In a country where physical attractiveness has long been defined by a European beauty aesthetic, Black women have been made to feel ashamed of many of their features. “Nappy” hair, brown skin, and curves were antithetical to the angular, silky-haired, porcelain-skinned women who represented beauty in American fashion and entertainment. Even those women of color who managed to infiltrate the mainstream still had to fit into its preconceived ideal: there were no wide noses or hips. No full lips or figures. Tiny drops of melanin were exotic, but too-dark was disqualifying.
It is impossible to say when things started to change. Maybe the idea of attractiveness evolved like every other aesthetic in American culture. Jazz and blues were once considered barbaric forms of music meant only for the wretched and uncivilized. Every staple of popular American dance—from the Lindy Hop to Twerking—was “borrowed” from their Black creators. It is even said that every stand up comedian today is doing an impression of Richard Pryor.
Black people have long been the genesis for anything cool, creative, and culturally significant. Whether you deem it “stealing” or “influencing,” almost every crevice of American pop culture and style was appropriated from Black culture—from fifties doo-wop to new millennium hip hop.
So when Blake Lively shared a picture of her curves from Cannes film festival on Instagram with the caption “L.A. face with the Oakland booty,” many people were offended. She chose to use Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s rap classic as a soundtrack to praise her recently pregnant voluptuousness, but there were others who heard much more than that.
They heard the all-too-familiar voice of a society swerving into the lane long occupied by Black women whose bottoms were scorned until plastic surgery and prehistoric urges made them desirable.
They heard the subtext of the phrase “L.A. face:” Star’s face. Model face. Blonde face. White face.
In “Oakland booty” they heard echoes of a past that commodified Black women’s bodies—but only for it’s usefulness or the worth of its roundness. They heard plantation babies suckling breast milk from Mammy. They heard Thomas Jefferson licking his lips at Sally Hemings. They heard Ghetto booty. Black booty. Oakland booty.
…But with the L.A. face.
Whether it’s Rachel Dolezal’s kinky weave or Kylie Jenner’s lip plumping technique, Black women’s bodies are the last reservoir of cultural appropriation. In America, it is not considered thievery if it is stolen from a collective. That’s how cultural appropriation works. Miley Cyrus made twerking popular. Plastic surgeons attribute the “booty boom” to Kim Kardashian. By the way, she also “invented” the “boxer braids” that Black women have worn for centuries, but called them “cornrows.”
Perhaps it is good that America is settling into inclusive cultural norms. One would think that if the definition of beauty shifts towards Black women, we will see more realistic-looking Black models and actresses in media. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
When Jazz was appropriated we got Kenny G. The popularity of the Blues didn’t make the men in Memphis juke joints rich and famous—it birthed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The emergence of hip hop culture didn’t make the plight of Urban Black men relatable—it gave us Iggy Azalea and people eating McNuggets while doing the running man in McDonald’s commercials.
Blake Lively’s hubbub isn’t unique. It is just the latest example of privilege. Her posterior is exotic and incongruous with her svelte figure. On Blake Lively those curves are newsworthy. If she were a Black woman posing for booty pics at the Cannes film festival she might not get the same fawning adoration. That is privilege. She can flaunt her “Oakland booty” because she has an “L. A. face.”
She should thank a Black woman.