Jazmine Sullivan’s reality? Unrealistic beauty standards

Fans of R&B have been rejoicing at the release of Jazmine Sullivan’s new album, Reality Show. The singer took a hiatus from music in 2011 because of a relationship that took a turn from bad to worse, but she and her amazing storytelling are back and better than ever.

But when I don’t have her album on repeat, I’m hanging on to her every word outside of her lyrics. Sullivan is a self identified black woman and “big girl” and she is not ignoring what her body mean in the music industry. To promote her new album, the R&B singer and songwriter extraordinaire has posted a series of videos on YouTube that document her inspiration for the new project. In one of her videos, titled “Image,”>Sullivan makes some extremely valuable points about body image and what it’s like to work in an industry that rejects her aesthetic.

I think I’m naturally beautiful. And I think I’m sexy on the weekends [laughs]. But as an artist in the music industry I know I’m not considered any of that. It’s been really hard to have a positive self image when nothing about you, physically, is celebrated in the field you’re in.

Imagine this. You’re preparing to give a huge presentation at work, or maybe you’re a student and you’re in the thesis/dissertation process. You feel extremely confident in your ability to sell your ideas/present your research. As you run the main points by your boss or committee, they are receptive to your ideas and praising your ability to put it all together. But you sense there’s a ‘but’ hanging in the air. They put down their pens, look you straight in the eye and recommend that you go on a diet so that you’ll get better reception on the actual day of your presentation. “If you lost 20 pounds we could really knock this out of the park.” Or “ Have you thought about doing a fat transplant? Our board of directors/department head will really back your ideas if you have a figure that will knock ‘em dead.”

This is the kind of feedback that women in the music industry are up against, despite their own confidence.

Jazmine Sullivan is one of the industry’s most talented singers. Reality Show debuted at number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and number 2 on the Hip-Hop/R&B albums chart. In case that isn’t enough, you can see in the video that even Beyonce calls her “one of the best.” That’s all the proof I need. But as much as I love Beyonce, even I can’t deny that despite her own amazing talent, one of the reasons she has been able to make such a big impact on the game is because she meets a standard of attractiveness that made her marketable. This is not a luxury that Sullivan has been afforded. She also mentions:

I believe I was put in this industry to really shake things up and to help bridge the gap between reality and this entertainment world that was created… I think it was created to make normal people shitty and idolize the people in it.

Sullivan is hypersensitive to the fact that she is holding the short end of the stick, but she also acknowledges that women who fall outside of those unrealistic standards are not the the only ones who suffer from them. In her song “Mascara,” (the best track on the album if you ask me) she narrates the experiences of women who fit hip hop’s beauty standard — the video vixens, promotional models, and IG honeys — and the very real work they’re required to put in to constantly maintain an image of perfection. This image is their livelihood, it guarantees that they are able to sustain a certain lifestyle. And while Sullivan makes it clear that she isnn’t being judgmental, she noticed that their presentation represents a specific, monolithic portrayal of femininity and attractiveness. But Sullivan wants to push back on this:

The music industry’s ideals are so unrealistic and unattainable. But I want to show women that it’s ok, and your god given right, to think YOU are the bomb. Like whatever color, size, height, or ethnicity you are. So I just feel like I’m every woman’s woman.

The idea of a normal woman is such a foreign concept to the monolithic imagery of music industry. But the truth is: when you enter that industry, you are not simply picked up for your ability to sing, rap, or write songs. ALL of you is a commodified package, and that includes your body. The fact that Sullivan understands this and has chosen to align her musical content and personality with the body she has as a way to create a counter-narrative is innovative and inspiring.  The singular vision of the industry affects people outside the music industry. The popularity of butt augmentation surgery, and the amount of people and companies marketing waist-trainers to Black women of all sizes promising the desired exaggerated hourglass shape, is certainly evidence of this. More than body positivity and healthy role models, people both inside and out of the industry need to be retrained to appreciate talent, respect artistry, and value the contributions that women can bring to the table despite what they look like. Her decision to take up space is radical and is the reason we need more artists like Jazmine Sullivan and why she will receive every last bit of my coins as a consumer.



Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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