Saturday, April 1, 2023

Black Bodies: The Embodiment & The Truth

The myriad ways that black women are embodied, stereotyped and imagined is an area I find particularly fascinating, and in many cases, worrying. From the hideous objectification of Sarah Baartman, who was taken from South Africa in the 1800s and ‘exhibited’ in France and the UK – her body positioned as wild, savage and deviant (to a Caucasian norm) – to the ways that black women’s bodies appear unfavourably hyper-visible in popular culture, or deemed invisible through their pointed absence – I’d argue that there is cause for concern.

A caricature of Sarah Baartman
A caricature of Sarah Baartman

If we take the historical positioning of Sarah Baartman as being on a continuum, her objectification can be connected to contemporary ideas of ‘legitimate black femininity’. Within current commercial hip hop culture, to have a big butt and womanly, childbearing hips is desirable (in its most crude form, think Nicki Minaj and Blac Chyna). But how do you discuss these ideas without falling into the trap of continuing that objectification and seeing women such as Amber Rose as just body? The narrative is complicated further still when we consider that it is some women’s choice to perform or conform to an idea of what black women’s body should look like – in some cases having cosmetic procedures to enhance their assets, to almost outdo the stereotype; the bigger the butt, the ‘better’.

Nicki Minaj on the set of her Starship video
Nicki Minaj on the set of her Starship video

This type of objectification can be harmful, especially in our modern, social-networking society. Celebrities with huge young followings may not just perpetuate an unrealistic and perhaps unhealthy body image, but also be further playing into a stereotype that enables men to continue to see women as objects for their gaze and pleasure, while encouraging others to do the same.

Another complication is that for some black women, there can be a swing in the opposite direction – an almost unconscious desire to try and straighten the ‘Crooked Room’. Melissa Harris Perry discusses this in her book Sister Citizen, the ‘Crooked Room’ being a society that projects an image of black womanhood that isn’t representative of the full reality of who we are. She argues, that to make the room ‘straight’, some black women compensate in the other direction; to avoid being perceived as a Jezebel they may be super-conservative in their attire or feel the need to constantly present themselves as a face of respectability, so there is no way that they could be confused for the inaccurate, stereotypical image. But this persona can be just as damaging as its polar opposite; limiting and inhibiting oneself to control others’ perception of you and your body, to feel the responsibility of being a ‘good representative’ of your gender and ethnicity, is a heavy burden. It is in these constraints that some black women are robbed of feeling empowered to own their sexuality or feeling free to express the full range of who they are.

Melissa Harris Perry's book Sister Citizen
Melissa Harris Perry’s book Sister Citizen


 Lil Kim in her outfit at the 1999 VMAs
Lil Kim in her outfit at the 1999 VMAs

It could be argued that such stereotypes are generated from within black culture too. For example, how are black women whose bodies sit outside typical black body stereotypes seen by their peers? Supermodel Iman, during the early days of her career in the 1970’s, was described by Marcia Gillespie – a black woman and then editor of Essence Magazine – as “a white woman dipped in chocolate”. To me, this is an example of how internalised some black women’s ideas of what black/African women’s bodies should look like. In this sense, there needs to be recognition that black women are not a monolithic group who should all look the same and Africa is a huge and varied continent with lots of different body types within it. In my opinion ‘whiteness’ should not have a monopoly on skinny body types.

Supermodel Iman
Supermodel Iman

But it’s not just bodies, black women are categorised personality-wise, too – the most obvious example being the Angry Black Woman (ABW) stereotype, which associates being loud, aggressive or irrationally angry with being black. Cecile Emeke’s Strolling video series touches upon this (and many other pertinent issues), by following different young black people as they share their viewpoint on a variety of topics. In one video, Vanessa discusses an interaction with a customer in a clothes shop. At the 7:06 mark she states. “I’ve done everything I can to make you not see me that way and still you’ve just projected all of that onto me and now I’m pissed off and I’m angry” – telling of the age old ABW self-fulfilling prophecy. The victim of the stereotype may not be angry but after being treated as if they are, they become so – giving rise to the ‘I told you so’ look! I’m sure many black women can echo Vanessa’s sentiment, of sometimes feeling she “can’t be assertive because people are scared” or are ready to refer to her assertiveness as anger. This can be a stifling experience.

For me, there is much to debate on the embodiment of black women, and while it’s a difficult discussion to delve into, there is an importance to having these conversations and recognising the effects that different embodiments and the associated stereotypes can have on people’s everyday experiences. Whilst we should all look for ways we can try to be more aware of the presumptions and presuppositions we may have about different types of people, it is just as vital to recognise that as women of colour, our individual experiences are part of a structural system that often positions us in ways which don’t run concurrently with the reality of who we are – and just having an awareness of that can in fact help resist the stereotype. It helps recognising that truthfully, the room really is crooked.

Written by Sekai Makoni

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