Race Matters

Black girls are more than our body types

While the objectification of black female bodies is nothing new, teenage blogger Imani Bernard looks at how the social media and celebrity culture that surrounds her generation adds to the pressure on young girls of colour.

One afternoon at school, I was sitting in class with a friend and heard that there was an invitation circulating among the year 10s to a popular boy’s birthday party. The female recipients of this word-of-mouth invitation were specified: only girls lighter than the back of his hand, who could wear short skirts. This boy was black, lighter in complexion than me and in that split second, I knew I didn't meet his standard of attractiveness. My friend, who is white and was sat next to me, had told me all about the party and the invitation and was confused by my outrage. By her judgement, my skin was lighter than this boy’s hand, ‘so you can come!’ she exclaimed. There were too many things wrong with this story for me to even know where to begin.

Obsession with the female body has become an increasing problem for young people using social media, and there is huge pressure to have a certain figure that men and boys find appealing. There is no doubt that the female body - and the black female body in particular - is over-sexualised. Black women have been associated with having a large rear with wide hips, often presented as the best, or even the only, value of being a black woman. If a black woman doesn’t have those qualities, everything about her is disregarded. However, since white women are not expected to have these attributes, when they do, it’s seen as a 'bonus', or even a threat to black women. The logical assumption behind this reasoning is that black women are overall less desirable than white women.

The obsession over the black female body has intensified due to music videos, celebrities and social media. Female celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian exhibit a particular body type that many young girls hope to emulate. Most young fans do not appreciate that these female celebrities have to maintain an image, and that can mean using photo editing apps and rumours of cosmetic surgery.

For black girls who don’t have the ideal body shape associated with their skin colour, it can ruin their confidence and make them insecure about their figure. The fact that we can be easily replaced by white girls who have those qualities makes us think, is our worth only determined by our figure? Or by the lightness of our skin tone? We are judged only according to our closeness to an artificial, exclusive measure of beauty.

Conversely, the desirable black female body shape exists outside what might be considered ‘mainstream’ (i.e. white). For example, you may be lauded for having a shapely behind in the dancehalls of Jamaica and in some sections of British youth culture, but this body ideal is unlikely to grace the cover of Vanity Fair. Instead, black female objectification is often cartoon-like. This is not a new phenomenon: enslaved woman Sarah Baartmann, or the ‘Hottentot Venus,’ was touted at freak shows in 19th century Europe due to her large backside. Baartmann’s treatment is recognised now, and was by some at the time, as a shameful act of reducing a black woman’s worth literally down to her body parts. Yet, still in today’s world, we see the body of tennis player Serena Williams ridiculed on social media; while she might be considered an exemplary sportswoman, her powerful black female physique apparently doesn’t match the attractive ideal. I can sympathise, I have heard so many times the comment ‘you’re pretty…for a black girl.’

In year 11, the same boy’s new party invitation didn’t mention race, but included an additional restriction: only girls able to wear tight clothes and with a ‘good body shape’ need turn up. I had no desire to attend any of that boy’s parties throughout school, nor to explain to my friend why being judged by someone to be on the ‘right’ side of a random skin shade should fill me with joy. Not only did the first party invitation exclude an entire group of people from an event based on race (in this case, dark-skinned black girls; dark-skinned black boys were fine to come along), he had also marked out exactly what value system girls were there to be judged on. Yet no one around me seemed to think his invitations were anything out of the ordinary; his preferences were simply accepted.

However, I know that these norms run deep and can ruin girls’ self-esteem; some consider changing their body shape through diets and surgery. Girls that are my age feel as if they cannot post full-body photographs on social media or wear certain outfits in fear of being shamed and ridiculed for not having a particular figure. There are increasingly much better representations of black girlhood and womanhood on television and in music, and I acknowledge that objectification affects all women, regardless of ethnicity. For black girls though, I can affirm that having to take on discussions about misogyny and racism in classrooms at school, and then at home via social media, is exhausting.

We are more than our appearance; some people still need to get over it.


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