The story of Saartjie Baartman was recently refreshed in our minds following rumours that an American pop-star who is famous for, among other things, her voluptuous derriere, intended to write and star in a movie about her. While the idea of Beyonce playing Saartjie is indeed preposterous for various reasons, it does not take away how important it is that Saartjie’s story remains in our memories. Much like her, black females are still represented (without taking into account cause and effect) as hypersexual and broken, leading us into making uninformed decisions concerning our lives.
Just like Saartjie, black women remain mostly bodies without voices. They are sexual objects, to be exotified, commoditised when not being denigrated.
Are black women beautiful?
Saartjie Baartman was of particular fascination because at the time European women were creatively decorating their desire for larger bottoms with corsets (to allude to a tiny waist) and skilfully tailored dresses and skirts that gave the impression of protruding rears. What women in the west had to manipulate their clothes to achieve, Saartjie already had naturally. Envy being the nasty beast that it is, she soon became a victim of much mockery, degradation and exotification. Science was even deployed to substantiate that Saartjie’s features were further proof of the sub-humanness of African people. Somehow this made those insecure westerners sleep better at night.
We are in the 21st century and body-shaming campaigns disguised as promoting ‘beauty and health’ are at the peak of their popularity in mass-media. Aside from the bombardedment of images from the west that attempt to universalise skinny bodies as the absolute standard for beauty, there is a persistent habit of women pitting against each other based on size. For example, skinny women are made fun of by their peers on the premise that they lack the desired body type for marriage and pro-creation. This is especially persistent in Africa where thick women are more preferred in many parts. Likewise, where skinny women are in the majority they bully their curvier counterparts and make them feel ugly and insufficient.
Ultimately the behaviour demeans all parties involved because while people are busy throwing shade at each other, they are endorsing the fetishization of their bodies, which is the crux of the problem. Women are given a false sense of security that they are being appreciated when really they are having their bodies policed. Women tend to internalise other people’s gaze (read male gaze) and make it a barometer of self worth and knowledge. Black women tend to put their hair texture, skin tone, facial features, booty sizes and shapes etc under an unrealistic microscope. What we forget to remember is that such a mentality was formed in the 19th century and has become normalised through subjugation and discrimination.
It is all in the mind
The psychological burden we carry about our physical appearances stems from the intimate link between body image and self-esteem. How we formulate our own and interpret others’ perception of our outwards appearance has a significant bearing on our confidence. The side-effects, beside extremes such as eating and mental disorders, premature sexual activity and substance abuse, can range from excessively shy behaviour to bitterness and resentment. Many women are also imprisoned by a preoccupation with comparing themselves to other women and being self-conscious. Subsequently, they wear unflattering clothing that either shocks or fails to do their bodies justice. Alternatively, they develop unsavoury relationships with peers bred by projected feelings of insecurity and harsh self-criticism. As if women need any more reasons to be pitted against each other.
The unravelling of the conditioning that we, our mothers and their mothers, came to adopt as truth-that looks are symbolic of identity and character- is why young girls equate twerk-ability to worth. We mistakenly associate empowerment with ‘sexiness’; there is a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most bootylicious and therefore the most successful in humanity’s food chain. Only when stories such as that of Saartjie Baartman are brought back into our focus are we forced to think about the politics of the black female’s body representation. While some women are OK with being quantified according to their male partners or how much their physiques attract male attention, other women prefer to let out their voices and challenge the obscene double-standards. The only regulatory authority on a woman’s body should be herself, not the media, not other women, not not male partners, and certainly not society at large. By owning this knowledge she disempowers external forces that interfere with her other qualities taking centre stage.