once and for all.

Note: this article has been notably Black-and-White focused, while leaving out ethnicities and identities that also have stereotypes associated with female bodies (i.e. the "skinny Asian" stereotype). I'd love to hear from you what your perceptions of these are, as well as how you think they fit into a global history of domination and subordination.


  1. This raises some interesting points; well done. I don't know that I can contribute much to this half of the discussion; but your article raises a couple of issues from the male perspective as well. Is the masculine body ideal realistic/healthy/appropriate for a majority of men? Is it racially preferential? Is that racial preference impacted by colonialism?
    I may put together a post about it.

  2. I would raise the issue that there have been a great many studies that show--across cultures--certain features (and proportions) remain surprisingly constant in regards to what is most attractive. Psychologists have been surprised to find that--especially for faces--what is considered most beautiful is the same. There's a set of mathematical proportions that can accurately depict which faces will be selected as most beautiful in any culture. And even in this day in age, studies still show that men are more attracted to women with broad hips.

    I disagree with the statement that claims that the media images of an "ideal beauty" are geared only towards whites. I went to a recent lecture by a nurse who works in a teenage bulemia recovery clinic, who charted the proportion of body fat in celebrities vs. the American population across time. 60 years ago, those celebrities were in the bottom 20% of the population. Now, they are in the bottom 2% (or less). Body image is being attacked across ALL ethnic groups, because 98% of the population CANNOT look the way media tells them they should, not matter what race they are. Music and Movies sell sex and body image ideals but I respectfully submit that the images they sell don't fit any body type, and are geared to age groups, and socioeconomic groups, and not specific races. What is the basis for your claims that the entertainment industry is marketing body image primarily towards white people? If there is evidence towards this, I would welcome a reference list of peer-reviewed studies for this article.

    And since different ethnic groups do come with different ranges of proportions--yes, we are all built differently. If I were a size 12, I would be obese. I have had roommates who were of African descent who were perfectly healthy--and yes, curvy--who were size 12. But no, I don't want to be size 12, because my body shape does not naturally allow for me to be that size and be healthy. This isn't racism, that isn't me telling my roommates they can be fat, but I can't be--because they weren't!--this is a simple acknowledgment that different body types are different. The Serina Riley quote completely misses the point. Instead of claiming racist bias, how about focusing on improving self-image and dealing with the issue that the obesity epidemic and the eating disorder epidemics are growing rapidly?

    And I feel this article, while well-written, is very much rehashing stereotypes and small in scope. I come from an area of the US without any racial majority. We listened to music from artists who were Asian, Latino, European, American, etc. All popularized by mass media in the US. Am I to believe that Nelly Furtado, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, Utada, etc. only target the white market? That the images skinny singers like Ciara and Keri Hilson sell are only geared towards whites? I respectfully refute that. And since your article is the first time I've heard that Black women are stereotyped as having larger sexual appetites... um. I'm sure some people have made that stereotype, and others have published about it, but it's hardly a widely-held belief. I'd far rather see a breakdown of such stereotypes by socioeconomic status or region.

    I know far too many white and Asian people who really struggled with eating disorders because they could not fit an impossible mold--or were not the naturally "skinny" asians. Or on the flip side, girls who feel they need to have plastic surgery, because they couldn't attain the hips and breasts that media portrays as being a must for an attractive woman. Victoria's Secret would not sell butt-padded jeans to make girls hips and butts look bigger if they did not feel that was the popular image being sold. Since many white girls do not have the hips that Black divas have, one might suggest that the fact that such products sell points to the idea that girls are being sold images that they need to have the curvy hips that do not always naturally come to their ethnic group.

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  3. Anonymous,

    Your conclusions about body image are valid, but I think you've misunderstood Erica's point. It's not that the media images of women only hurt white women - it's that media images idealize body types that a person is more likely to find in Caucasian women. Consider, for instance, how fair most black actors and actresses are (at least, the ones who make it into movies), or how narrow their bone structures are. It's actually an incredibly common complaint among womanist writers that as black women they feel devalued by the media - they're either protrayed as overly sexual or as not beautiful enough simply because they don't look white.

    So, if Hollywood thinks that blond, thin, and small-featured is what makes a woman beautiful... trust me, that kind of image idealizes white features, reinforces stereotypes about whiteness, and presents an incredibly racist (and thus damaging) ideal of beauty.

  4. I don't want to oversimplify my reading of Erica's post, so I'm going to expand a bit: I think Erica's point ultimately goes hand in hand with what Anonymous said:

    Stereotypes about beauty hurt all women, because if we're not careful we can become caught up in false ideals of what our bodies should look like. As both Erica and Anonymous mentioned, an Asian woman who doesn't fit the "skinny Asian" stereotype is as much at risk of developing an eating disorder as a white or black woman who's fed a stereotype of what her body "should" look like.

    There is no one type of beautiful, and no matter what types of features some study says men in general prefer, I, for one, do not exist to turn on some man. My body is my body, and what I do with it (short of crime) is between me, my doctor, and God.

  5. Emily and Anonymous - I like the points you raised, but I have to take issue with Emily's last quote.
    Emily, I think you are conflating "beauty" and attractiveness here, and I don't think you should be. As I understand it, Anonymous was stating that body-type preferences are not racist -or, rather, that they are not colonial- in that they are consistent across races and cultures.
    If, for example, a Thai man, a Nigerian man, a Japanese man, and a Anglo-English man all find broad hips, large breasts, and lustrous hair attractive (even after hypothetically controlling for colonialism), odds are that there is some type of genetic - dare I say objective? - advantage to races that generally express those traits. Sweden has its own share of body-image problems, but there's a reason that Scandinavians are considered beautiful - I mistake, are considered sexy - by many people around the world.
    Thus, sexual attractiveness can be relatively constant; I read a particular study over break delineating the biological processes and representations supporting that idea. That, in and of itself, can lead to a lot of problems, and I agree with the idea that people can be healthy, and beautiful, at any size.
    Perhaps in a perfect world, men and women would choose partners based on their collective beauty; but, if there is something about sexual attractiveness that's universally biological (as I think the evidence shows, on both sides of the gender divide), and some races exhibit those traits more than others, than there will be racial advantages to beauty. I don't state that there should be; simply that there, perhaps, are.
    That said, it makes sense that there are women who struggle with self-worth issues; if one conflates beauty and attractiveness, then being one race or another, or having one body type or another, will be an advantage or disadvantage in terms of self-worth. (Again, I must stress that I am trying to be descriptive here, and not ideal.)

  6. We come to your comment that you don't exist to turn on some man. That's true; nor should any individual. Additionally, sexual attractiveness is only one component of beauty; moreover, if we define beauty as an entirely inward or moral trait, then sexual attractiveness drops away from the concept of beauty entirely.
    But, in the many instances in which a woman WANTS to turn on some man (or woman, for that matter), sexual attractiveness becomes very important. Since many women value sexual experiences, or the romantic relationships generally associated with them, simply stating that there is more than one type of beautiful only addresses part of the problem.
    I suggest two solutions:
    Divorce the issue of beauty (and self worth) from sexual attractiveness (a la Audrey Hepburn's somewhat famous quote) so as to prevent the health problems Ericka identified. Since the vast majority of the population cannot fit the (perhaps biologically influenced) sexual ideal, establish a body-image ideal that is less dependent on sexual proficiency, and a self-worth paradigm that is less dependent on physical intimacy

    2.) Provide cultural compensation for body types that are not as biologically attractive. I have heard that the cultural ideal in the middle ages preferred women who were "thicker" than those who were incredibly thin (whatever our Robin Hood movies depict); sociologists would argue that this was a cultural overcompensation, adapted for the prevailing social conditions of the time, which overcame raw biological preferences. If sexual attractiveness is to remain intact as an element of self-worth, and women who do not fit the sexual ideal want to "turn partners on", provide some cultural influence that suggests that women who do not fit the sexual ideal are equally (or more) successful sexual/biological partners. Then, women who fit the sexual ideal succeed (as sexual partners) through biology; others succeed through a mix of biology and cultural help.

    I criticized your use of "more than one type of beautiful," but I feel I have, to some degree, come to that position myself. Maybe I can clarify a little. When discussing beauty and self-worth and health, there is and ought to be more than one type of "beautiful."
    When discussing sexual attractiveness (and since we are using some biological references here, sexual ability), there ought to be cultural norms suggesting more than one type of "sexy."