Beautiful Goddesses and Superfreaks

I’ve spent the last few days writing a short essay about blackness and beauty. Is black really beautiful? How do black women from the African continent and the diaspora conceptualize beauty? Skin tone and hair texture are some of the most important sites for defining beauty among them. For many of these women, the distinction between “beautiful” and “ugly” rests on the shade of one’s skin (as well as the straightness of hair or lightness of eyes). One’s proximity to ‘whiteness’ determines their beauty, such that light skinned women (and this shows how beauty is both gendered and racialized) are often considered the most beautiful among homogenously black cultures. ‘Whiteness’ (right through slavery, colonialism and the global dominance of the West) has been systematically privileged. It continues to be used as a yard-stick for beauty, and if you ain’t white, you just ain’t right.

Today, I was introduced to the story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a story I knew nothing about yet one which personifies so many of the theoretical issues about beauty and the discourse of race. It is a story of dehumanization. A young South African woman of Khoi ethnicity, she travelled to Europe in 1810 because she was promised a fortune there. She was enslaved by an animal-trainer and became a side-show freak at circuses and museums, her naked body exhibited to Europeans for five years until her death, then her skeleton, brains and genitals held on display in Paris until 1974. Her remains were returned to South Africa 192 years after her death. She was also known as the “Hottentot Venus.”

Although the original Venus was a Roman goddess who embodied beauty, love, fertility, delicacy, virtue, and purity, “Hottentot Venus” (a term derogatory in itself) was nothing close to that. hvShe was an ugly, animalistic freak of nature with a swollen backside and elongated labia. The only things she embodied were the racist and sexist ideologies against her blackness, femininity, identity, culture and personhood.  

You don’t have to look too hard to see similar discrepancies between today’s representations of white women’s bodies versus those of women of color. This is not to say that white women’s bodies are not sexualized or denigrated in any way on television, film, etc. But think about the most popular potrayals of black women you see on T.V. for example. Their bodies are more subject to exploitation, abuse, and objectification in the public realm, as we so casually see in Rap/Hip-Hop music videos. ‘Blackness’ and black bodies are still relatively inferior in the Western paradigm of beauty. Black women’s bodies continue to be oversexed, and today they are on display more than ever before.



~ by misswretched on September 3, 2008.

10 Responses to “Beautiful Goddesses and Superfreaks”

  1. I have been recently introduced to women who have denounced beauty that is measured by the status quo or by whiteness. It is something that is very new to me since I have always inhabited spaces where I was the minority. Let me tell you that it is such an eye opener and it has opened so many things that I never knew about myself. As social critiques it is important that once we do learn about the system that plague us we must investigate and learn about those who break away from the norm just as much as we investigate society at large. This past week I have been working on a project that involves various self-portraits that have instilled a sense of power back into my identity. Check em out at!BTW i love your blog and the topics you shed light on are close to my heart.

  2. That black woman is beautiful. her ass is too big though. How is it that you say that black women’s body’s are being objectified and exploited when it’s white women’s body’s that always on the market? There always trying to show them off not us black women! White women are known to have the “Perfect Body”. I don’t know where you are getting your statistics!

  3. To be fair Anastasia, I did not quote any statistics. My point is that yes white women are accepted as the ones who have the perfect and ideal body and their bodies are more privileged in the Western beauty paradigm, while black women’s bodies are less likely to be seen that way and more often are displayed in negative sexual and/or misogynistic contexts – in my opinion.

  4. Great blog. Do you know about this: Saartjie Project?

    Amazing theater group of incredibly talented, brilliant and beautiful women of the the African diaspora. As a Latina and now a plus size I have ALWAYS felt inferior to my white girlfriends while growing up in LA where the body, the white, tanned and toned,blond-blue-eyed body, is still held as the highest form of beauty. Seeing the women in this project, reading your blog and of course so many other amazing women of color that talk about their bodies gives me hope! Hey check out my film GOING ON 13, young girls of color talk about growing up and into their bodies. Paz. Dawn

  5. “‘Blackness’ and black bodies are still relatively inferior in the Western paradigm of beauty. Black women’s bodies continue to be oversexed, and today they are on display more than ever before.”

    you are right about this observation, but one should ask himself – why are black women presented that way in public? it’s basically a cliche that is very often being affirmed and desired by themselves. just look at the picture of the model in undies you posted here.

  6. Yes white women are beautiful with drop dead gorgeous bodies but people like the correspondent above should visit Africa and witness what happens when their “White” men arrive in Africa what happens. these men immediately make contact with the black woman you refer to as ugly because they find sex with them so satisfying that the phrase “once you go black you never go back” is immediately called to mind then if beautiful white women as yourself are lucky they may return to you with God knows what?? So the black “ugly” women you describe is many a white mans dream in fact many white and men of other races in South Africa divorce their wives for black women.

  7. “She was an ugly, animalistic freak of nature with a swollen backside and elongated labia. The only things she embodied were the racist and sexist ideologies against her blackness, femininity, identity, culture and personhood. ” Is this your opinion of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman or where you quoting from a ignorant person of that time? Many Black women have this physique including my late grandmother. And it has nothing to do with obesity. I guess what I’m trying to say, that by no means, are our women a freak of nature.

  8. Rosheena, that was the perception of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ I described. I do not believe Sarah was a freak of nature, but I do believe that is what she was depicted as one while in Europe.

  9. You should maybe take a look at this
    Ishtar, Inanna, Astarte, Hathor, were almost the same goddess with Aphodite, aka Venus. Same goddess with different names. A long story. They were turned into devil (dibolized?) by the first christian fathers (Tertullien, Clement d’Alexandrie, etc.)
    -sorry for the bad english –

  10.’s done it once more. Incredible read.

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