In this episode of Listen to Black Women, co-hosts Chris Miss, Jessie Woo and Shamika Sanders are joined by special guest Sesali Bowen to discuss society’s sense of entitlement when it comes to discussing and policing Black women’s bodies.
Miss asks the group why people are so comfortable commenting on the bodies of Black women, and the ladies dive into some dark but accurate historical points. Bowen states:
“History is rooted in our bodies…what they can do…what they can produce.”
Sanders reminds the group that modern gynecology as we know it was built on the experimentation on Black women’s bodies: “Since the dawn of time, Black women’s bodies have kinda not been our own.”
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Woo brings up the movie “Black Venus,” in which the main character (played by Yahima Torres) is brutally put in a cage and brought around the country for people to gawk at. But Woo touches on a complex truth represented in the film: the men looking at Torres want to be with her and the women want to look like her.
“The Black woman’s body is the standard…it’s popular to have the Black woman’s body, but not the black woman’s experience,” she states.
This launches the women into the topic of current societal beauty standards, and how you see other races paying (via plastic surgery) to look like Black women. Sanders says that white women are trying to look Black and Black women are trying to look like Kim Kardashian — or what the group describes as “Instagram Face.”
“It’s a never-ending cycle of trying to live up to the male gaze,” says Sanders.
The criticism of Black women who choose to get plastic surgery is about more than beauty standards, says Bowen.
“It’s also about access…what you can afford to get done. Noone wants Black women to set their own price.”
All the women agree: you just can’t win. If you don’t meet the societal standard, you’re criticized. And if you get plastic surgery to meet it, you’re called insecure.
The host turn their attention specifically to their guest Bowen. Bowen is the author of the critically-acclaimed feminist book Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist. Sanders had reached out to Bowen to write an editorial because she loved that Bowen had owned that phrase “Fat Black Girl.”
Reclaiming that phrase was important to Bowen, who talks about how much in particular plus-size Black women are characterized and sexualized, mentioning how certain comedians like Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry “Have built their careers on the backs of Black fat women.” Bowen notes it makes people flinch when she calls herself that.
“People are supposed to say that to me to tear me down … people want to use that language against us … that’s why it was important to me to use the words. It just neutralizes it.”
The conversation lands on the common thought– that a way to win the fight to regain power of their bodies is to step out of the fight entirely.