Sarah Baartman was not a video vixen

I found this picture on instagram the other day and it really got my tits in a twirl.


Anyone who has taken an introductory gender and race class has probably heard about Sarah Baartman, also known as “the Hottentot Venus”.  She was a Khoisan woman from South Africa who was exploited and put on display for white people all over Europe. Her body was the center of what was essentially a freak show because of the size of her butt and other body parts. It has become quite common for folks who are interested in gender, race, and sexual politics  to use the imagery and legacy of Baartman almost as much as her exploiters used her body to illustrate the hypersexualizing of black women, the fascination with the black woman’s body, the cultural appropriation of black and brown performance and bodies, the list goes on. And don’t get me wrong, these things are relevant. There is A LOT to unpack about Baartman revolving around those themes.

But I think it gets just a little bit tricky when we overuse and oversimplify the legacy of Sarah Baartman in regards to black women’s bodies and representation today. First and foremost, it needs to be acknowledged that there is a difference between being put on display by others (under enslavement and considered someone else’s property) and making a conscious decision to partake in modeling. To equate big booty women who choose to be in front of a public gaze with Baartman suggests that they are mindless dupes who aren’t aware of the ways in which they are being oppressed and that they should just “wise up”. It also suggests that Baartman, herself, had a choice in the matter.

If you think the bottom line is solely about the objectification of the black butt and the potential to be metaphorically “prostituted”, I again urge you to reconsider context. I don’t think I need to remind anyone that there  is nothing wrong with having a nice, round ass. There is also nothing wrong with liking to look at a nice round ass (with consent). Sarah Baartman wasn’t shown off around Europe because people thought she was sexy. She was a “freak show” to white folks who had a standardized image of the female body that excluded the bodies of women of color. Her ass was not an object of desire but one that was used to dehumanize and alienate her. Let us please not conflate that with the ass as the uplifted characteristic it is today in certain communities.

But perhaps my main problem with this image is the fact that responsibility has been taken off of the oppressor and put on the women who exist and participate in the larger system. We could have used the images of those 2013 asses to talk about unrealistic  body expectations placed on young women of color. We could have used them to talk about the limited opportunity for black women in the entertainment industry unless they’re showing their ass. And yes, we could have talked about the flawed hypersexualization of black women via the black female derrière. We could have talked about any of those things, but instead the creators of the image decided to talk about the “disrespectful sexual display” and prostitution. The tone was accusatory at best. We would rather have these women cover their asses than address the very real implications of what it means to live in a society that wants to see it. So let us begin to call images like this what they are. Poor attempts at slut shaming women who choose to model their butts off.

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 6, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    You know, as a feminist I’m having a bit of a rough internal dialogue about “choice feminism.” While I value a culture in which women can CHOOSE to be in the public gaze, and even be enthusiastic about it, I have issues with current ideas about consent. Yes, one may consent to be sexualized, but kyriarchy isn’t equitable; it doesn’t give us each option equally. I can’t speak for women of color, but for myself I’m flattered when someone gives me a “compliment” about how my body conforms to certain standards. But truthfully, they aren’t my standards, and my flattery is really my glee at being validated by a culture which has power over me. I’m not going to slut-shame, but I don’t think the producers (as opposed to the subjects) of these works are having the kind of dialogue that will resolve these issues. I am also a model and an artist–so I care about these nuanced conversations happening around productions of my image.

    My piece being said, I am a white cis-woman, and I don’t know the kind of internal dialogues POC and trans- persons are having about this “choice.” In my community (Atlanta), models and photographers often give lip-service to “diverse beauty,” but I’m also hearing words like “curvy, but HEALTHY,” and I see photo-retouching change dark-skinned girls to “passable.” It seems to me that (and I do this too) we’re trying to straddle the line between loving ourselves and appeasing others. I can’t fault people for that, but I will bring it up because it needs to change.

    If you have control over your image, are you also culpable for the implications of that image? (Gah, if only I knew the answer!)

    ALSO I don’t like that image. I think you’re right about how people are appropriating Baartman’s image (i.e. pimping it) to over-simplify the argument, and we need so much more context.

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