Controlling Beauty Ideals: Caribbean Women, Thick Bodies, and White Supremacist Discourse

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Published in: Women's Studies Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 1-2, 2018.


During the European colonial period, travel writers in Africa drew on and contributed to a European discourse of black womanhood that ascribed a big body to all black women and used it as a signifier of otherness, their inferior phenotype, and lesser culture and intelligence. The depiction of colonized black women in these writings represented them as having monstrous, "unwomanly" bodies that were not beautiful and admired as were the delicate bodies of their white counterparts. Perhaps the most iconic figure in this regard is that of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called "Hottentot Venus." Baartman, a South African slave, was brought to Europe in 1810 for the purposes of displaying her enlarged-by colonial standards-genitals and buttocks. Her body was exhibited across Europe as an example and model of all black women's bodies. The image of the voluptuous Hottentot Venus was harnessed to represent the hypersexuality and inferior intelligence of black women and justified their exploitation at the hands of Europeans (Alexander 2014). This construction of the black female body as voluptuous and unwomanly-and thus built for functionality and labor-was employed to affirm the use of black women as slave labor in Europe (Morgan 1997). It helped to create what I refer to as the ideology of the "thick black woman," the notion that black women are naturally curvy and voluptuous.