Friday, August 28, 2009

focus obsessively on one part of black women's bodies

Here's a screenshot from the current Gap campaign for its "1969 Jeans" (you can click on this image for an interactive, 360-view of each woman).

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]


  1. Is the Gap's shopping demographic really THIS white? Why not also include another black woman here ... ?

    Not to be contrarian, but ... yes.

    Yes, the Gap's demographic is surely even more white than this, unless that store skews specifically towards black consumers.

    While one in seven models in the ad are black, only one in eight people in this country are black.

    I'd love to have seen a second black model here, by the way.

    I also agree completely about the stereotyping of black women's bodies, although I'm not sure that the "curvy" female body type is necessarily at the bottom of the conventional hierarchy of female beauty. Which is why "curvy" may not have been equated, in the marketer's eyes, with "supposedly big 'booties'" and hence with stereotypically black female characteristics.

  2. If you do a little more browsing on that site, you'll notice the representative petite woman is Asian. There's just no escaping the stereotypes, are there?

  3. oh, OF COURSE! All black (and WOC) are curvy!

    Please. I've seen as many skinny-ass black women and WOC so many times. I've also seen plenty of overweight (or big) white women, too!

    I dont know if GAP is really "white" but I've seen all sorts of people wearing their clothes. But whenever I walk by GAP, I see mostly white customers there.

  4. Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

    Please. I've seen as many skinny-ass black women and WOC so many times.

    Including the model they used for "curvy". Gap can't be serious... and yet they are.

  5. Jason Whitlock, the author of the Serena Williams piece, is a Black man.

  6. I agree with this post in general, but one detail: is the model in the "Long & Lean" style really white? She looks Latina to me. Regardless, I still agree with your point regarding using PoC to illustrate stereotypes (black=curvey and asian=petite).

  7. If you click on the add and then click on one of the models, the EVP of Design describing the different fits is BLACK!

  8. Maria M. said...

    Jason Whitlock, the author of the Serena Williams piece, is a Black man.

    Just Wandering Thru said...

    If you click on the add and then click on one of the models, the EVP of Design describing the different fits is BLACK!

    The primary focus of this post is something that sociologist Joe Feagin calls "the white racial frame." These two black people, whatever their own personal views and beliefs, are doing work for white-framed corporations that participates in and helps promulgate a broader, white-framed view of the world. Feagin explains this concept here, where he also writes,

    The white racial frame has long been propagated and held by most white Americans -- and even, in part, accepted by many people of color.

  9. Well done analysis! I'm pretty sure GAP isn't the only company that uses black women to demonstrate "curvy" styles, either.

    I did notice that when you select a certain woman (pair of jeans), the designer explaining the different types is black. Not that that makes it any better (and I doubt he had anything to do with the ad campaign)

    A white woman who can only wear "curvy" style jeans.

  10. I like this post a lot. They definitely could have included another non-white model, because contrary to James, I don't really think that GAP demographic is this white. I think of GAP shoppers as being middle class, and that includes a lot of people other than white.

    This ad is just helping to reinforce the stereotype that so many people seem determined to cling to... I have quite possibly the flattest ass in the history of time (okay not quite, but it's pretty flat) and you will not believe the number of times I've had white people make comments about my huge ass...It's like they're determined to force a stereotype on you even when its exception is staring them in the face...

  11. G,

    The Long & Lean model looks Arab to me! But either way, probably not strictly white either.

  12. It's odd indeed. The use of "othering" in advertising.

    However, the concept of European beauty as the standard is just weird and contradictory. Has anyone noticed that this so-called standard is made up mostly of attributes found in other racial groups (e.g. full lips, tan or "golden" skin, almond-shaped eyes). It's a study of oddities. It's as though the standard is to have these attributes normally placed on WOC removed and acceptably placed on an European woman.

  13. the curvy/big booty beauty standard is just as hard to live up to for black women as the skinny/big breast standard is for white women

    I assume many asian women don't live up to the petite standard

    all if it is just another way to police female bodies

  14. i like the leslie hall book end. well played indeed.

  15. I thought about this post for a while.

    Yes there are millions of black women in this world, so of course their are many body types that we have.

    Yes there is an "obsession" with black women's bodies that is held by white and black society alike.

    There is the common image of the big bootied black woman, which can be a stereotype, but all stereotypes are based on some truth.

    Not many of my white female friends have had to deal with "scoop backs" in their jeans. This happens when a woman has hips and a booty that are a lot larger than her waist. A lot of my black female friends have.

    As mentioned there is a variety of black woman body types but let's face it going by race there are some physical differences. Keeping this in mind I'm pretty sure GAP put the black model in the "curvy" jeans for a reason.

    As a black female consumer I would most likely click on her first, because she is black AND because of the name of the jean.

    We all know there is variety, but we don't have to pretend that differences do not exist.

    Sometimes I can identify a race of woman just by her body shape in my day to day life.

  16. Good points Black in Alberta, except, while I also don't think we should pretend that differences don't exist, the issue is more the common "obsession" or fixation on a common difference in black women's bodies. It's the steady focus on that part of black women's bodies that's the problem, isn't it? The sort of, reduction of them to that part of themselves. And I gotta agree, this GAP thing just perpetuates that focus.

    Also, why put such a thin model in those "curvy" jeans? That just gloms white "Always Skinny" beauty standards onto a black woman, who in her own skinniness is actually supposed to be there to represent big-bootied black women! (that's not directed at you necessarily, B in A; I'm just pointing out this logical problem.)

    B in A, you also wrote that all stereotypes have some truth.


    So Asian women really do crave to find a man they can be submissive around? And all black people really do love watermelon more than other people do?

    I mean, some stereotypes do, but it seems like so many don't . . .

  17. Ah well, I have only ever been in a Gap store about five times in my whole life. I find their clothes boring, they usually have "safari like" colours and after watching something about them and sweatshops a few years back I have never been in a GAP shop since. I think the most I ever bought from Gap ever was a baseball cap that cost me £5 and my sister or brother took that ages ago.

    I prefer Levi's. I have what you would consider to be real curves so the jeans in their advert won't even fit me...No need to force the issue, I shop where the clothes look good and fit.

    I saw the model who is supposed to look "curvy" and I am afraid she looks very skinny, to me personally. I guess everyone has a different idea of what curves really are.

  18. I have just watched that Leslie Hall video, LMAO...That's funny!

  19. There are sadly lots of thing wrong with this ad.

    I think it's interesting that the expectations for the blond white women are to have a boyfriend and to be skinny.

  20. Hmm, I read this and my first thought was 'But wait, a lot of black women DO have this so called curvy body type'. Though I find it more than a little suspicious that the ONE black girl in the ad modeled the curvy jeans I kind of get why. Gap Inc. (Old Navy, Gap, Banana Rep) have been on the whole United Colors of Benetton ethnic kick for a while now. And like many whites who try their hand at reaching out to "other" groups, they often make foolish missteps that end up sending the wrong message. The white standard might never die.

    That being said as a young black woman with a slim body, a little junk in the trunk and ample thighs (yes, I said it). I see continuously the obsession with the black woman's figure. It is often to denigrated as some strange and alien form. I take pride in mine but because of society’s standpoint I have been at times and a little nervousness about it, even sometimes ashamed. How a thin black woman can carry a perfect round butt behind her whereas many white women (I have seen with my own eyes) can be obese and still have no slope to their backside is notable to say the least .White women being the standard and black women having bodies that deviate yet are still sexy and feminine is going to catch people's eyes. Lips, hips, thighs, booties, brown skin, no one can sit back and tell me these are not common to West African women. I often find myself curiously gawking and admiring. Frankly we are sexy! All groups and ethnicities have their attractive characteristics and these are some of ours. It is taboo (maybe less so now but still) to be an open admirer of black women, but not of their traits. Collagen injections, but lifts, and Kim Kardashian are all symptomatic of this. In my opinion, the fixation comes from secret taboo attraction on the part of white men and maybe a even a little body envy on the part of women. So it’s ridiculed and pointed at but the reason it’s brought up so much is because it is thought about a lot.

    America's fixation on the black woman's body didn't just start with Serena Williams or Sir Mix A Lot. Anyone ever heard of slavery? That is where all the curiosities and lustful thoughts that manifest themselves as stereotypes began. Black women are insatiable; they are wild in bed so on and so on. The slave woman's shapely body scantily clad beneath torn and tattered clothing, her bending and swaying in the fields, her brown skin and strong arms. Master had trouble with the fact that these so called "sub human beings" got his blood boiling so he justified his sexual abuse of them by making them out to be the temptresses, they were MADE FOR PLEASURE. Look at how their built!

    All in all the politics of a black woman's body are complicated, mired in taboo and as many, many things in black life are, connected to slavery. We take a positive, natural attribute and turn it into a complicated negative taboo.

  21. I find it really hard to believe that anyone cares about this. Don't any of you actually have problems in your lives?

  22. @ L "I find it really hard to believe that anyone cares about this. Don't any of you actually have problems in your lives?"

    (1) While these issues may personally seem trivial to you. They are not for people who are interested in exploring how our environment shapes our perception of the world.

    (2) A fundamental lack of intellectual curiosity is what leads most people to develop a believe system that functions unconsciously. Therefore, while the uninformed and clueless accept their perceptions without challenging the foundation for which those perceptions are conceived. Others, those that are paying attention, can actually see the messages that are being transmitted via seemingly innocent and irrelevant means.

    Case-n-point: For much of my life, I often wondered why on the scale of attractiveness whites are chosen from the higher end of the spectrum while POC are largely from the bottom end of the spectrum i.e. mammy and magic Negro type characters. Then, I learned to my shock but not surprise, that one of the metrics that goes into casting has to do with making sure that the POC conform to some ideas about how whites perceive them. This knowledge solved the mystery as to why this happens.

    Next, we have to examine what effects in terms of messages these things send to individuals. Therefore, I think that this post and many like it, are valuable in this context for pointing out that not only are we being sold products but ideas.

    While it might be difficult for you to comprehend the importance of exploring such an issue with all of its problematic implications, my guess is that it is an important piece of the puzzle for solving "problems" that other may have.

  23. thanks for writing this. one of my favorite "hobbies" is deconstructing images in the media and scrutinizing them for agendas being pushed, and stereotypes being perpetuated. race and gender are my focus, but when heterosexism and able-body-ism etc are pointed out by other people more sensitive to those, my interest is piqued.

    in this case, i too find it fascinating that this skinny (and light-skinned) black woman is being put on display for her allegedly "curvy" body. in order for her to be acceptably upper-middle class enough to even be in a gap ad, her body would have to be both thin and muscular (evidence the affluence and abundance of resources and leisure time necessary to diet and work out) which seems ridiculous in the context promoting the "curvy" jeans at the same time!

    and not unimportantly, the gap's "curvy" jeans aint that curvy. i cant even wear them. the only gap jeans style that are truly "curvy" enough for me at the moment are the "essential" style, which i think have been discontinued (sob).

  24. IRONY: now sold in convenient packs of three...

    #1 If you seperate the pants from their descriptions and the models the "curvy" model's pants are by far the nicest.

    #2 By distinction the "curvy" model looks far more interresting than the others.

    #3 If you open up the file on their weppage and you see the 360 degrees view of the "curvy" model you'll see in the back of her neck is a tattoo indicating that her zodiac sign is Cancer. Cancerians tend to be a "curvy"

    None the less, models' measurement tend to be consistent and if you try to see wich of these girls are the curviest you'll be hard pressed to make a distinction in their pant sizes.

    Regardless of the Gap's shopping demographic this is a horrible example of pigeon holing. Classic example of skinny-boring-and-pale vs curvy-exotic-and-ethnic.

    Personally I would have put the "curvy" model in the "boyfriend" jeans...x

  25. racerelations.about.comAugust 29, 2009 at 9:51 AM

    BlkSmarTee, I know overweight black women who lack bottom and relatively thin white women who do have noticeable backsides. I really have a problem with racializing bodies like this. One thing that it seems we forget when discussing black women's bodies, especially black American women's bodies, is that a disproportionate amount of blacks in this country are overweight and obese, hence the high rates of diabetes, hypertension, etc. Obesity certainly plays a role in our thoughts on black women's bodies. Moreover, it is more accepted within black culture to be overweight and obese, whereas whites aren't as accepting of overweight individuals. White women, whatever their "natural" body type, work to be thin, while black women aren't held to this same standard.
    I point this out because I'm disturbed by the notion that differences in black and women's bodies are genetic. Both black women and white women are predisposed to developing larger backsides and thighs when they gain weight. Women put on weight in these areas first. So, perhaps if the weight disparities between black women and white women disappeared, so would this notion that black women are somehow naturally curvier. In fact, if we're going to make a genetic argument, it was genetically more advantageous for those living closest to the equator (i.e. Africans) to have tall, slender bodies.

  26. @racerelations

    I said even a "thin" black woman can have a perfectly round butt. As not just a black woman but as an African woman, I have seen this trend play out over and over again with my West African family. Whether or not we do tend to have "more pronounced" backsides or not, my point is that the stigma surrounding them comes from sexual attitudes during slavery. Unlike you, I do not automatically associate a black woman's body with obesity. That my friend is stereotype, whether that is what you statistically see where you live or not. I was talking about "thin black woman". We tend to carry adipose fat on our backsides, thighs etc. Have you seen Kerry Washington's bum in "The Last King of Scotland"? That is the kind of woman I am talking about.

    I totally understand the ratializing stereotypes of our bodies and how they negatively are viewed by dominant white culture. But if we DO carry these attributes, should we be ashamed of them? Should we not admire the traits in us that are often common and unique to our African ancestors? I'm not saying we should let our beauty be fetisized and exploited but we have a right to be cognicent and proud. By pretending these body similarities do not exist in us is nothing more than internalized racism. Why must we critique ourselves from a white perspective OR pretend like these differences do not exist because they are so racialized by the dominant group? We have every right to be proud of our bodies because our shape is beutiful. To deny this causes more mental fear and apprehension that embracing who we are as women.

  27. AE, I think all stereotypes *are* based on truth - or true history, at any rate. If some real thing did not inspire a stereotype, it would not come to be. I don't think almost any stereotypes are *accurate,* but I think they're based on factual events.

    Watermelon is one of the cheaper & easier-to-grow plants in the southern United States, so I understood the black people and watermelon stereotype to come from the economic disadvantages and locale of blacks after Reconstruction and possibly before. Likewise, the belief that Jews are good with or careful about money comes from the widespread medieval Catholic Church's belief that usury or money-lending was forbidden to Christians. This meant that nearly all financiers and bankers of that era were Jewish. I don't know where the Asian-women-are-submissive stereotype comes from, but I suspect it has an origin.

  28. I enjoyed your post. I'd like to see you push this further. How would this ad look if you designed it?

  29. I'm sorry but this seems like just looking for racism rather than reporting on actual racism. I think you'll be able to see racism in anything if you look hard enough. Even if there aren't any black people involved, then it's racist because of that. I think multi-culturalism has gone a bit too far.

  30. BlkSmarTee, I'm not sure what your definition of a stereotype is, but it is not stereotyping to say that black American women suffer from a high rate of obesity. That is a fact. I'm not simply associating black women's bodies with obesity for the heck of it. In July, the Office of Minority Health released some stats on black American women being disproportionately obese
    As a black and African woman myself, this health crisis concerns me.

  31. Jezebel has posted extensively on this issue. In particular, they have noticed how black women only grace the covers of "the curvy issue" of any given magazine.

    What's particularly bizarre about Gap's ad is that the black model is, like all models, skinny. Furthermore, I, a skinny white woman, have found that the curvy jean is the only jean Gap carries that I like. I wonder how many white women are subtly disuaded from shopping the curvy line by ads like the one posted here, and if black women even bother with the Gap, which seems to be styling itself after Abercrombie.

  32. That sure is the skinniest curvy woman I've ever seen. Skewed views on race AND size for the win!

    I will say, however, that most of my jeans are GAP. Not because I'm curvy, but because I'm NOT. GAP jeans are the only women's jeans that fit my frame. It's either that or stay in the men's section, and 28x34 is hard to come by.

  33. @jennifer & Chelsea

    Yeah, I was going to say (but then thought better of it on the grounds that as a bloke perhaps I should stay out of it) that _all_ those models look unusually thin to me, certainly very different from the women I know.

    You'd have to use a micrometer to establish which one was the 'curvy' one.

    Which seems to make the selection of the black woman as the 'curvy' one appear even more about race.

    (I have to say I, rightly or wrongly, associate such thinness with upper-middle-class American women (not sure if there's a racial angle as well). It seems to be a badge of membership of a particular demographic group - presumably that's the group the ad is aimed at.)

  34. Interestingly, the "curvy" woman appears clearly thin by current American standards. It's frustrating how skewed the advertising/media world portrayals of women's bodies are. In an ad that tries to show a that women deserve pants that fit their specific body type, it is odd that the pictures show basically one body: thin, tall, conventionally 'sexy.'

  35. As someone else pointed out, her butt's not even that big.
    I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned Sir Mix a Lot...or Jennifer Lopez (whose butt didn't look that big to me either. Seriously, if you wanna see some REAL big butts, look for obese women.)

  36. And don't even get me started on the colorism here. That woman's about as dark as I am -- and I'm half white. The fact that that's the best Gap can do is (one of the) reasons I don't shop there.

  37. I hate that white people are WHITE and everyone else is a person of color. this is offensive to me. We are not POC, we are INDIAN, CHINESE, BLACK. Lumping every other race into a category for the sake of convenience. That in itself is racism to me.
    About the ad, not a bad thing to be stereotyped as curvy, I say. I see no reason to be validated by white people and anyone's standard of beauty. If you look good, you look good! And a lot of black woman, even when they are skinny, have curvy behinds, and what is wrong with that?

  38. full disclosure: I happen to be white.

    This gap ad is ridiculous. Not just because of the stereotyping, but because the "curvy" girl aint curvy! She's skinny! Not even close to an hourglass/ coke bottle shape

  39. To me, this post is a good example of racialized sexism. Are there other ethnicities of women who have a specific body part associated with them, outside of black women?

    This bizarre fixation on black women's butts -and the sense that we're not fully human or inherently deserving of the same respectful social boundaries as WW- may be why some men and women have felt entitled to comment on mine. Now that I think about it, that is the one body part that they always discuss - and not b/c it's big but b/c it isn't. This failure to conform to an overly-broad stereotype apparently gives white strangers and distant acquaintances the right to discuss my body as if it's a piece of real estate they're surveying. I've heard WW dissect specific parts of their own bodies but usually with friends/family as opposed to strangers, and definitely not black strangers. Yet that doesn't stop them from doing it to me. Part of the black people = public property -13th Amendment be damned- that also manifests itself in touching our hair, I guess.


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