Sunday, January 15, 2012

Archive Sunday: The Racist Body - by Erica

This post was originally published by Erica on January 7, 2011. You can read the original comments here.

This image comes from and no copyright infringement is intended.

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 bloggerrightly 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.

Erica's 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.

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