I don’t think I really liked my body until I was at least 26 years old.
Growing up a young, Black girl in an urban city in the ‘90s and ‘00s, I was constantly bombarded by things that showed me, at a very young age, that my child-like body was seen as a commodity to others. The hyper-sexualization of Black bodies is a real thing, one that starts young and travels with you your entire life.
The first time I was catcalled, I was walking to the library. I had on jeans, an oversized hoodie and Converse sneakers. “Hey lil’ lady, you lookin’ real cute in them sneakers,” the man — who was old enough to probably be my grandpa — shouted through a gap-toothed smile. “Wanna hang out? I can drive you home if you need me to.” I was only eight years old.
I looked around frantically to see if any adults were in sight, and quickly ran into the library where I waited for my mother to come and get me.
The idea that Black girls were inherently “fast” influenced all aspects of my young life: I wasn’t permitted to wear potentially too-short shorts as a child, lest I grab the wandering eye of an older man. Music videos always portrayed the curvaceous and “stacked” woman as powerful, oftentimes yielding her power through her body and making slaves of men. Of course, there was also the constant battle of being a teenager who would see the boys in her school respond to a particular body type or “type” of girl. If you had hips and curves at a young age, you were automatically categorized as “fast” and promiscuous.
As an adult, you (hopefully) learn there is no “type” of girl, and one’s body should not determine how they are seen in the world.
But as a kid, I definitely wanted to be “that” girl. You know, the one who could make all the men fall at her feet, who could get anything that she wanted and had all the confidence in the world. Of course, that was just the dream sold to Black youth and Black girls like me – it omitted the nightmare that came with it. It denied the idea that young girls could be classified as “hoes” simply by the way that we looked, or that even the faintest flash of sassiness was enough to warrant the gaze and uncomfortable commentary of our male peers.
Nobody told me that the “it” girl was really the girl whose name was dragged in hallways because people naturally assumed that her nice things were payment for the dirty things she did for them; or that the same people who would swoon over her body would quickly objectify and assert power over it.
A 2017 study, co-authored by Jamilia Blake, a professor from Texas A&M University, and Rebecca Epstein of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law Center, found that Black girls between the ages of 5 and 9 are perceived as being much older than they actually are. And, when compared to white girls of the same age, the study suggested Black girls needed less protection, less support and comfort, and knew more about adult topics, like sex.
While being sexualized at a young age is not exclusive to Black and Latinx girls, it does seem to be more prevalent and, dare I say, normalized in our communities, although it did not actually START with Black or Latinx people.
As claimed in “Black Sexual Politics” by Patricia Hill Collins, it was Europeans who first started the concept that Black girls were hypersexual beings. During slavery, that idea was used to justify the rape, murder and other atrocities that Black girls and women were subjected to (including mothering illegitimate children from their slave masters and even being objectified as pleasantries to white mistresses).
Sarah Baartman, who was brought to Europe on false pretenses by a British doctor, was stage-named the “Hottentot Venus,” and was forcibly paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, with crowds invited to “look at her large buttocks.”
According to the BBC, “[Sarah Baartman] is seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of Black people.” The sad thing is, she is my mother, my sisters, my aunts, and my nieces. She is me and every Black girl.
This in turn contributed to what’s now known as respectability politics, an act we see play out every day when it comes to women’s rights and issues such as rape and gender equality. Black girls need to exceptionally “behave,” lest we be seen as immoral, corrupt and ultimately “asking” for whatever comes to us.
If something happens to Black girls, there’s always the follow-up question of what she must have done. Things such as wearing certain colors or styles of dress to even just how she looks could be enough to solicit attention. Even wearing lip gloss can appear overtly sexual on a Black girl – it’s lip gloss.
I retreated into myself as a child to avoid such attention, especially given my natural ability to start and make conversation anywhere I go. I remember once wearing a tank top and shorts to the mall as a teenager, and immediately felt like my body was on display to the whole world against my will.
I felt dirty just walking in my own body, a feeling so many of us experience every day just by being who we naturally are. Later on, I was reprimanded by an elder for wearing the outfit to the mall, rather than consoled about how the negative attention from older men made me feel. Even into adulthood, I stayed away from shorts above my knee for the longest time.
The problem is that the attributes the world has picked and prodded at in Black girls are the same things lauded when seen on a non-Black influencer or celebrity. Social media has just exacerbated its visibility.
Thick thighs, a large butt, breasts that “sit” over a tiny waist, vivacious hair, long nails, big eyelashes and full lips were the vibe for everyone but me. The things seen as beautiful on Kylie Jenner are considered whoreish on me.
Social media, and media as a whole, warped my brain as a child, so much to a point that I soon began to disassociate my body as beautiful. It was difficult to look in the mirror and say that my body was sexy or gorgeous when everything around me was showing that a different type of body or a different type of girl was accepted even into adulthood (and even with subsequent consequences).
I don’t have wide hips, I have regular-sized hips. I don’t have a tiny waist, I have belly pudge. My breasts aren’t naturally perky and just sitting all day long – they’re regular boobs that just do what they do. I’m bottom-heavy and have to wiggle to get into jeans. Okay, I have to jump.
My features were “too” Black for public consumption, not the racially ambiguous features that are still applauded to this day.
I didn’t see my body as a gift, but rather insufficient and lackluster.
In my 20s, I learned about body dysmorphia and began to do research to see if there was any real merit to the idea that how one saw themselves could be different than how others saw them. I would look in the mirror and I would see one thing, but my family and friends would see another. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that perhaps so much of social media and the community that I had grown up in had jaded my mind into thinking that anything other than the music video body just wasn’t worth being applauded. The rest of us just had to fall in line.
For the past couple of years, thanks to therapy, positive affirmation practices and learning how to regulate my social media intake, I’ve learned how to love my body as it is. I’ve learned to embrace my curves and not see it as a distraction to my personality or my smarts. I’ve learned to embrace every aspect of who I am and not attach myself to what social media tries to tell me that I am. I love my booty and my thighs, my smile and even my belly pudge.
It is difficult.
Sometimes when you see the same type of influencer or body type or person, gaining momentum and steam based on a lie, it messes with you. Photoshop fails, both from influencers and celebrities alike, have shown that there is still an unhealthy obsession with how one looks, but more importantly, how others perceive them to be. Working in media now allows me to actively work toward changing the narrative that was constantly sold to me as a child, hopefully by showing more authentic and real examples of beautiful men and women from all walks of life.
I wish I could have told the younger me that she, even back then, already had it going on. Well, we can start now.
We can remove the narrative that there is only one “beautiful” body, and more importantly, that young Black and Latinx girls have to pay for what they are inherently born with.
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