Michelle Obama’s black woman’s body as publicly contested space in historical and social context
On August 13, Fox News contributor and psychiatrist Keith Ablow, bizarrely criticizing Michelle Obama’s efforts to encourage healthy eating for children, remarked that Michelle is a poor role model for her cause anyway as she could“stand to lose a few pounds.” When I relayed this story to my very favorite white man on earth and said that one of the several ways I found the comments so sickening was that they were racist, he replied that the comments were bad enough without my possibly appearing to “play the race card.” He is by far the most brilliant person I have ever known, but on this we will simply have to agree to disagree. I think that given the way black women’s bodies have been historically and are to this moment publicly contested space, a white man publicly making such a comment about a black woman’s body is inherently racist.
First, let me say that I am a white radical feminist woman. Please know that I make no claim here to speak for women of color, for they can and no doubt will explore this topic on their own and will do so better than I.
Historically, black women’s bodies have been exploited in this country as slave labor and have also been used under the slavery system to breed more slave capital for their masters. Black women with the most European-looking features were chosen by slave masters for jobs within the slave-holder’s household. In Europe, black women’s bodies were displayed nude, often in cages, as objects of public curiosity, as with the famous Venus Hottentot, who was even publicly displayed after her death.
Historically, there has been white speculation about whether black women’s bodies feel pain. Marion Sims, still hailed in medical schools as “the father of modern gynecology,” conducted many experimental surgeries on slave women without using any anesthesia. He did these surgeries well after the discovery of anesthesia but chose not to use it because he believed that these slave women did not really feel pain. It is important to note that when he gradually came to apply what he’d learned from black women’s bodies to white women’s bodies, he did begin to use anesthesia. In the nineteenth century, medical exploitation of black bodies did not even end at death, for grave robbing in black cemeteries was common and lucrative, the graverobbers selling dead black bodies to well-respected medical schools whose students then dissected them.
There is the historical and still current issue of whether black women even count as “women” at all. When white women were valued for their supposed frailty and chastity, black women were seen by whites as workhorses and widely believed to be oversexed – thus they were “unsexed” by their race. Sojourner Truth was famously moved to ask, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
“Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!” And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked. ‘And ain’t I a woman? Look at me!'”
Today, debates still periodically erupt about whether “women” with young children should work outside the home. Clearly what is meant by “women” in these conversations is only white women from the middle class and up. Mothers who are women of color have in fact worked throughout our nation’s history with no public handwringing about what’s best for their young children and today great judgment is placed upon any mother of color who does not work outside the home, lest she be labelled a welfare queen. Our public assistance laws heartlessly require poor women to begin looking for work again as soon as their babies reach the age of just six weeks. So, when we talk about “women,” we often really mean just some women.
As Melissa Harris-Perry explores at length in her book Sister Citizen, black women are still stereotyped as either Mammies or Jezebels. The line between the two centers on black women’s perceived sexuality. There is the reassuringly asexual Mammy, who has no needs of her own and exists solely to happily serve the white family. Then there is the oversexed Jezebel, who is an exotic fetish for white men from slavery to the present. One need only look at a sampling of some covers of pornographic films featuring black women to know that the white male obsession with the supposedly animalistic black woman’s sexual body is still very much with us. As Alice Walker has pointed out, white women in pornography are objects, while black women in pornography are animals, usually (according to Walker), depicted in cages and wearing chains. White women have long been suspicious that black “Jezebels” would seduce their men, neatly overlooking the fact that on the plantation, it was white men who were raping black women and that was the source of the mixed raced children the white women saw popping up around their own homes. There were white plantation mistresses who took out their jealousy and rage on those slave women unfortunate enough to be noticeably garnering the master’s attention, such as Patsy in Solomon Northrup’s “12 Years a Slave.” (I can no longer locate a link for this, but I clearly remember the uproar. The New York Times did a review of the film in which they set out to compare it to the book for authenticity. The review found a few insignificant seconds of the film, a brief sex scene, that were not in the book but went on to claim that the movie scenes of the white mistress abusing Patsy were not in the book. As many people pointed out, this claim by NYT is demonstrably false, for the scenes indeed were told in the book! One could I suppose argue that it was somehow an innocent mistake by NYT, but I find it fascinating that it is white women’s abuse of black women that NYT tried to deny from the original slave narrative. Is this perhaps a truth about slavery that white society remains unwilling to acknowledge?)
In eighteenth century New Orleans white women were so jealous of the renowned beauty of that city’s women of color and of the open keeping of mistresses of color by their men that they successfully demanded in 1785 a new law requiring any woman of color or black woman, free or enslaved, to cover her head. Thus was born the tradition of the tignon, which women of color immediately began to have made with the finest available fabrics and to decorate with jewels and ribbons, brilliantly subverting their oppression into a fashion statement.
Black women’s bodies still have less value in the marketplace than do white women’s bodies. I don’t just mean the general workplace pay gap, which is huge and unacceptable, but I refer specifically to black women’s sexual bodies being worth significantly less than white women’s sexual bodies in the sexual realms of prostitution, pornography performance, and stripping. Consider the following on stripping, from “When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”:
When I moved to Atlanta I was made aware of a peculiar pastime of the city’s white frat boy elite. They apparently enjoy getting drunk and visiting one of the city’s many legendary black strip clubs rather than the white strip clubs. The fun part of this ritual seems to be rooted in the peculiarity of black female bodies, their athleticism and how hard they are willing to work for less money as opposed to the more normative white strippers who expect higher wages in exchange for just looking pretty naked. There are similar racialized patterns in porn actresses’ pay and, I suspect, all manner of sex workers. The black strip clubs are a bargain good time because the value of black sexuality is discounted relative to the acceptability of black women as legitimate partners.
In the pornography business, it is assumed that all of the already significantly lower paid black women will do scenes with white men, while a white woman who does scenes with black men risks seeing her brand damaged and thus her future pay dropped, is seen as “deflowered or soiled, if you will, by doing a scene with a black male.”
There has been and remains white debate about whether black women’s bodies can be considered beautiful. His sexual exploitation of Sally Hemmings notwithstanding, Thomas Jefferson wrote that white women were of superior beauty because of their “flowing hair” and “a more elegant symmetry of form.” In 2011, there was an uproar about an article in the mainstream Psychology Today (since removed from their website) in which a white man claimed that white women were “objectively” more attractive than black women, claiming that this could be proven by his theory that black women have more testosterone and therefore appear more masculine. Even within communities of color, internalized racism has caused for a great many people a preference for lighter skin. Historically, many black families would show blatant favoritism to their lightest-skinned offspring, pouring more of their limited resources into the education of that child as he or she was seen as having the greatest chances of adult success. Black girls still show a preference for white dolls. All across the world, from India to Latin America to Africa, impoverished women are pouring all they can possibly save up into the multi-billion dollar skin whitening market, believing that having lighter skin will lead to a change in their life circumstances.
Black women’s bodies are still – very much – publicly contested spaces (as are white women’s bodies through the ubiquitous male gaze, but it is even worse for black women, as they face the added burden of the endless white gaze). There is the use of black women in music videos and not just by black artists but specifically and appallingly exploited by white female artists such as Lily Allen, Katie Perry, and Miley Cyrus. There was an internet firestorm, and rightfully so, over a white woman’s bizarre freak out article about a “heavyset” black woman dropping into her yoga class – she reported being so distracted and distressed that she was unable to perform her workout. Black women commonly complain about white women endlessly touching their bodies without permission, either to “admire” by touching their darker skin or to satisfy their curiosity about what black women’s hair feels like. Consider this testimony from an article tellingly called “When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”:
I saw a few white couples imbibing and beginning some version of bodily grooving to the DJ. I told my partner that one of them would be offering me free liquor and trying to feel my breasts within the hour.
He balked, thinking I was joking.
I then explained to him my long, storied, documented history of being accosted by drunk white men and women in atmospheres just like these. Women asking to feel my breasts in the ladies’ restroom. Men asking me for a threesome as his drunk girlfriend or wife looks on smiling. Frat boys offering me cash to “motorboat” my cleavage. Country boys in cowboy hats attempting to impress his buddies by grinding on my ass to an Outkast music set. It’s almost legend among my friends who have witnessed it countless times.
My partner could not believe it until not 30 minutes later, with half the fishbowl gone, the white woman bumps and grinds up to our table and laughing tells me that her boyfriend would love to see us dance. “C’mon girl! I know you can daaaaannnce,” she said. To sweeten the pot they bought our table our own fishbowl.
There are also recent cases of private schools threatening to expel black girls for wearing their hair naturally or in dreads. One such school claimed that the girl’s natural hair was a “distraction.” In fact, what happened was that first the child’s parents complained to the school administration about their child being bullied by other children over her hair. Only then did the school decide that the bullied child was the one whose hair was a “distraction” and that she had to change it or else face expulsion.
So we must keep in mind that it is in this racist and sexist historical and sociological context that Michelle Obama takes the stage. She stands 5’11” tall barefoot. She has curves. She is dedicated to the fitness of her body, arising at five A.M. to squeeze in her workout before her children awaken (when she was an attorney and a working mother, she used to arise at four A.M. for her workouts). Michelle’s body has been publicly picked apart. There is the debate about the appropriateness of her showing off her bare arms. At the same time, covers of women’s magazines all over the place promise endless articles on how to “get arms like Michelle’s.” I can only conclude that we as a culture like Michelle’s arms, for they even sell magazines, but are still somehow not agreed on the appropriateness of her showing those arms. Does this mean it’s cool for her to have them but not cool for her to show them? I find it a puzzle.
Furthermore, white men like the very obese Rush Limbaugh feel free to comment publicly and routinely on the size of Michelle’s rear end (and in the Fox News video with which I opened this piece, the white woman who tries to counter Keith Ablow doesn’t help matters by enthusiastically gushing, “I like her booty”). What these white men are doing is comparing Michelle to the mainstream white beauty aesthetic, for that is the only way I see that anyone could possibly come up with such an outrageous statement as, “She could stand to lose a few pounds.” Michelle could literally starve herself to death and I imagine that still on her deathbed she would never have a body anything like the wispy and even anorexic white models featured in American media (for that matter, very few white women resemble such an absurdly narrowly defined beauty aesthetic either; see this article about modeling agencies trying to recruit models by stalking the grounds of hospitals for anorexia patients).
I charge that, given our history and current culture, a white man like Ablow or Limbaugh who feels free to comment publicly on Michelle’s body is racist (and, it goes without saying, sexist), for they are perpetuating the ugly tradition of black women’s bodies being publicly contested spaces. I also charge that by measuring her against a white beauty aesthetic, they are further racist.
Image credit: Executive Office of the President of the United States, via Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.