As a child, my mother bought my sister and I a set of Encyclopedias. Always a homebody, I’d often opt of going outside to play to sit in the house just reading through volumes of the reference books. With the advent of the internet, I replaced hours reading through random articles in the encyclopedia with hours spent reading random information online.
That is how I first learned about Sara Baartman.
Baartman was a South African (Khoisan) woman whose “extremely large buttocks” made her the subject of racist, dehumanizing exploitation and exhibition. Nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman was kidnapped by a British doctor and sold into slavery. Because of her remarkable body, she was put on display, like an animal, and studied by zoologists fascinated by her unique buttocks. She was later “sold” into slavery with a French man who continued to put her on display in freak shows. “On stage she wore skin-tight, flesh-coloured clothing, as well as beads and feathers, and smoked a pipe. Wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her”
Baartman died at 26 years old in 1814. Her cause of death was listed as “inflammatory and eruptive disease,” and it is now believed she died from either pneumonia, syphilis or alcoholism. And as if her life in a captive state, paraded around for rich white people like she was an animal weren’t enough, the a naturalist made a cast of and dissected her body. Having preserved her skeleton, genitals and brain, she remained on display in Paris’ Museum of Man until 1974, 160 years after her death. Her remains were finally returned to her home in South Africa in 2002, nearly 200 years after her death.
This week, Taylor Swift, penned an essay for Elle magazine titled “30 Things I Learned Before Turning 30.” In it Swift writes, “I learned to stop hating every ounce of fat on my body. I worked hard to retrain my brain that a little extra weight means curves, shinier hair, and more energy. I think a lot of us push the boundaries of dieting, but taking it too far can be really dangerous. There is no quick fix. I work on accepting my body every day.”
Now while learning to love and accept your body is not a struggle unique to any particular body type, Swift’s declaration about accepting her own rail thin body is nothing more than a white woman seeking to center herself on an issue that does not concern her at all. Swift is not curvy. Like many white women who have been conditioned to believe that their bodies are the standards to which all women should aspire and by which all women should be judged, Swift has a flat ass, no hips, skinny thighs and no defined waist. Her assertion that fat somehow transforms to curves is ludicrous seeing how many fat women are not curvy at all.
Moreover, with the history and present of Black women being punished, penalized and dehumanized for our naturally curvaceous bodies, it’s peak white feminism for a rich white woman with a stick figure to say that she’s had to learn to embrace every ounce of fat on her body and pretend that a few pounds automatically translate to curves. This is not to say the public does not to a mild extent shame skinny white women for their bodies, but generally and customarily, white women need nothing more than blonde hair and a boob job to be considered to have the ideal body. Whatever personal battles Swift may have with her body and not appreciating it, cannot compare to Black women who cannot post a selfie without being ridiculed mocked and humiliated. Even non-Black women who are fat are routinely harassed online and in public.
But the real problem is that body-shaming for Black women based on our curves has systemic effects and implications. Employers’ disproportionately and discriminatorily enforce dress codes as Black women whose curves cannot be hidden are called into HR and reprimanded for learning dresses that are too tight or that rise above our knees because of hips, thighs and buttocks while our white female counterparts enter the office in dresses four inches from the knee and are not disciplined in any way because they do not have the curves that would deem their short dresses inappropriate.
And this does not stop in corporate America. Let’s look at Serena Williams, a woman with an ass and thighs that define curvy. How often is she body shamed and called fat, manly and ugly for the body she works to maintain? How often does the media exalt women like Williams’ colleague Anna Kournikova who is straight up and down, remarking on how “hot” their bodies are as Serena stands there with enough cakes to fill a bakery and is never praised for it?
But we don’t even need to go into all of those examples. Let’s look at Sara Baartman whose naturally curvaceous body saw her kidnapped, put on display and likened to an animal. Baartman did not have the chance to embrace her body. It was made her curse. She died before 30, unable to learn this lesson of embracing her body that Swift noted as one of the 30 things she’s learned before 30.
Listen, all women should be able to have their journey to loving themselves, but white women centering themselves ain’t the move. Swift pretending that she has the same burden that women with actual curvy bodies have when there’s an article out titled ” 100 Sexy Taylor Swift Pics That Will Convert Just About Anyone Into a Swiftie,” praising her skinny ass is some shit straight outta the white feminist handbook. She can learn to embrace her body and also not pretend it’s anything but the matchstick it is.