And so it began, like most things begin: with a start.
Shortly after the turn of the 19th Century, Sarah Baartman boarded a ship destined to leave her South African home for England, carrying with her nothing but promises of a better life and riches to aspire to. She touched shore in London and was met with neither; subsequently, the next five years of her life was spent suffering a slow and torturous death through sexual objectification, humiliation, oppression, degradation, abuse and isolation–one can only begin to imagine what the start to such a tragic series of events must have entailed.
Sarah Baartman became the most famous of the South African Khoisan women who toured Britain as a part of circuses and freak shows; wide hips, thick lips, voluminous buttocks, large breasts and an elongated labia were the defining characteristics used to label her as a sexually deviant, racially inferior and a freak. Sarah, The “Hottentot Venus” (Hottentot=member of South African Khoisan race (offensive); Venus= Roman Goddess of love) when attending these showcasing events, was expected to gyrate her nude buttocks for the entertainment, amusement and sexual objectification of whoever cared to indulge.
After four years in Britain, Baartman was bought by a Frenchman in 1814 and taken to Paris where she was the subject of numerous medical and scientific tests which served as foundation to prevailing Eurocentric assumptions about black female sexuality. Baartman was made to perform under more gruelling circumstances and became famous for her “freakish malformations” among the high society Parisians. However, the novelty soon wore off and Sarah Baartman fell hard into depression, resorted to prostitution, heavy drinking and died at the age of 25 on December 29, 1815.
Her genitals, skeleton and brain were preserved and put on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme for over a hundred years, and was finally repatriated to her homeland in 2002, 200 years after her birth and only after Nelson Mandela made a formal request in 1994.
Now, the grand conclusion, and the point you were all waiting for–but not quite yet. Now that we know the story, we can dissect it and examine the ironies–because there is hardly anything worth uncovering as much as the evidence of good irony.
Let us examine, again, from the top: during the 19th century, while Sarah Baartman was a living spectacle for her “freakishly” large buttocks among other freakishly large things, white women were simultaneously wearing yards and yards of fabric and crinoline to achieve the effect of exactly what made Sarah physically inferior: a sizeable behind. Naturally occurring on the black woman it was a mark of physical and sexual inferiority, while mimicked through intricate folds of fabric on a white woman, it was aesthetically pleasing fashion.
But that was in the 19th century, and in their defence, just years before, Marie Antoinette ordered that the people must have cake–it is useless for me to sit in front of my Mac Book in 2010 and criticise them for eating it.
Hundreds of years later, on a much larger plantation, black women are still expected to gyrate their nude behinds for whoever cares to indulge the spectacle. Famously, coloured women have mapped out adoring audiences for their behinds through the less than impressive avenues of pornographic acting a la Kim Kardashian, and Video Vixenning a la Amber Rose and perhaps even a bit of rapping a la Nicki Minaj.
Enough evidence of irony though that may be, there is a phenomenal twist.
Just as Sarah Baartman was demonised for her physical characteristics while white women were adored for emulating it through fashion in the 19th century, today it is women like plus sized supermodel Crystal Renn and “Mad Men” actress Christina Hendricks who on vast scales are glorified for their curvaceousness, rather than blatantly objectified for it as Sarah Baartman was 200 years ago.
While Christina Hendricks is busy ushering in “the curvy era” and being crowned “Sexiest woman in the world”, Jennifer Hudson is a weight watchers spokesperson, Amber Rose is making a name for herself by having her ass groped in public by just about everyone , Nicki Minaj is famous for her “massive attack” and Kim Kardashian revels in confusion–unsure of who this is all really about.
I share the sentiment, but I add this: I do not know when a curvy black woman will stand in the shoes of Christina Hendricks, or Marilyn Monroe before her and be revered for her physical attributes in the name of fashion rather than be labelled as just another piece of ass. However, I’m not sure if this concern is even relevant–unlike 200 years ago women of colour aren’t being forced into humiliation–they wilfully humiliate themselves. I would love to see change, not in an abolition of the Nicki Minajs and the Amber Roses, but for more coloured women in the entertainment business who embody their features to embody it with grace and an air of elegance and demand a certain level of respect from everyone; for a black woman with Amber Rose‘s body to embrace it and flaunt it in tandem with her talents, rather than use it in an effort to pillage the pockets of rich men.
Unfortunately, this is not a change I can spearhead, for I myself have no behind, to speak of.
Listen: Who Is Sarah Baartman? Dede Hunt Sums it up perfectly: