In high school I was part of a program for black Christian teens and Jewish teens. The purpose of the organization was to promote understanding and create alliances between the two groups. As part of the program we often spent time at a local synagogue. One day we headed over to the temple to learn about some important practices of Judiasm. As one deeply curious about world religions, I was elated. (Yes, I was a nerd. You already knew this.)
Before entering the building, one of the program’s organizers told me I’d need to put on a sweater. It was summer in Alabama and therefore sweltering and I was wearing a tank top. She said I’d need to cover my bare shoulders and arms. I thought nothing of it and quickly complied. But I was perplexed when I realized she hadn’t asked any of the Jewish girls who were wearing tank tops also to do the same. Only my bare brown skin was a problem.
I internalized this message and it has haunted me ever since. At that age I didn’t know terms like “hyper-sexualization” or that words like this describe society’s view and the media’s treatment of black female bodies.
As I’m sure you all know, Erykah Badu’s video for her new single “Window Seat” has caused quite a brouhaha, and while I admit it’s probably not a good idea to strip down in a public park around children, I can’t help but wonder if people would be as upset if she weren’t black.
In Does Her Sexiness Upset You?, a post defending Badu’s act of political public nudity, blogger Alexis Barton writes: “Yes, black women’s bodies have been a political battleground since we were brought through the Middle Passage. For so many hundreds of years we didn’t own our physical, emotional or reproductive spaces. Badu is claiming that ownership.”
During slavery black women were seen as nothing more than breeders and instruments for master’s pleasure. In many hip-hop videos we, sadly enough, continue to be treated quite similarly. And if you are a black woman with curves, the plight is worse.
In a post examining the underrepresentation of black plus size models in mainstream fashion, blogger Tasha Fierce asserts that women who are considered “thick” are subject to more extreme hyper-sexualization of their bodies. “As the features considered sexually desirable not only by black men but also white men are exaggerated on a fat female body, these women are often portrayed as more sexually available,” she writes. She goes on to argue that since black women are stereotyped so often as being loose or hypersexual, “any emphasis placed on sexualized body parts due to their size compounds the problem. Better to leave that can of worms alone and just work with the non-black models.”
So what’s a brown girl to do? Is it possible for black women to be seen as desirable, sexual beings without being portrayed as that alone? As a writer who’s published articles about sex and entire columns about my breasts, I struggle with such questions. Personally, I don’t want to see black women portrayed as the asexual Mammy figure either, nor do I appreciate that some entertainers have responded to complaints about representations of black in music videos by virtually eliminating us from them.