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How Sarah Baartman’s Hips Went From a Image of Exploitation to a Supply of Empowerment for Black Ladies

By Rokeshia Renné Ashley, Florida International University

In “BLACK EFFECT”, a track by Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s joint album “EVERYTHING IS LOVE” from 2018, Beyoncé describes a typical black female form:

Stunt with your curls, your lips, Sarah Baartman hips Gotta bounce in my jeans as I bounce in my whip, yeah

The celebration of Sarah Baartman’s facial features marks a departure from her historical image.

Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was an African who was something of an international sensation of objectification at the beginning of the 19th century. She was paraded across Europe, where the audience mocked her big butts.

With celebrities like Beyoncé acknowledging Baartman’s contributions to the ideal black female body – and with the curvy buttocks of black women being lauded on television and celebrated on social media – I wanted to understand how that ideal is viewed by the people who use it most directly influenced: black women.

So I interviewed 30 black women from different cities in South Africa and the mid-Atlantic US and asked them about Baartman. Would her picture represent a reviled past or a canvas of resilience? Were they proud to have similar buttocks or were they ashamed of having a similar stature?

Hips and history

Baartman, a Khoisan woman from South Africa, left her homeland for Europe in the early 19th century; it is unclear whether she left voluntarily or was forced to do so. Showmen exhibited her all over Europe, where she was forced to sing and dance in an embarrassing and dehumanizing spectacle in front of white spectators.

Often naked in these exhibitions, Baartman was sometimes hung in a cage on the stage while he was stabbed, pushed and groped. Her body has been characterized as grotesque, lascivious, and obscene because of her protruding buttocks, which was due to a condition called steatopygia, which occurs naturally in people in arid parts of southern Africa. She also had elongated labia, a physical characteristic derogatory to the “Hottentot apron”.

One drawing shows Sarah Baartman, who is eyed and mocked by onlookers.

Baartman had a naturally occurring condition called “steatopygia”.
British Museum

Both became symbols of racial differences, and many other women from this part of Africa were abducted to Europe for white entertainment. Because they deviated so drastically from the prevailing notions of white female beauty, Baartman’s facial features became exotic. Her luscious and curvaceous body – mocked and shamed in the West – was also referred to in advertisements as the “most correct and perfect specimen of her breed”.

The Baartman ideal

Of course, black women’s bodies vary; there is no monolithic – and no ideal – type.

Nonetheless, there is a strong legacy of the curvaceous ideal, more so than other breeds.

It still exists today.

In my interviews, black women revealed what they thought of Baartman’s story, how they compared it to their own body image, and what their legacy represents.

One American participant, Ashley, seemed to realize how deeply ingrained the Baartman ideal is.

“[Baartman] was the platform for stereotypes, ”she said. “She set the trend for black women [to] have these characters and … now these stereotypes carry through pop culture. “

Mieke, a South African, proudly described her proportions and the way they are connected to Baartman, saying, “I am proud of my body because I feel like it is like hers.”

Exploitation or Empowerment?

Today, the Baartman body can be particularly beneficial in social media, where black women have the opportunity to produce socially and culturally relevant content for them and their audiences – and where users can make money from their posts.

On different platforms, women use their looks to get paid advertising or to get free gifts, services or goods from different beauty and clothing companies. They are also more likely to attract more followers – and, depending on their ambitions, perhaps more wealthy admirers – by leaning more closely on the contemporary Baartman ideal.

So one could argue that black women take control of their objectification and commodification in order to make money. They also protest against the ideals of mainstream white beauty, grasping Baartman’s exploitation and ridicule, and occupying them as a source of pride and empowerment in places like #BlackTwitter, Instagram and OnlyFans.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Baartman’s image is rooted in a legacy marked by slavery, involuntary submission and colonialism. The white gaze that fetishized Baartman’s body as exotic and overtly sexual was the same one that spread the stereotype that black women were sexually permissive, lascivious, and hypersexual.

While Baartman may not have been able to keep the money people paid to stare at them, black women today can aspire to their body type and make money from it. Once exposed to the ridicule of an insidious white look, Baartman’s body is now profitable – as long as these women are comfortable with being objectified.

But is selling this body type always a form of empowerment? Would someone who has not already been exploited do it?

This could explain why black women conflict today when they think of Baartman.

Lesedi from South Africa highlighted this tension.

“I feel like you find girls like me who aren’t proud of what they see when they look in the mirror, and they just feel like, ‘I have to hand this over,” she said added, however, that “you find other” girls who are just so happy to be twerking … I think Sarah Baartman definitely has an influence, but whether you take pride in having a bum is either positive or negative to have.”

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Rokeshia Renné Ashley, Assistant Professor of Communication, Florida International University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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