Get Bootyâd: How Runaway Love for Curvy Backsides Affects the Black Female Body Image

Nicki Minaj rearview

It’s a pop culture phenomenon. It has cropped up everywhere, from children’s animated films to viral clips of YouTubed wedding receptions. It is the song that’ll never lay down and die, and it boasts what may be one of the most infamous intros in all of hip-hop lyric-dom:

Oh. My. God. Becky, look at her butt.

2012 marks 20 years since that instantly recognizable intro and the rest of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s magnum opus, “Baby Got Back,” dropped into the hip-hop canon, paying some lighthearted (if not slightly cheesy) homage to Black women’s shapeliness. In contrast to the mainstream incarnation of beauty, where stick-straight skinny girls mistake folds of skin for fat, jutting pelvic bones are venerated, and the only acceptable forms of fleshiness are expected to be tucked into a bra cup, Black culture never minds a little (or a lotta) junk in the trunk. Sir Mix-a-Lot culled that into a song and we all sang along to his little ditty of appreciation.

Since then the hip-hop generation aesthetic, molded from traditional African beauty norms but exploited by the music’s rampant commercialism, has morphed into a curiosity all its own, separate from the rappers and the business. We’ve shunned White America’s this-is-what-your-body-should-look-like standards, true. But now the pressure is on Black women, particularly those who have grown up under the hoorah of the video vixen, to be built like brickhouses and stacked like strippers. What basically started out as a concerted effort to celebrate our beauty, which had been purposefully devalued and ignored by the mainstream, has turned into another series of hoops for ladies to jump in order to meet somebody’s physical must-haves. Sigh. And the beat goes on.

It’s Your Duty to Have Booty

Folks have always loved to survey and study Black women. Time and time again, research has indicated that Black women are generally comfortable with our physical selves. In February, the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a poll that once again confirmed our body confidence is higher than White women’s, even though we’re heavier than them en masse. (Though it’s worth noting that our cultural veneration of full figures keeps many of us on the wrong side of morbid obesity).

Take, for example, this picture of Alicia Keys posted on Instagram by her hubby, Swizz Beatz. She’s said in the past that she’s proud of her curves, and she’s got plenty of them to be proud of. While modeling the quintessential thickness that brings brothers to the yard, she’s also clearly healthy and in shape. Still, look at the comments posted under the pic. Many White women who felt moved enough to post barbs about her body think she’s fat. On the flip side, according to the conventions of Black feminine form, she’s darn near perfect.

Ladies who are less Melyssa Ford and more Gabrielle Union are often teased and berated for not having enough backside.

That’s good for her, good for Beyoncé, good for [insert name of video vixen here], good for anyone who’s bodied as such, particularly since it’s not applauded anywhere else. But the adulation of thick chicks has become the only cheer from the crowd, and it pares our desirability down to one body type as if to say: Thin women, athletically built ladies, smaller-proportioned gals, thanks for playing. But women without big booties need not apply.

“As much as we’re seeing more and more women of color in the media, which is a positive thing, they’re also being presented in really specific ways that are pushing other women to start questioning their body images,” explains Dr. Dionne Stephens, assistant professor of psychology at Florida International University. “If you look at the research, there are a lot of positive things that indicate that Black women are happy with themselves. But we’re beginning to find that that’s not necessarily true, and they do have a lot of body image issues. We’re being bombarded with images in hip-hop that affect how women see themselves and how men judge women, and their perceptions create a lot of pressure for us, as well.”

That has almost morphed into a darned if you do, darned if you don’t experience for all Black women. Walk down the street with a big ol’ butt, and all the hoots and hollers and suggestive remarks make some sisters regret what the good Lord gave them. But ladies who are less Melyssa Ford and more Gabrielle Union are often teased and berated for not having enough backside. Having a “fatty” or a “donk” is no longer the hallmark of our genetic full-figuredness; it’s become a must-have.

Booty means big money—for the industrious folks behind music videos, for magazines themed entirely around worship of the buxom-bottomed woman, for strip clubs and agencies that specialize in the curvy female form, and for some of the women themselves who capitalize off of their God-given assets.