Black women and body image

BlogHer Original Post

In preparation for the panel discussion “Our Bodies, Our Blogs” taking place at the 2007 Blogher conference, Laurie Toby Edison is inviting comments over at her blog, Body Impolitic to look at the various issues that affect the body image of women. Inspired by her post, I started to think about what to write about in regards to black women and body image.

From slavery and colonialism to society’s pressure for women to conform to an archetypical notion of beauty, skin hue, hair texture and body shape have been used to either devalue and / or judge the content of a black woman’s character by comparing their features to a Eurocentric notion of beauty. Since the early days of Hip-Hop videos and hyper-sexualized images and media content, some black women have used prevailing stereotypes about the black female body for their own monetary gain. The problem, (besides, what compels an individual to perpetrate negative stereotypes?) is the tendency to lump black women as a monolithic entity, where the actions of one person represents the entire population. While women are certainly allowed to make a living using whatever means they feel will be profitable, the concern from many about how some women choose to portray themselves in the media is becoming more complicated.

There seems to be a struggle between celebrating the emergence of young black models who celebrate their womanly ‘curves’ or naturally ‘full-figured’ size, and the highly sexist and derogatory images these women appear in. And beside the emergence of curvaceous video vixens, there is still pressure for black women to conform to the beauty standards that are prevalent among Hollywood celebrities (Nicole Richie).

About a month ago, I read the Village Voice article about Buffie “the Body” Carruth, a model who has appeared in numerous Hip-Hop videos and magazines, most notably ones that cater to black men. Known for her tiny waist and large behind, Carruth is celebrated (by some) as “a real representative” of the ideal black woman – weave and all. However, in this article Carruth admits that when she was younger and quite skinny, she started taking nutritional supplements to enhance her curves. It is revealed in the article that she does not exercise (which is not a sin), eats mostly junk food and still relies on supplemental milkshakes to keep her now - famous butt a larger than average size. She is a sexualized figure, not perceived as a real person, whose shape caters to the stereotypical sexual preferences of ‘real’ black men. With no other marketable skills besides her looks – that are evident, anyway – Buffie the Body has essentially make her living from her butt. But is she going to pay for sacrificing a healthy diet in order to make a living?

On the other hand, New Observer writer Jaymes Powell Jr. writes that there is an increase in the amount of black women who suffer from eating disorders. He argues that the increase began as Hip-Hop became more mainstream and corporate - the images of the ‘video vixens’ changed from the around-the-way, average-sized model to a thinner, physically toned image. While Professor Mark Anthony Neal applauded the images of the full-figured sistas who shined at the BET Awards (Mo’nique, Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Holiday), writing that they served as role models to many women who struggle with their self-esteem, there were several complaints from black viewers of Tyler Perry’s show, House of Payne where two of the actors on the show are overweight. Perry responded:

One person asked why does the mama have to be a "FAT BLACK WOMAN" and said that I am perpetuating stereotypes by putting these overweight people on the show, as if there are no fat black women in America that are mothers. My mother and aunts are fat black women. And that upsets me to think that people, especially Black people, would say that I'm doing a disservice to America by putting them on T.V. Skinny does not make you beautiful. There are all kinds of beautiful women in this world. And if we begin to look at the heart of a person rather than prejudge then we would see that we are missing some of the nicest and most talented people in the world. I'm sorry but I had to get that off my chest. I just don't like to see good people hurt because of ignorance and intolerance.

Because of the response to his show, there is a sense that within those who are offended by the show have bought into popular culture’s obsession with thinness - not being fit or healthy, but the outward appearance of looking in shape. Anything that deviates from that – especially within media images – is an embarrassment. I'll argue – with a bit of generalizing, I might add – that because of racism, there is more concern within the black community than any other cultural / ethnic group on how we are perceived by the greater society. More often than not, there is probably a large amount of black people who have experienced being negatively judged based on the actions of someone that they do not know, and while shrugging it off is the most rational reaction to being stereotyped, internalizing and recognizing that it is and will continue to be a common occurrence, leads people to blame those whose images and behaviour are symbolic of what they want to avoid. While Buffie and other video models might buck the prevailing trend of thiness, there is a thin line between wanting to be seen as being a sexual, attractive being and being hypersexualized.

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