Black feminism

Is Society Fascinated with Black Women’s Body Types?

Colonialism introduced Europe as the cultural/aesthetic authority on values including beauty. While doctors in ancient times warned against obesity, diet culture began in the 1800s. Weight turned into a cultural status marker that considered fat to be negative. Whiteness as the epitome of beauty imposes a standard that devalues body types by race, gender, shape, size, and color. Society teaches women to deal with fatness through exercise. Nevertheless, Black feminists see Blackness as the site of resistance to the standards. 

Society interprets Blackness as indicative of moral, sexual, and racial pollution. For example, a society threatened by Black women’s reproductive capabilities, 19th century Europe likened Black women to prostitutes through the controlling image of the Black Venus, which characterized her as the perpetual prostitute. Society discouraged coupling between Black women and White men through “blood discourses”  that projected the fear of Blackness onto mixed-race children. Some sociologists remarked on this phenomena with  Meghan Markle.

Society treats Black women’s bodies as a danger to social order. On the one hand, they might displace white women as the archetypical love and sex object. On the other, they threatened the patriarchal order of worker by having the status of worker and woman. 

Society robs fat Black women of their sexual agency 

Sociologist Shirley Anne Tate discusses how we can read the iconic Venus statue as a fat Black woman. This perspective reveals which Black women’s’ bodies society reads as fat and how they represent them. Tate embraces an ‘alter/native’ view of Black women to highlight the multiplicity of body politics around Black womanhood. Society treats Black women’s bodies as other to white women’s and does so by making their forms hypervisible. This process simultaneously renders the whiteness of other women’s bodies invisible. As a result, Shirley Anne Tate argues this perspective: “enable[s] us to see that there is a corporeality of white class (Bourdieu, 1988) and gender with thinness as its epitome” (Tate 2015: 80).

The Mammy portrays Black women as undesirable sexually and desirable for service work. The Mammy symbolizes the status of a domestic servant to a white woman through her girth and dark skin. This controlling image reinforces the perception that white women were superior.  For example, Hattie McDaniel played a Mammy figure in Gone With the Wind. The UK has a similar portrayal Black women as “Big Mama. Fat Black women live in a society that paints them as undesirable and worthy of disgust. These beliefs divided fat Black women into domestic and care workers and thin white women into the domestic and care overseers.

Society ridicules Black women for their fatness

In the UK racist humor often revolves around fat Black women. In the 19th century White men dressed in drag to mimic Black women for racist ridicule, making fun of the notion of a desire for this body through minstrelsy. Far from being just a joke, racist humor has more sinister implications: 

“Humour is not a harmless or benign form of communication. Rather, ‘racist humour, jokes may act as a type of coping mechanism for the racist, in the form of a palliative because the effects of joking allow for the expression, reinforcement and denial of racism’ (Weaver, 2011: 12). “ (Tate 2015: 91). 

Additionally, Some White women performed minstrels too. Originally, minstrels arose from white racial fear of Black men. Minstrelsy thus demonstrates simultaneous racial aversion and desire.  Fatness and Blackness place Black women outside of beauty.Rhetoric in the U.S. frames Black women in terms of discipline, relegation, marginalization, imprisonment, and segregation away from white life, comfort, embodiment, and being. Treating Black women’s body as inferior meant colonial labor and gender roles placed Black women in the lowest rung of the social order. 

Society treats muscular Black women with dark skin with fear

Whenever the former First Lady chose to wear a sleeveless outfit, some members of White society reacted to Michelle Obama’s muscular arms:

The struggle over Michelle Obama’s ‘right to (bear) bare arms’ shows that the USA is far from being post-race as the respectable femininity of the First Lady is judged by white, middle/upper-class privilege which insists on lack of musculature on women (Tate 2012:93).  

Shirley Anne Tate argues Michelle Obama’s body defines norms of white upper/middle-class respectability. Her very presence creates a space of resistance that represents a deviation from the somatic norms of the U.S. First Lady. As a result, she endured a constant surveillance of her body, viewed as an outsider. Therefore, this fascination transforms her into the Black First Lady. 

Why do people fetishize muscular Black women?

Black women’s muscle as a spectacle dates back to racist pseudoscience of the 18th/19th  century. Shirley Anne Tate describes Black women’s bodies as a site of fascination.  A person compares themselves and others to a norm. As a viewer, a person extends their own bodies through their gaze. They interpret others through points on their body like their face, muscles, or skin. Comparison of one’s body parts to another leads a person to determine how close or different one’s body is to others:

Inassimilability or extension into the other does not mean that fasci- nation ceases. Fascination continues in the desire to find out the why of assimilation and the untranslatability of the body. Why can’t I be like her? Why do I want to be like her? What have I become? Is my becoming accompanied by fear, disgust, contempt? Fascination makes us look at ourselves first and foremost, at our very lives, to find out why we are fascinated by bodies/body parts. It is in the exchange between bodies, in the matching and untranslatability that we can begin to know ourselves, begin to understand our fascination as a pull to knowing the other, to get behind the façade that is the skin to ‘the real them’ beneath (Tate 2012: 94).

Fascination leads to a desire to find out why a woman’s body does not conform to the norm. However, narcissism motivates this fascination. Hence, people recenter themselves as they gaze upon others’ bodies to construct a sense of self. Therefore, the incorporeality of fascination makes it a fluid, simultaneous process of becoming and unbecoming through comparison to others. 

How does fascination with Black women turn into fear?

Fascination is a multisensory experience that has varying degrees of effect and affect, motivated thus making the gaze a result of both desire and disgust. Therefore, fascination compels a response on the part of a viewer as it occurs not only through the senses but also through imaginings.  

As a result, people pursue a means to satisfy their fascination. For example, this fascination extends to dark-skinned Black women who have muscular bodies. This affects interpersonal interactions across racial lines. Stereotypes about Black women motivate people to approach them with a feeling of insecurity or a desire to avoid her at all costs. So when Black woman’s bodies get policed in this manner, they are cast as evil and transgressive to indicate they fall outside the norms of appropriate ways of life.  

Tate writes that “once it is set outside the norm it remains as it is cast, an unknowable hyper-known, knowledge of which remains within the colonial stereotype.”  White people project their fear of getting displaced in society’s racial hierarchy onto Black women through a racialization process that involves creating zones of containment by labeling her a source of fear.

How is fearing Black women racist?

Groups use fear to maintain racial regimes through the restriction of the movement of others’ bodies. Additionally, they expand their own movement. However, this involves a “racial regime of visible whiteness [that] must be kept in place to ensure that the borders of whiteness are kept firm.”Furthermore, this produces a fear of racial mixing. Rather than mix interracial, they develop resemblances through what Tate names racialized aesthetic profiling: 

So expert surveillance is set up of Black women’s bodies, noses, lips, hair, skin colour, breasts, bottoms and muscles so as to mark difference and develop racialized aesthetic profiling. Racialized aesthetic profiling means that fear can be materialized in all Black women’s bodies irre- spective of who they are. This ensures the continuation, circulation and amplification of fear of the Black woman’s body as she begins to move outside of the borders established through the phenotype and stereotype (Tate 2012: 98). 

One such Black woman who suffers this fascination is Serena Williams.  Serena, in particular, embraced a “girly” sports aesthetic, which contradicted social norms about appropriate muscularity for women. Yet, society characterizes women with darker skin as undesirable. Serena faces derogatory comments for posing as feminine. Nevertheless, muscular Black women experience fetishization just as fat and slim women experience hypersexualization.

Race and the sociology of emotions

The white affective matrix confers and questions womanhood as the view Black women’s bodies with varying degrees of adoration and disgust. As a result, Black women experience different treatment based on their body type.

 

Copyright © 2017 Blackfeminisms.com. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: