Notice the racial choreography here -- six apparently white women modeling a variety of styles, from "Sexy Boot" to "Always Skinny," and off to the side, one black woman, who's wearing a style named "Curvy."
Is the Gap's shopping demographic really THIS white? Why not also include another black woman here (or for that matter, another non-white one) wearing, say, the "Perfect Boot" style? Do only white women wear boots with their jeans? And would only black women buy "Curvy" jeans?
Aside from the lopsided racial composition of this model lineup (it's odd how that arrangement brings to mind a police lineup . . .), the bigger problem here is the limiting of black women to one, all-too-familiar role and body-type: "Curvy." This label -- especially for a style of jeans depicted alongside a row of white women wearing other types of jeans -- perpetuates a cultural fixation on one part of a black woman's body, a denigrating conception of that part as something that fundamentally differentiates their bodies from other women's bodies.
The collective white imagination has long arranged beauty in a hierarchy, with supposedly common white characteristics at the top, and supposedly common black ones at the bottom. This Gap advertisement perpetuates this racist hierarchy, by limiting the role of black women to a stereotypical representation of, well, their bottoms -- their supposedly big "booties." Nothing else about their bodies gets nearly as much mainstream cultural attention as this part does.
This common white, denigrating fixation is, of course, nothing new, as it evokes the sad eighteenth-century spectacle of Saartje "Sarah" Baartman, who remains better known by her objectifying label, "the Hottentot Venus."
Baartman, an enslaved Khoikhoi woman, was sent to England by her Dutch "owner" in order to display her nude self as a sideshow attraction. As Wikipedia explains, "Baartman was exhibited around Britain, being forced to entertain people by gyrating her nude buttocks and showing to Europeans what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features."
In her insightful analysis of today's white-framed media fixation on this body part of another black woman, Serena Williams, Renee Martin connects contemporary white interest in this topic to the degrading curiosity of Europeans in Baartman's body:
Since the days in which Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was forced to reveal her buttocks and labia to curious Europeans in a human circus, the bodies of Black women have been scrutinized and uniformly judged as lacking and/or sub-human. While our bodies may no longer be on display, the fixation with the buttocks of Black women reveals that the “The Hottentot Venus” stereotype is still very much a part of social discourse.
Fox News recently ran a story on Serena in which the author, Jason Whitlock, referred to her as an “underachiever” and called her derriere a “back pack.” It would seem that though she is ranked number two in the tennis world, it is acceptable to claim that her athletic frame is little more than “an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber,” because her body does not conform to what is understood as the beauty norm.
Those who more readily conform to the beauty norm are white women. This is not, of course, because they are somehow more intrinsically beautiful; it's because white people have been imposing their own beauty standards on others for centuries. And as this toxic, racially clueless Gap jeans campaign suggests -- with its exaggerated and marginalizing reduction of black women to a stereotypical fixation on one part of their bodies -- white people still do that.
Anyway, it's not like a lot of other women, who are white and otherwise non-black, don't also have, and even appreciate, bigger -- excuse me, "curvy," booties.
Just ask Leslie Hall.
[many thanks to swpd reader Jillian]