The colony Women of Influence hosted a discussion with history professor Catherine Denial called Body Image in Ferris Lounge on Thursday. The discussion, according to the outline they posted around campus, would start with a summary of an essay by Darleen Clark Hine called “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” which focused on how African American women’s bodies were sexualized against their will by others more “socially and politically powerful than them.”
The room was packed with over 70 people, mostly women, but also men, specifically members of the colony Gentlemen of Quality. Chairs were set up in a circle to encourage discussion. Denial stood in the center to start out the summary of Hine’s essay.
Culture of Dissemblance
Denial began with the historical context of African American women and body image. Denial described it as a “culture of dissemblance.”
At first, slavery was based on religion, specifically if a person was Christian or not. As the 1700s rolled in, slavery became tied with race, or “how dark your skin was,” according to Denial and Hine. Also during the 1700s, Virginia passed a law stating that any child born to a woman of color would also be a slave.
This, Denial said, “encouraged a culture of rape” in which white men were justifying their sexual exploits of these women while seeing them as cattle and benefiting from that exploitation.
From the 17th century onward, “rape defined African American women.” The stereotypes of “Jezebel”—the dark, young, sexy woman who would do anything to have sex with you — and “Mammy” — the bigger, old, asexual maternal black woman who had no “feminine” qualities — began to emerge. African American women were to fall into either of these categories without their choosing.
When approaching this issue, Hine was surprised to find that neither sexuality nor body image was discussed outside of African American families.
“There were no diaries about it,” she said.
When the 19th century came around white women were moving from the factory to the house, whereas African American women were moving from the house to the factory.
These women were looking for a more public setting in which to work because they felt safer. Working in someone’s house meant that the man of the house had the ability to harm you without anyone knowing. And with the racist laws and ideas of the time, those men would not be held accountable.
Hine described the “Club Women Movement,” who rejected any image of sexual beings and instead relied on religious and political work. Denial said this “created a dichotomy. If you wanted power you had to deny part of who you were.” Sexuality was discarded.
Hine’s essay ended at the beginning of the 20th century.
Questions and Discussion
Denial then took a seat and opened up the floor for conversation. The discussion first started out with the media. In response to the “Mammy” idea, sophomore Troy Burton commented on how uncomfortable he was with the “Pine Sol Lady” in Pine Sol commercials.
Another student pointed out that more African American women were getting into college than men. It was pointed out to him that college degrees did not necessarily translate into higher payment potential even today.
The discussion then turned back to body image and the idea of “sexy.” One student mentioned Tyra Banks as an example. Banks was considered a top super model and one of the few successful African American models. Once she put on some weight, although still skinny by normal standards, the modeling community rejected her.
R&B singer Beyonce was also cited as an example of the whitening of African American women, as a student pointed out comically, “I don’t know what her natural hair color is, but it seems it’s getting blonder.”
Chemistry professor Mary Crawford looked to her own experience as an African American woman; illustrating her idea of body image with her hair. As perming her hair became expensive, she decided to cut her hair and go natural and was immediately seen as a lesbian.
Other students pointed out that women were adding collagen to their lips and tanning for darker skin, which could possible signify that white women were now pressured to be sexy by the African American standard of sexy (although that hasn’t been defined by African American women themselves).
Students saw interracial relationships as a factor of merging the two ideas of beauty that white and African American women had to fit into.
WOI president senior Sam McDavid stated that interracial relationships (her senior research project) only made up “seven percent of the marriages in the US.”
Tianna Cervantez, the faculty advisor for WOI, added that a black significant other’s family would only accept her when they acknowledged her Latina half.
An international student, senior Ama Awua-Kyerematen, pointed out that in Ghana and Jamaica bigger women were seen as sexy because the bigger you were the more wealth you probably had.
Freshman Netsie Tjirongo added that the last time she went to Ethiopia was the first time she met an anorexic Ethiopian woman, a signal that these spread out ideas of beauty come from the expansion of access to western media.
Another student used the example of inhabitants of an island which had no body image issues but then developed body image issues after being exposed to western media images of beauty. Students then came to a consensus that there was something in the culture that brought people up to not be satisfied with themselves.
Denial wanted to end the discussion on a light note and asked people to bring up who they thought was beautiful. Queen Latifa, Beyonce, Ciara, Carrie Underwood, Whitney Houston (after leaving Bobby Brown) and Jennifer Lopez (before her butt reduction) were some of the few names brought up.
Interestingly enough, after all the talk on body image the women who were mentioned were mainstream media women, maybe adding to the idea that this unreal perception of beauty is more ingrained than we would like to admit.
And while we all look at the images of one star or another we should all remember, as one of the participants at the discussion said, all of you are beautiful.