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"The black man in America is the most copied man on this planet, bar none.”
— Paul Mooney
“So is the Black woman.”
Like many, my engagement with what I dub the “Fitness Community” has been more than slightly sporadic over the past decade. Though my love for physical activity has seldom waned, my official participation in the large, fanatical subgroup of fitness enthusiasts exclusively depends on my willingness to engage with the latest (and “greatest”) trend the community has to offer. The past couple years have been waning ones, my interest dwindling right about the time P90X’s frenzied cousin Insanity came onto the scene. But I’ve kept a careful eye on things.
Folks, I am getting concerned. I think it’s time we had a talk -– about butts.
I came into diet culture and fitness in the Britney-era. I recall my most-favored issue of Seventeen magazine that included a single-page schedule packed with crunches, bicycle twists, hip raises, and cardio, all (it claimed) that was needed to achieve the now-iconic “I’m A Slave”-era torso.
While America engaged in some brief flirtation with J.Lo’s rear end and “Bootylicious” sat cozily on the Billboard Top 100, early 00s was all about the abs. P!nk, Christina, Shakira, and the new millennium Janet swivelled and torqued their tightly toned tummies into America’s mushy core.
A decade later, Kim Kardashian West’s couture-covered curves supplanted the wrought-iron abs of Britney & Co. as the media’s latest bodily obsession with the Fitness Community reacting in kind. Even casual gym goers have surely noticed the community becoming rather… ass focused of late. Squats are the new crunches, the Stairmaster has a waiting list 10-people deep, and fitness gurus have morphed from belly fat melting masters to ass authoritarians.
This is all quite grand. As a powerlifter, I consider squats a bread and butter exercise, even moreso than the two other competition lifts: bench press and deadlift. Whatever has those who are capable of setting aside the endless sit-ups in favor of an exercise with practical value -- be it a squat, lunge, row, or press -- earns a tentative thumbs up from me. Never mind that all these born-again lower body builders might vacate soon enough in chase of the next body part in focus. I myself would have never entered the weight room had (my frustration with) P90X never propelled me toward the power rack and the platform.
(Yes, there is a rather large “but” up ahead.)
Like its predecessors, this latest fitness obsession relies on a certain accepted policing of women’s bodies, whereby the gatekeepers of All Things Fit & Toned (tm) determine from a limited range of options who and what qualifies as an aesthetically athletic physique, leaving everybody else to the Sisyphean pursuit of this flighty standard (with social consequences accompanying refusal of the task). Hashtags like #justsquat, #shesquatsbro, #squatbooty, and #humpday (yes, those humps) thrive on Instagram and Twitter, while squat challenges of all kinds fill personal Pinterest boards. All across social media can be found the image so familiar as to be blasé: the faceless spandex-clad individual, booty first, reminding without words, “Isn’t it about time you started squatting?”
This hasn’t, however, excluded women from capitalizing on the shift. Jen Selter’s Instagram, while a dubious representation of the traditional tenets of all-around physical fitness (flexibility, strength, endurance), has accrued upwards of 4.4 million followers thanks to gratuitous selfies featuring the fitness model’s lower half. Others with a more modest following, from bikini competitors to casual fitness enthusiasts, have similarly leveraged the prototypical butt selfie into a sizeable follower count and client base.
For those already in possession of the asset at hand, the conclusive message is promising: If you got it, snap what your mama gave ya.
(And, here it comes.)
*But, exclusions apply. This is not the big girl’s time to reign. Fat women who thought the beauty standard had for once been turned in their favor, find disappointment yet again. While allotting some wiggle room for the measurements in particular, the aforementioned gatekeepers are staunchly committed to the hourglass. In the immortal lyrics of Sir Mix-A-Lot, “’Cause your waist is small and your curves are kickin'.”
That the now-throwback hit encapsulates the current figure enforced by the Fitness Community so well seemingly belies any claim to this trend’s distinctness. “Baby Got Back” is over 20 years old and its Billboard success must indicate a message that resonated for listeners in its time. And yet, perhaps daring America to prove him wrong, Mix-A-Lot’s lyrics call out a mainstream that doesn’t take asses as seriously as he does.
I’m tired of magazines / sayin’ flat butts are the thing
So I’m lookin’ at rock videos / Knock-knee’d bimbos walkin’ like hoes
So Cosmo says you’re fat / Well I ain’t down with that
To the beanpole dames in the magazines / “You ain’t it, Miss Thing!”
“Baby Got Back” catalogues cognizance of a cultural split in standards of physical attractiveness. As white America eschewed dietary fat and resistance training to pursue the depleted splendor of heroin chic, Black America would continue to revere a (circumscribed) voluptuous figure.
(Not to give Mix-A-Lot too much credit, here. “Baby Got Back” is explicitly about the sexual preference of one body type over another, with a music video that includes -- amongst the expected video vixen dancers -- mountainous disembodied asses. Hardly a dream vision of Black women empowerment.)
“Baby Got Back” begins with a monologue delivered in a thick Valley Girl accent (à la "Clueless," if the movie had been released four years earlier), an exaggerated inflection that effectively races the speaker as white. And in the music video the scene is indeed mimed by two white women (the speaker and “Becky”) while scrutinizing the figure of an anonymous Black woman. The two are fascinated by the woman’s rear end and continue to stare as the speaker struggles to comprehend and articulate its existence. It’s “so big,” she tries at first. “[The woman] looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends,” she attempts next, as if the relegation to some sort of cultural niche explains the size and shape of the woman’s posterior. But still, “it’s just so big”! It’s “round,” it’s “out there,” it’s “gross.” Finally, the speaker lands on qualifier so sought, “She’s just so… black.”
Black women have long carved out our own aesthetic standards independent of -- though not hermetically sealed from -- a white-imposed status quo, often by taking ownership of features compartmentalized and then classified in order to degrade us. The very notion of a “Eurocentric” beauty standard relies on historic scientific imperative to identify the primary physical characteristics of “the Negroid” (i.e. thousands of ethnic groups within Africa) in order to construct a superior white image against these traits (anthropologists, this is how your field of study began; never forget).
Scientists and the aesthetes that followed ignored physical variances within the newly delineated race groups and thus Eurocentric beauty, a self-fulfilling fallacy of observational selection, relies upon processes of racialization to uphold any sort of constant standard.
(For what else could really explain Benedict Cumberbatch’s appeal?)
For Black women across the diaspora these racialized features came with baggage -- sexualization without consent while being in turn shamed for such.
Jezebel and Mammy -- tropes still very much with us -- are products of a culture invested in reading the bodies of Black women as inherently sexual. The Jezebel is the white woman’s nightmare. Jezebel is a hussy. She exists as hips, thighs, breasts, ass -- no more than the sum of her body and an animalistic need for sex. Jezebel, with her uncontrollable appetites and flagrant disregard for virtue and bodily restraint, explains and is to blame for the parade of brown children with their master’s nose and ears. Jezebel is the foil upon which the precarity of pure white womenhood was created and is maintained.
Mammy, meanwhile, serves to assuage fears of the Jezebel by leeching Black women of the sexuality initially affixed to their person. No less the entirety of her body, Mammy’s always-abundant breasts and hips exist solely to nourish and sustain generations of Master’s white and brown children.
These tropes evince two coping reactions to the Black woman who dares have a body: shame and theft. Both make the Black woman a spectacle. Both are products of fear. Both are products of envy.
One would expect then, that a trend towards a trait that is “just so black” would feature Black women at the helm, or even welcome our representation. Not so.
Late July, Nicki Minaj unveiled the artwork for her single “Anaconda.” Much like the white women of Mix-A-Lot’s video, the sight arrested many. So powerful was the image, it sparked conversion en masse. Many turned to Puritanism overnight it seemed. Chuck Creemur, owner of a hip hop site (one whose homepage, as I write this, displays links to a teaser clip of J.Lo and Iggy Azalea’s new single “Booty” along with -- oh the irony! -- an editorial titled “Stop Blaming Hip-Hop!”), wrote an open letter to the artist, insisting Minaj adjust her campaign to better suit the maturity level of his young daughter.
The letter reeks of respectability politics and misogynoir as Creemur evokes icons Maya Angelou (more irony!) and Queen Latifah as women whose contributions to the community and developed legacies Minaj should seek to emulate, though his inability to articulate what about Minaj precludes her potential to positively influence others -- unless we are to assume that a g-string is the barrier to community advancement -- makes this all quite confusing.
(How funny that just last fall Nicki Minaj appeared on The Queen Latifah Show, where she cites the host as a pioneer entertainer and businesswoman in the industry.)
And Creemur’s transparent concern trolling looks rational in comparison to the bulk of responses to the artwork and later music video.
Pop music: dead! Feminism: dead! Our children! Oh, heavens to Murgatroyd, won’t somebody think of the children!
Though it’s taken weeks for culture critics to thoroughly flesh out exactly what about, well, flesh justifies their heebie jeebies, Minaj used the medium from whence the controversy came that same day in anticipation of the hypocritical backlash. She posted four consecutive images, all of white women in revealing attire in poses no more chaste than that of Minaj’s on her single. The last is the 2014 cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue, where topless models Nina Agdal, Lily Aldridge, and Chrissy Teigen present barely-there swimsuit bottoms to the camera. Minaj’s caption: “Angelic. Acceptable. Lol.”
Could #humpday or #shesquatsbro have saved Nicki Minaj? What makes those images okay and Minaj’s lewd? Were Minaj to don Lululemon and repurpose her Instagram into a fitness account, would she receive the same censure?
In Black women who own their figure and sexual agency, onlookers see the Jezebel who needs subduing. Even Beyoncé -- who fits the white feminist fantasy of “having it all” (or she would, if she were white) -- bears responsibility for marring the sanctity of feminism for wearing leotards. And Iggy Azalea is a breath of fresh air.
It remains one of the greatest ironies for Black women that, as people constrained by the ongoing struggle of coming to terms with the inherent negative qualification of the features passed onto us, we are forever excluded from capitalizing on said features’ rise to the aesthetic standard. Full lips, round booty, thick eyebrows, brown skin -- ethnographic markers of the racial Other add just the amount of “spice” and exoticism to white and non-Black bodies it seems.
Paul Mooney said it best: “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but don’t nobody wanna be a nigga.”
“So black” is all right -- if you’re all white.