Quote of the Week: Body Image and Black Femalehood

“The real issue is not that Caster Semenya is butch or buff. Its an old old tale that began with colonist and caucasian ideas that Africans that still exist today. Caster Semenya is the fastest female this year, at a mere 18 years has become our South African Golden girl. Her biggest offense is that he [sic] has no breasts, no shapely hips or ‘soft features’. I never imagined being a tomboy could be an international dispute or debate. Infact I fear for my own gender-standards that I may take up face-painting and crude uncomfortable shoes commonly worn by women to accentuate beauty. In a world where most girls suffer from eating disorders and their mothers have liposuction, plastic surgery, botox and implants its no wonder the Western media attacks you for embracing and accepting your natural shape.”Child of Colour

I know this is an unusually long quote for quote of the week but I thought it was so poignant. It covers the problem with how thin black women’s bodies are viewed in a nutshell regardless of our location in the diaspora.

blackwomensarms - Copy(images unattributed)

For me,the quote and the current questions about Semenya’s right to girl/womanhood reminds me of discussion of Michelle Obama’s shapely, sleeveless, arms that distracted the national media and prompted blog posts and comments about monkeys and animals and “respectability.” It makes me flashback to Lauryn Hill’s beautiful, sleeveless, white leather outfit on the grammy awards and the way my drooling was interrupted by comments about “her arms” said as a slur. And even more than these contemporary images, it makes me flash back to Sojourner Truth’s own description of her body and its relationship to the rights of womanhood:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? Sojourner Truth (emphasis added)

I never had an athletes body. I had curves before my time. And with those curves came years of body policing attached to the other stereotype of black and brown women as sexually available and lacking the right to bodily integrity. I always envied those strong muscular arms that marked other women’s bodies as untouchable, powerful. When I saw my gf that first time, after her kind eyes, I noticed the bulge of her arms the rock hardness of her abs. Where I have always seen beauty and strength, so many see gender transgression needing to be violently corrected; they police our bodies for daring to adapt and even shine in conditions that they have long reserved solely for us – laborers, athletes, dancers, etc.

In an instance that only now hits me as strikingly similar to talk about the First Lady, I know what it was like to be called aside and asked to wear bermuda shorts or sweats to gym class because I was “distracting the boys.” FYI the images below are “booty shorts”, “cut-offs” and “hot pants” respectively

booty - Copy

The image of the First Lady, whose shorts were the same length as mine as a kid, except that I also had a long, baggy t-shirt over them as well, are what we used to call “mom shorts.” They are both slightly longer than regular shorts and profoundly unflattering on most women’s body types b/c they flatten out the bottom, accentuate the tummy, and shorten the leg. Many outside of the U.S. also associate these types of shorts with “tacky middle aged tourists” getting us back to the PETA fatphobia connection to ageism I was outlining in a previous post.

Michelle-Obama-Shorts - Copy(Dana Felthauser/AP)

I was never athletic in school b/c of my disability but after early onset puberty the gym teacher practically begged me not to even walk at a fast pace less my bounce also “distract the boys” , the nuns always made sure to put the ruler between me and the boy I was forced to dance with at any of our school dances (all the while glaring at me as if I had horns) and the entire 5/6th grade geography class came to a standstill when my bra strap ferreted it’s way out of my sleeve  . . . The saddest part is my butt was flat by woc standards and my nickname at home was “flea bite” not “melon.” Like the First Lady, the truth of our bodies was less salient than the racialized gender lens through which they were being read.

While I wish that these stories were about the cruelty of children, the fact is that both these over-policed women/girls and I have all been picked over by adults checking our bodies like property or out of place flesh that must be tamed and discarded. I was recently reminded on a thread at historiann’s that I also know what it is like to discover a male colleague has drawn pictures of me exaggerating my curves  and placing them on the internet for what I can only interpret as both general misogyny and punishment for daring to exert my right to desire someone other than him. The constant touching, grabbing, assaulting eyes that seem to long for the days when they could just throw you down and take what is yours like you were Celia seems like one side of a coin in which the other is the violent assault on your right to exist outside of labor or entertainment. When the lights go down and the medals have all been won, you are supposed to disappear not continue to exist and to excel. And if you do both, or one or the other, too publicly or too well, there will be a price involving perverse medical speculation, possible intervention, and certainly public discussion as violent as any colonial endeavor across our bodies.

But, sincle coin or not, I have no idea what it is like to have someone look right through your femaleness. To deny you your sex. To be a child degraded at the most basic level because you are too strong, too hard working, too different than the cult of femininity they never let any of us have access to anyway.

And as more people weigh in on the controversy, not only is Semenya navigating the racialized gender horror of being denied womanhood but the most perverse transphobia. It has already convicted her as intentional gender transgressor and hopes to make an example out of her to police trans women everywhere. In their world trans women become not-women, not-women expands to police anyone but them. Comments like Germaine Greer’s at once deny Semenya’s potential cis femaleness and trash transgender identity regardless of her chromosomes:

‘Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.’Germain Greer

The hatred of both cis women of color and trans women, of women in sport in general, all swirls together with little regard for this young girl’s well-being or for the others caught in this racist body policing worldwind. Whatever the outcome, the damage is done. The message is sent, black, transgender, or both, your body does not belong here; your flesh is not “ours.”

To have gotten away with mobilizing transphobia to target all women for so long is unimaginale in its dark historical truth. To try and hide this legacy in overt transphobic wrapping that explicitly targets actual trans women is inexcusable.

As a curvy girl who has been thin and thick but never a hard, glistening, powerful-bodied girl, I recognize the shared oppression of women/girls who dare to be black and female in a world in which even feminists sometimes deny us the right to be beautiful and free.


14 thoughts on “Quote of the Week: Body Image and Black Femalehood

  1. Hi, Prof.

    You’ve knocked it out of the proverbial ball park once again.

    It just goes to prove, time and again, that bodies of color, particularly Black female bodies, just like hair, and skin, are not acceptable unless they fit Whiteness. Serena has also dealt with her share of this nonsense. Disgusting.

    Do you think WATRD or any of the so-called white feminist blogs will deal with this issue? They haven’t the intelligence, Prof. to do it even remote justice.

    • thanks. I think most ppl talking have fixated on the transgender issues involved in the case and thus it has fallen to the GLBTQI blogs to cover it while the “body image” blogs stick to the “safe stuff.”

      The silences are making sure a lot of intersections are lost and a chance to see how body images issues are specific and overlapping once again slipping away.

  2. I feel bad for her because she probably has been mocked all her life. At least she can be finally do something that she can be proud of. Besides, why are they questioning her gender now after she won. If there was a problem, they should have checked her out discreetly before the race instead of embarrassing her after she won.

    • welcome to the blog Chris. I don’t think they should be testing her at all and you’ve hit on why, all the pain it is causing for no reason. Think of all the other women they have tested for “not looking feminine.” who were women & the impact that had.

  3. Pingback: quote of the week « Raven’s Eye

  4. Thank you for making the connection with Sojourner Truth and how racialized the standards of femaleness and womanhood are. I’m wondering now about the role whiteness and colonialism has played in this racialization as well. There is at least a recognition of different taxonomies of gender in many non-Western countries, like the hijaras in India and Pakistan, the kathoey in Thailand. In pre-colonial Philippines, bayoguin–males who identified and were recognized as female–also led religious ceremonies.
    Of course, recognition is not the same as acceptance, and people outside strict male/female gender binaries are still very much marginalized. So in the early 1990s, when teenage Nancy Navalta started setting track records, she was required to undergo gender verification exams by Filipino sports authorities. She was banned from further competition after being deemed “genetically male,” in part because of how Pinoy society could not see her as anything else, since the bayoguin had been almost completely erased from the collective memory.

    • I really love what you are doing here in this comment – connecting pre-colonial gender identities to the colonial endeavors I hint at in this post to expanding those legacies by grounding it in sport as a lens to the legacy of colonial gender policing and its reflection in society.

      While all this talk is very hurtful for Semenya, it really has opened up a chance to radically engage gender and sex in important ways.

  5. @prof susurro Thanks for bringing this to the attention of US readers in particular to present a challenge to US mainstream media reports. It is now important for us all to take something positive from this – as you say to use the opportunity to now engage gender and sex and race in radical and important ways.

    • welcome Sokari. I have long loved your blog and look forward to seeing you around the blog. 😀 (and thanks for catching the absence of “race” in the list in my comment to Tangland.)

  6. Pingback: Erasure « Tanglad

  7. Pingback: Smite Me! » Blog Archive » links for 2009-08-30

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