As I prepare for a symposium on women and pleasure, I can’t help but consider Black women’s bodies and how, even in 2016, we are searching for ways to free them. Our bodies, after all, drip with the shimmer of melanin and deep curves and magic and racism and history and desire and (if we dig deeply enough) non-consensual breeding and rape. Black women’s bodies make us uncomfortable, and instead of confronting that discomfort (and the reasons for it), we too often look to shame them.
Evidence of how Black women’s bodies are shamed is plenteous. It is evident in the conversations we have, constantly, about superstar athlete and all-around bad gyal Serena Williams. In one breath, some will say that Williams “looks like a man” and isn’t feminine enough. (Remember that awful conversation about Williams’s muscular build in The New York Times?) In the next breath, those same people will condemn Williams for looking too sexy on the Sports Illustrated cover that named her sportsperson of the year.
“Why wouldn’t Williams choose to pose in sports apparel, instead of a revealing bodysuit?” they ask. Because she’s grown, and she owns her body and her image, and despite how hard many try, she loves herself. Only a Black woman gets mocked for both looking like a man and being too sexy as a woman. Serena Williams’s body is perfect, and lust-worthy and finer than frog hairs, and most would rather negatively dissect it (as if she was on the auction block) than embrace this reality.
Of course, it’s not just Serena’s bodacious Black body that the public simultaneously desires and ridicules. Recall all the shock and awe and condemnation critics spewed when Beyoncé began identifying as a feminist? Writer, critic and educator Janell Hobson notes fellow feminists arguing (with regard to Beyoncé’s brand of feminism), “It’s that sexy brand of hers. She’s ‘too sexy,’ ‘too heteronormative,’ ‘too male-gaze-driven’ in her sexualized spectacle.” Umm-hmm.
The latest example of this strange phenomenon of the public being drawn to/repulsed by Black women’s bodies showed up at University Field Stadium, where Ciara recently sang the national anthem. The respectability police couldn’t wait to crack their knuckles and jump online to tell the world Ciara needed to cover up. The singer wore a floor-length, bedazzled gown featuring a cape and mesh center that showed a good bit of cleavage. When I saw the dress, I thought, “Well, that’s a lot for a college football game,” but my thoughts on her wardrobe choice didn’t extend past that.
While I understand the Internet is gon’ Internet, responses to Ciara’s choice in dress felt annoyingly familiar. This woman wore what could have easily been mistaken as a Vera Wang wedding gown to perform on a football field, and folks still found a reason to shame her appearance and her body. Black women simply cannot win. Folks found fault with Ciara’s gown and show of cleavage, and ignored a plethora of half-naked White cheerleaders and White dancers wearing what can only be described as sequined panties.
— Jessica (@jessicaynez) January 12, 2016
This is absolutely a case of policing women’s bodies, and it’s ridiculous and maddening. Ciara’s dress, like Serena’s bodysuit or Beyoncé’s lingerie, is nobody’s business. We cannot tell women how to dress themselves, and how women dress does not determine their worth or how much we should respect them.
But there is a larger, more troubling issue we must address in this conversation, which is that we have yet to figure out how to make peace with the fact that Black women’s bodies used to belong, legally, to other human beings, and we still feel like we own them today—to some degree or another.
What is most sad about the reality that the world can’t stop critiquing Black women’s bodies and shaming them in the process is that so many Black women have internalized this brand of hate. We keep hoping that if we cover up (like Ayesha Curry suggested, or like our mommas tell us), we’ll be seen as good and whole and worthy of respect.
But instead, we are the greatest sportsperson in the history of sports who is constantly told that we are too strong and too sexy. We are the greatest performer and pop icon in the world, yet we are reminded that we can’t call ourselves a champion of women because our bodies are too bootylicious. We can wear ball gowns on football fields, surrounded by White women wearing less than we are, but be told we are being inappropriate in front of children who may be viewing our performance.
We may as well just get it how we live.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.