I'm Fed Up With the Appropriation of Black Women's Bodies

Black women will not stand for you making yourself feel better at our expense.
Publish date:
November 18, 2013
feminism, Oprah dress, black women's bodies, M

I am pissed beyond recognition.

"Progressive" white women, you need to quit. This thing that you keep doing, exploring your own issues with repressed sexuality and body image through the use of black women who didn't give you permission to be self-image surrogates? That shit needs to stop, and it needs to come to an end now. Not now, but RIGHT now.

Listen, I get it. It's a bitch dealing with society telling you that you have to be skinny, that you have to pure, that you have to look like a Victoria's Secret model but pretend you're not interested in sex to be considered a respectable and worthy woman. Black women will join you in saying that society's expectations of all of us are fucked up and in need of serious reform.

But what we will NOT stand for is you making yourself feel better at our expense.

I'm talking to you, Peggy Noland, and that bullshit piece of dress you're calling a work of art and hawking via The Cut magazine. That dress, where you took a black woman's naked body, Photoshopped Oprah Winfrey's head on top, digitally printed it at full scale on a floor-length garment, and put it on a white woman to model. That dress that you claim is just an artistic exploration into "our access and our interest in people that we don’t know," but really is your way of exploiting the body of a black woman to shock an audience and generate a few click-thrus for yourself.

I'm not even going to touch on the "use-of-likeness" laws you're violating because you should already know that as a designer. But if it's the cult of celebrity you were so interested in, there are many other women you could have chosen to make your point. Was naked Hillary Clinton not an option? What about a de-robed Barbara Streisand? How about about Photoshopping Meryl Streep's head onto a set of bare breasts and an exposed vulva?

Nope, you aim for the only black female billionaire, the most powerful woman in media who has, for decades, carefully crafted her career and her image to obtain the influence she now wields. And your only way of dealing with her as a powerful public figure was to undress her and put "her" naked black body on full display, for the sake of your own amusement and curiosity?

That sounds a whole hell of a lot like something else.

I'm talking you, Lily Allen, and that mess of a video where you thumb your nose at white-man misogyny by mocking the movements of black female dancers? GIRL, WHAT?!

As Nolan Feeney observes at The Atlantic:

"…even when [Allen is] dancing with them, it seems she’s still kind of making fun of them, or at least keeping her distance… For a song that deals with reclaiming ownership of your own body, [Allen] seems to be the only one that gets to do so."

I'm talking to you, seemingly-well-intentioned but still-incredibly-annoying guest blogger at The Body Is Not An Apology. In a post talking about Western restrictions on (white) female sexuality, you write that you were only able to explore your sensual self by "trying on other cultures," and that the "erotic rhythms" West African dance helped you and your students "feel sexy." Um, okay girl, but West African dance is not about sex. It's only viewed that way through a reductionist Western lens, and you teaching it as such only echoes the efforts of colonialists to paint Africans and African-descended people as savage, primitive beings. In other words: NOT HELPING.

And I'm talking to you, Miley Cyrus. For reasons we've already discussed.

The irony is deafening. In these progressive, feminist spaces, we constantly talk about the autonomy of women; how important it is for women to own our own sexuality and not allow it to be shaped by anyone else; how society and the government need to stay out of our vaginas and our bedrooms. And yet there are heaps of praise thrown at the pop stars and hipster artists who shamelessly put black women on parade for their own advancement and call it "feminism."

You realize that's hypocrisy, right?

We are not playgrounds where you get to explore your issues. You don't get to use our bodies as the shield behind which you throw up your middle finger up at patriarchy. These stunts make you no better than patriarchs, no better than misogynists. You take our bodies apart and display them in pieces the same exact way you admonish advertising, fashion and music for doing. That is hypocritical behavior and hypocritical behavior is tired.

This respect that you expect from society, to keep its hands and expectations off your body and to let you do what you want with it? Black women require the same respect from you.

As my friend Soraya puts it, "Black women are not here to be used as collateral damage in the fight against patriarchy." So hands off, ladies. You don't get touch, explore, mimic, mock or imitate us with impunity, not anymore. And certainly not to make yourself feel better about a fucked-up patriarchal situation that WE are also fighting. There are more effective ways to make your point, without making a spectacle out of us.