Do Not Equate The Fetishisation Of Black Women With Body Positivity
By Ellie Philips
In 2019, Zadie Smith remarked that we are all ‘trapped in this flesh cage’. For no-one, perhaps, is this more true than for the black woman.
The black female body has long been denied the privilege of neutrality. The Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes point to how the identities of black women have historically been constructed as tightly wedded to their physical attributes. The Mammy is the stout, maternal caregiver; the Jezebel; the sex symbol whose feminine wiles are her currency and the Sapphire; the strong, masculine-looking aggressor. Social commentary has made black women prisoners to these reductive flesh cages which hypersexualize, objectify and commodify the black body. Whilst these stereotypes might increasingly be considered crude and outdated, the female black body continues to be fetishised and essentialised in new ways, often under the guise of body positivity.
The body positivity movement is inherently a good thing. It is a movement motivated by celebrating all bodies, promoting equality, acceptance and the normalisation of diversity. Nevertheless, the term body positivity has come to be appropriated: counter-intuitively being used to justify narrow depictions of the female body, most notably in the context of black women. Uncomplicated celebration of all black bodies has been disrupted by a parochial tendency to fixate or fetishise certain physical attributes of the black body- the hips, the bum and the lips. These features are so magnified that the body remains foregrounded as the first point of discussion, with black women denied the cultural space to express themselves beyond this.
It is, initially, refreshing that culturally we seem to be moving away from standards of beauty which raised the rail-thin, blonde white woman above all other body types. Society’s newfound appreciation of curvier bodies reflects at least some headway towards increased diversity. Yet, the dogmatic focus on these features is problematic: these are attributes that are frequently linked to sexual desire, offering us a narrow frame through which we view black bodies. Much like the Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes, the tendency to place exaggerated focus on features of the black female body associated with sex, reifies the idea that black bodies are only valuable when they serve a specific purpose. The black body cannot exist neutrally and is only recognised in its ability to provide pleasure.
The beauty of the black female body is publicly lauded in a manner that only reinforces and cements pre-existing narratives and assumptions about black women. Michelle Obama’s arms have received inordinate attention for their definition and have been equated time and again with her strength and competence as First Lady. Again, it is easy to celebrate this: it signifies we are moving beyond the idea that women, particularly those of high social status, must be dainty and submissive. Yet, the extremity of the fascination with Obama’s arms and the singularity with which they are used to define her serve to ‘Other’ her. Her defined muscles are fetishised in a manner that alludes to the fact that they present departure from the white ‘norm’. Her strength is used to cast her as an exotic and mythological, an object to be gawped at and discussed. The fixation with Michelle Obama’s arms is not merely innocent adulation, but reflective of an enduring discomfort with diversity. Her arms cannot simply be just arms: to exist in a society where racism pervades they are made palatable by acting as a symbol or statement.
Beyonce’s body has also been used publicly to constrain her ability to exercise her voice and curtail her narrative. Beyonce is inarguably one of the 21st centuries’ most eminent sex symbols and possesses many of the physical attributes typically associated with femininity and beauty, features which she has actively and publicly celebrated. Yet, the celebration of her body has been used to undermine her integrity in other aspects of her public life. Indeed, Beyonce’s feminism has been hotly debated in the context of her own body. Critics argue that by celebrating her feminine curves, she undermines feminism by conforming to patriarchal beauty standards and that her body distracts from feminism’s core messages. Her status as a sex symbol is used to deny her any freedom outside of this identity. Whilst her body may be widely celebrated, this celebration is simultaneously used to confine Beyonce to an object of pleasure, rather than a multi-dimensional woman.
Whilst Beyonce’s activism has been dogged by accusations of disingenuity and illegitimacy, famous white figures of (conventional) beauty such as Jennifer Lawrence and Reece Witherspoon have received instantaneous and uncomplicated praise for speaking up within the #MeToo movement. Beyonce’s body speaks first, and her second. Whilst white women can publicly celebrate their body and speak out on prescient subjects, black women are denied this ambidexterity. The black female body is venerated as a symbol of beauty but disavowed agency beyond this. Such stilted essentialism cannot be equated with the equality and neutrality of body positivity.
The magnified gaze placed on the physical attributes of black women has led to these attributes becoming increasingly appropriated. Under the guise of admiration and jealousy, white women try to emulate these attributes as a means of social currency: using darker makeup and fake tan to adjust their skin tone, augmenting their hips, lips and bums through surgery, photo-editing or cosmetic techniques. These practices are deeply problematic because privileged white women can try on these fetishised attributes without consequence, free from the discrimination and prejudice that those inhabiting a black body permanently have likely experienced.
These women can shed these characteristics and slip back into the comfort of neutrality, whilst the bodies of black women remain inescapably privy to relentless socio-cultural dissection. The preoccupation with these features further constrains ideas of what a black body should look like, leaving little room for the acceptance of black bodies which do not conform to this hypersexualised, aspirational form. Whilst white bodies have the privilege of trying on different identities du jour, society’s Medusa-like gaze on black bodies renders them immutable. This circumscribed celebration of black bodies is not reflective of the diversity that the body positivity movement seeks to encapsulate. Instead, it reinforces the idea that black bodies are only accepted when they can be easily categorised.
The black female body exists in a society where it is subject to crude essentialism and heightened scrutiny. We cannot extol the virtues of body positivity without acknowledging the additional work which must be done to allow black bodies to enjoy the same neutrality as white ones. It cannot be a matter of pick and choose-taking the glossy, uncomplicated bits of the movement and leaving the rest. Too often, we white people do half the work and call it a day. It is unforgivably premature to herald in a new era body positivity before all bodies can exist equally and neutrally.