, Social Construct, Standards of Black Beauty, The Op-EdsOn Badu and Our Bodies: Are We Comfortable In Our Own Skin?

On Badu and Our Bodies: Are We Comfortable In Our Own Skin?

I had my moment of analyzing Erykah Badu’s latest video, and then – like most things pop culture – I was over it.

Until…

I just so happened to read Naked & Unashamed, and catch this quote at the end:

“People have to be comfortable in their own skin before they can be comfortable with someone else’s.”

Since this is a website about embracing oneself, being aware of one’s shortcomings and loving oneself enough to put in the effort to make ourselves better, I had to take a stab at it.

In all honesty, I’m beyond the video. I do enough analyzing all day… I’m not really moved by a music video, no matter how compelling it may be. I’m way more interested in the reactions to the video than I am the video itself.

Among one of my favorites, we have this:

“Typical…black women stripping nude in a video and debasing themselves. And you wonder why you are the least respected and sought after.”

Obviously, I don’t agree with that, but there’s a larger issue at play, here.

Sports Illustrated can have an entire magazine devoted to white women in swimsuits – suits, mind you, made of much less fabric than what Badu was wearing before the blurring began. SpikeTV can host some of the most misogynistic garbage I’ve ever seen (though, full disclosure, I do my fair share of laughing at it, too… What? They show CSI repeats.) Playboy has women showing their cookies, their cupcakes, their twinkies and their muffins. That’s just what they do. They model... They act – it’s a job… It’s Playboy – what do you expect?

A Black woman appears in a music video – saying nothing about whether or not she’s fully clothed – and she’s “just a video ho.” A Black woman poses in a bikini in a magazine, and it’s “She couldn’t wear more clothing than that?” A Black woman working on her flexibility must be doing it for sexual reasons. Don’t let her admit she takes a pole dancing fitness class.

Hell, Badu even tweeted the link to the video that inspired hers – a white male/female duo running Buck. E. Naked through Times Square, NYC. They’re just lovable, playful scamps running ’round an already sinful city, though. No big deal there. Erykah, however, is showcasing why no one loves Black women… by doing what the hell she wants to do in her music video.

There’s “debasing” going on, alright. It’s not self-imposed, though.

“People have to be comfortable in their own skin before they can be comfortable with someone else’s.”

Either we’re apologists for the sexuality of our non-Black counterparts, or we have set standards so high for Black women that exploring ourselves is no longer acceptable. We’re doomed to be one monolithic mass, regardless of our individuality… because someone we don’t know – someone who, essentially, doesn’t really give a damn about us – insists on trying to save us from ourselves. Since, y’know, we’re turning ourselves into whores. We’re always seeking to make a Black woman somebody’s Jezebel, in dire need of our “help.”

Not familiar with Jezebel?

The portrayal of Black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, White women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but Black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of Black women is signified by the name Jezebel.

There’s also this one, that I love:

Next, there is Jezebel, the bad-black-girl, who is depicted as alluring and seductive as she either indiscriminately mesmerizes men and lures them into her bed, or very deliberately lures into her snares those who have something of value to offer her.

I can’t help but wonder if our need to make a Black woman into a Jezebel comes from our failure to understand ourselves: what parts of us are sexual in nature, what is not; what should be seen as sexual, what should not; what should be considered hazardous, and what is harmless exploration – the kind from which lessons are learned.

Am I an advocate for sexual irresponsibility? No. Am I saying it’s ok to “be a slut?” If we share the same definition of “slut” (see: sexual irresponsibility), then I’ma go on and say “no.” Make no mistake, I don’t give passes for behavior that is not my own. However, I am a hippie at heart, and while I have my own standards for how I behave and interact with others in public, I can’t force those standards on others. I’ve never turned down the opportunity to offer up my opinion when asked for it, but making judgments and imposing those judgments on others as guidelines by which they must abide… are two different things entirely.

And while there are many who might not see – nor care about – what I’m saying here (and that’s okay), it’s worth pointing out – when we, as Black women, insist on reducing even the most innocent of our actions to Jezebelism, we perpetuate the notion that that’s all Black women are. That’s all you can expect of them. Being the Jezebel. Being the sirene.

Having said that, all I have from here are questions. Are so many of us so uncomfortable with the concept of sexuality – our own sexuality – that we can’t even identify when something is sexual or not? Has it stifled our intellectual understanding of sexuality? If we have “passes” to dole out, why are we not doling them out for ourselves? Do we often see inherently sexual messages in inherently non-sexual situations? Collectively, are we so repressed and limited in our self-comfort, that we can’t help but to project this repression onto others? Why care so much?

Must we make everything a Black woman does publicly be about her “whoring?” Or, are we really just projecting our own discomfort on other women who look like us? Like I said: from here, all I’ve got is questions. Well, questions… and this:

“People have to be comfortable in their own skin before they can be comfortable with someone else’s.”

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About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.

17 Comments

  1. PB April 1, 2010 at 12:52 PM - Reply

    first off…let me say i died at “their cookies, their cupcakes, their twinkies and their muffins”

    it surprised me at how people are so uncomfortable with a naked body. it’s just a body…we all have one. she wasn’t doing anything sexual, just walking. however a naked women will always be seen in a sexual manner, especially one with curves. in the video that inspired it, i honestly could barely tell that the woman was, in fact, a woman, which is why she probably got a pass as an innocent mischievous little scamp.

    your history recap is spot on. people are simply projecting their own insecurities and misconceptions onto erykah. there was nothing slutty about that video to me.

  2. Barbara Albin April 1, 2010 at 3:22 PM - Reply

    I admit I haven’t seen the entire video, but was not bothered to hear about it. I too don’t watch many music videos, just maybe Jill Scott, and she seems to have clothes on. You are certainly right about some of the clothing that is worn (or not worn) by models, actresses, etc. As the respondent above said, a woman is always going to looked at as a sexual object. I remember being in Berkeley years ago, and a man was running down the street buck naked, no body even bothered to look, my eyes are so bad that I didn’t even realize he was naked until he breezed by. Wasn’t there someone in President Bush’s staff that wanted nude statues covered up? Wonderful that Ms. Badu felt comfortable enough in her skin to do the video as she wanted it done. I can’t even imagine her skin color being the cause of discussion.

    • Erika April 1, 2010 at 3:46 PM - Reply

      @Barbara,

      I understand where you’re coming from, but there’s a slight difference between what you’re saying (which makes sense) and what I’m saying, here. To “want someone covered up” is one thing; to essentially turn the nude object into a “whore” because of her nudity is entirely another. That’s all. 🙂

      Oh, and I remember the stories of the Nude Man at Berkeley. I’m so tickled that you brought that up, LOL. No one ever paid him any mind. It was just “what he does.”

  3. Tracy April 1, 2010 at 3:50 PM - Reply

    There was absolutely nothing sexual about the video. Nothing at all. Now, had she been gyrating on the grassy knoll while performing acts of… er, well… then maybe my opinion would be different. However, knowing what the song is about and “feeling” Badu, I knew that her stripping off her clothes had nothing to do with sex. It was all about being free.

    With that, we all need to be “free.” While I am NOT suggesting that folks start walking about naked or stripping off their clothes in public places (though I wouldn’t mind if Idris Elba gave it a try while I was standing nearby with a camcorder, digital camera and camera phone, but I digress…), I think people, particularly Black women, DO need to learn how to be comfortable in their own skin. Not everything is sexual in nature. In determining when something is artistic expression as opposed to all out “whoring,” I use the old Supreme Court standard for obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” There are times when the nude body is beautiful. Other times, nudity definitely meant to incite arousal, both literally and figuratively.

    These days, some folks DO go too far, and that is applicable to ALL races of women. However, that does not apply to this video. I’m sorry for all the rabble rousers that take issue with this video. The energy can be better spent targeting hundreds of other videos, starting with a hour’s worth of 106 & Park.

  4. Barbara Albin April 1, 2010 at 4:07 PM - Reply

    Oh, If I didn’t make myself clear, the word “whore” is unacceptable to me. I can not even imagine the use of the word, just because a woman is nude or not and as for the color of her skin, that has no relevance at all to me. I could add to this, but I believe I have made myself quite clear on the subject. By the way in my son’s years at Cal I got quite use to seeing many naked men and women. I wish I could be that comfortable and proud of my body.

  5. Tina Fite April 1, 2010 at 4:39 PM - Reply

    I saw the video “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu and I saw nothing wrong with it at all. I actually appreciated it because of its deeper meaning but was saddened to hear all of the backlash stemming from it, especially from our own.

    You are absolutely correct in your post. For years, black women have been labeled seductresses, sirens, and Jezebels; good enough for only night time affairs and comforts. Nevertheless, it just goes to show where black women still stand in the eyes of society and it also shows how we as black people may be perpetuating the stereotype by siding with those who judged her as such.

    Personally, I salute her for this video because the very thing she talks about in her video is the very thing by which she is being criticized. She talks about “group think” which is (in a nutshell) to allow the majority to choose what’s right for the minority without the input of the minority or despite the needs of the minority. She was pleading for individualism and self-thought. Sadly, we can’t see the forest from the trees when it comes to this because we don’t understand her message of group think but we will surely put it into practice when we criticize her for being nude in her video.

    Just a thought…why didn’t anyone criticize Alanis Morisette (which I love… Jagged Little Pill rocks!) for being nude in her video “Thank You” or stop revering the nude works of art like the statue of David by Michelangelo but the moment a black woman sheds her clothes like Vanessa L. Williams did back in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s or like Erykah Badu in her video, there is something taken away like the Miss USA title or now the freedom of Erykah Badu should “they” press charges?

    Sorry so long and slightly off the point of whether or not blacks are comfortable in their own skin, but I can’t help but to believe that we can’t be at ease in our skin because each time we show too much of our skin it seems as if we are always punished for it. Just a thought…

    • nadia May 22, 2013 at 3:15 PM - Reply

      At least now, I see there are others who feel how I do. Usually when I mention things like this, I am told it is all in my head…

  6. elledub April 2, 2010 at 8:53 AM - Reply

    excellent post, Erika.

    I actually really loved Erykah’s new video. I strive to have that level of comfort with my body in any shape or size.

    Also, I absolutely agree with your points about Black women being sexualized no matter what the content is. It’s been that way from the Hottentot Venus to all the way to now. Part of it is that Black women are often told that they are unattractive and undesirable…unfortunately, many of us begin to believe it (I’ve been there before and sometimes i still struggle with it).

    So when we see a woman like Erykah Badu who is completely comfortable with her body, it gives some of us pause….but you’re right, it is because of our discomfort with our own bodies.

    Another excellent post!

  7. Nikita April 6, 2010 at 3:21 PM - Reply

    It is easier to sexualize anything that black women do with their bodies rather than hear their pain, their struggles or their joys. It is easier to categorize us as being “whores” than just being women like every other woman. For years that “Girls Gone Wild” video has been out and about and is filled with young WW running around doing clearly chexual things and there was nothing but amazement, like the videos were not coming out after Spring Break and the summer every year. Eryakh was making a point with her video that was very valid. Black women need to be free in their bodies, in their souls and in their space to be themselves. There shouldn’ve been anything wrong with that.

  8. Lorrie February 7, 2011 at 3:30 PM - Reply

    I completely agree with the beginning and ending quote. I have learned this difficult truth on my own through trial and error. It is a worthy journey not many are willing to take, especially if they come from a conservative baptist upbringing the stifled the very idea that women even had the right to enjoy sex while men had multiple relationships with women. It is a double standard. I do not believe black men have the same problem with their sexuality. The generational gap and indifference between many women has prevented such dialogue from occuring between women struggling with their sexuality and the women who could help them through it. I have no idea what to label my sexualtiy because black women have not even been afforded categories. I do think it is important to be comfortable naked yourself and in front of your significant other.

  9. jeannette April 19, 2011 at 2:33 AM - Reply

    Okay, I confess, I thought Jezebel was white… I wonder why…? Big strong beautiful black women (and I don’t mean big=overweight, I mean big=healthy w/muscles, not scrawny); powerful. Society is afraid of powerful women. Society is afraid that black women will truly understand and embrace that they’re powerful (I’m not discounting black men, just focusing on the women here). And society has spent so much time and energy into convincing us that we’re powerless, and stupid, and undeserving, and has exploited us for so long that it won’t know what to do once we TRULY embrace our power. Hell, many of US wouldn’t know what to do with it… we’ve been that brainwashed and beaten down and berated every time we assert that we are more than “Jezebel” (e.g. the idiotic outcries about Erykah’s video).
    Has anyone ever heard the phrase “big strong beautiful white women”, or “big strong asian women”? Yeah, me neither. I wonder why…?

  10. Drea June 3, 2011 at 4:18 PM - Reply

    My ONLY issue with the video is that it was done in broad daylight, where there were families and children walking around and enjoying their day. I’m all for freedom of speech and expression, especially when it comes to sexuality and culture. However, i do think it was slightly irresponsible on Ms. Badu’s part to do it in such a public fashion. She could’ve picked an afternoon when children were in school or the crack of dawn on a Sunday or Saturday. I also think the two people who did the Times Square video could have also had the same courtesy. I’m just saying, as a mother I would’ve hoped she thought of the women who have to explain to her kids why a woman is stripping down naked in the middle of the street. It’s hard enough to explain everyday life to kids (especially little girls) without having to explain something like this as well. But like i said, thats my only issue. Love Erykah Badu otherwise.

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