Home Beauty Black Women, Media Erasure, and #BootyGate

Black Women, Media Erasure, and #BootyGate

by Erika Nicole Kendall

The whole kerfuffle with Vogue and the whole “J Lo created the booty era!!!111ONE” thing turned into a much larger mess than I originally thought it would. What – I suspected – was originally only supposed to serve as a “Look! JLo put out this super sassy video with this other rappity rap person!” fluff post turned into a major FUBAR-type situation.

It also resulted in me writing about it for NPR’s Code Switch blog. You can read that here.

I originally wrote about this in the context of cultural appropriation – which, for me, has a much more distinctive definition: the idea that someone on the metaphorical outside of a culture can come into that culture, snipe bits and pieces of that culture and take them out, introduce them to those outside of said originating culture and profit off of it in ways the originating culture’s members couldn’t. When appropriation happens outside of profit, we call it “exploring.” When profit happens to people who are using their own culture to get ahead, we call it “excelling.” Mix the two in the wrong way, and it leaves you asking the difficult question: what is it that allows people outside of a culture to profit off of said culture in ways that the originators could not?

Contextually: What is it about black women that makes it so hard for us to take credit – and profit – off of our own features?

It wasn’t just an ample behind – cornrows were recently credited to Kendall Jenner and called “bold” and “new.Angelina Jolie made it acceptable for white girls to want to have full lips. A DKNY show at Fashion Week featured the most awkward display of gelled-down baby hairs I’d ever seen. The New York Times, in 2014, covered curly hair in New York – a city full of afros – and black women only received a passing mention. Lorde’s tresses are featured among the photos used to illustrate ‘tousled’ hair, something a kinky coily type is likely to consider nothing even similarly somewhat sorta even remotely on the back end related to curly hair.

What is it about black women that makes it so hard for us to take credit – and profit – off of our own features?

Jen Selter – a woman whose entire instagram is dedicated to showing off the benefits of her squats – has been featured in Vanity Fair for her assets.

Marinate on that for a minute.

Companies who shall remain nameless are only able to ‘crossover’ and ‘go mainstream’ once they ditch the majority black models, the majority-urban marketing, the image of the company founder being black altogether. We’re not talking about “marketing one way for this community, and that way for the suburbs;” we’re talking damn near wholly abandoning their original market base altogether.

What is it about black women that makes it so hard for us to take credit – and profit – off of our own features?

In my NPR essay, I originally lamented the idea that it feels like we’re always identified as followers instead of leaders – accessories-after-the-fact instead of creators – and that’s the main identifier of being erased in media. People don’t see us as fashionable, but they’ll see us as every negative, dangerous, scary, risky, unreliable, and criminal thing they can, at the expense of – sometimes – our lives. As I said in the essay:

“A lack of healthy and diverse representation in media limits how we look at everyone. It affects our expectations. If the average person isn’t used to seeing black women in the context of beauty, he’ll find it hard to see black women as beautiful. And in a society where beauty is a prized possession, it’s easy to see why we fight for the right to be seen as beautiful.”

Our features aren’t praised – they’re demonized. When they are praised, it’s because someone else brought it to the limelight.

What is it about black women that makes it so hard for us to take credit — ahh, never mind. You get it.

We’re all bound by this shared experience of being “other’d” at one time or another in our lives. We’re left with the conflicting desire to “not be acknowledged or fetishized by our differences” and simultaneously wanting to be credited with those differences when they become mainstream. Why? Because we had them first, learned to praise them – in spite of being penalized for it – first, and made spaces where people like J Lo could learn to feel comfortable with hers in this country. It certainly wasn’t pop culture that did it. Hell, pop culture has us all thinking we need to dye our hair blonde, lighten our skin, bind our waists, endure painful surgeries, and paste and polish our way into acceptable beauty.

There’s one last thing I want to say, and then I want to hear from you, and that’s this: as I wrote that last little paragraph, it felt like my eyes were going to start watering. The entire point of the original introduction to “Baby Got Back” – created over 20 years ago – was to mock the general perception of black relationships – the bodies of these women and the men who like them – by mainstream society. “She must be one of those rap guys’ girlfriend…and of course the only reason those rap guys want her is because she looks like a total prostitute..she’s just so BLACK!”

Raise your hand if you believe that perception to still be accurate to this day.

[raises hand]

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Gabriella September 16, 2014 - 8:20 AM

*virtual slow clap*

Loved your NPR piece, and I love this piece here. You are, obviously, remarkably on point. As a white woman I was furious at that idiotic Vogue article, and I can scarcely imagine what black and Latina women are feeling! As a curvy woman with a healthy pair of thick thighs and a big butt, I felt beyond insulted that Vogue, devoted to the reification of skinny Western/Eastern European women, was now trying to claim that my body was suddenly “cool”. Like this body that they never presented as beautiful was now “trendy” – a BODY. And of course, they focused primarily on the three white women who have more back than most other curve-less white celebrities, dancing around the fact that in some communities and cultures, those curves have been adored for CENTURIES.

I have to stop here or I’m going to rant forever, lol. Regardless, props on once again producing a piece that hits the nail on the proverbial head.

Erika Nicole Kendall September 16, 2014 - 9:22 PM

Rant on, sis. Rant on. <3

Jasna September 17, 2014 - 7:58 AM

I am tired of society chopping us into pieces and declaring various body parts to be “in” and “out” as if we were dolls to be taken apart and rearranged according to men’s current tastes instead of people.

Vee May 7, 2017 - 2:07 PM

It’s so important to be talking about what cultural appropriation is. Don’t stop. There is a greater number of people taking a step back more and more and considering their actions and thoughts. I think it takes a situation where people are face to face with that form of injustice in a way that they can relate to it,empathize with it for them to get it. People I thought were hopeless I now hear debating and demanding change.
As far as “Baby got Back” goes, this little white girl with extremely mixed heritage grew up surrounded by honky tonk and jazzercise was always forced into the back of the ballet recital because she didn’t look like tiffany and Jill. That song gave me the first moment of my life where I thought that there was hope and that there might be others out there who thought me, as I was built, was beautiful. I thought less about my ass, took up rowing and running, and gave up starving. When I had a size 5 waist as a teen with an ass thatwouldn’t fit in normal jeans I saw beauty in it long before Jlo entered the scene. That song that mocked the culture I was drowning in kept me going. So… raises hand.

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