Girls will be Girls: A Look at the Over-Sexualization of Black Female Bodies
content warning: Sexual assault (brief)
This topic may or may not be new to you, but it is commonly said that little black girls don’t get to be girls; they don’t get to be kids. They are automatically seen as grown, or ‘fast’ and as an extension of/belonging to someone else. I first explored this topic when I wrote my final essay for my life-changing Gender Studies course in my first university year on Black women and rape, covering both the historical context and how that history relates to the world of Black women today. To briefly summarize during slavery in Canada and the U.S., female slaves (as well as their male counterparts) were considered legal property of their masters, meaning they were unable to withdraw consent of anything, including sex, according to the law at the time. This is similar to 19th century Canada whereby all children were the legal property of their fathers, and all women were the legal property of their husbands. This historical context of ownership, in which our bodies did not inherently belong to us and existed solely for the benefit of another person (predominately men), and there was nothing we could do about it. This is an emotional topic for me to write about because I know that the fate of my whole life would be entirely different had I been born in a different century or a different part of the world, and it doesn’t only deeply sadden me to know that I would never know freedom in the way I do now, but it also makes me eternally grateful for being born into the family that I was, in the year that I was, and in the part of the world that I was. Knowing that this here is also stolen land, there will always be residual guilt lingering within me, and I know that many of the historical and current issues that are faced by my sisters are similarly faced by Aboriginal women today, but to an even greater extreme. Not having enough knowledge or lived experience to fully explore that context of womanhood, I’ll be sharing on my personal life and that of my ancestors on the complex and sensitive topic of life as a Black girl.
I matured quickly while growing up, both physically and mentally, which always brought attention to myself and my body from others, especially during my late elementary, preteen years. I would routinely be told by teachers that my clothing was inappropriate for school without actually breaking any of the dress codes. There was even a time where two friends and myself came in all matching outfits for a presentation, but only two of us were sent down to the principal’s office for dressing ‘inappropriately’ and not our less-developed, non-Black close friend who picked the clothing for us and was literally wearing the exact same thing. I remember feeling so weird about it; beneath knowing that it was all bullshit and that we were being singled out for things completely out of our control. Beyond that, I just felt weird that these adults were seeing this in me when I was just a kid. Women of colour typically are shaped curvy, and more voluptuous than white women, making us automatically perceived as promiscuous regardless of our actions. This is a dangerous assumption contributes to rape culture; because of this, we are less likely to be believed in sexual assault cases; for something completely out of our control and completely based on genetics. Another memory a few years prior to that event comes up and is even more disturbing to remember. I was sitting nearby a summer camp counsellor — a Caucasian young man — as he was talking about the way girls’ butts sway back and forth in a sensual motion when they are walking to another fellow camper who was a couple years older than I was. She was probably around twelve and I think I was about eight or nine at the time, and he proceeded to look at me and say, “Sosena knows how to do it.” Repulsive. Deplorable. I remember being eyed down from head-to-toe all the time by grown men who were old enough to be my father, lusting at me in a way that I can only explain as dehumanizing. I learned quickly that my body didn’t belong to me, at least it didn’t feel like it. It felt like I existed as a thing that would serve others; be it for love or pleasure or simple amusement; that was the message the world was sending me — that was what society was showing me.
Eventually, and understandably, I internalized this message without even knowing I did, and acted throughout the majority of my teen years trying to own it by embodying it and acting as if it was a sort of power, and it really felt like it at the time. I was proud of it, almost. Another common sign that showed me that I internalized the messages from society was that every time I attempted to work ‘on’ my body; whether through changing my diet, or taking up new workouts, it was only for the desire of wanting to seem even more desirable. To please the eyes of those who were looking at me. It had nothing to do with me or how I actually felt or what I needed, it was all external. It wasn’t until starting to practice yoga that I really learned how to explore myself and attempt to analyze and understand what it actually feels like to be living in the body I was given. I had to unlearn a lot of the programming that was I was exposed to during such crucial years of developing. I also had to learn how to love myself again; I say ‘again’ but it really is a new kind of love, one that was foreign to me up until that point. For the first time, I began putting myself at the centre of my world and muted the opinions of those around me and the voices in my head that were so used to self-deprecation and telling myself that I am not enough the way I am, that there is more I need to do to be valuable, that I needed to work on my body rather than work for my body. It completely shifted my way of thinking, and was so damn liberating.
Everything that I liked about myself, I questioned why that was; was it because an ex-partner loved this feature or because it made me happy? Everything that I didn’t like about myself or wanted to change, I questioned; was it because the media force fed the idea that this was an undesirable trait to have and that men don’t like this about women or was it because it was something that took away from me and my happiness? I re-evaluated everything, I still am! It’s a process, but it is one of the most self-fulfilling things I have ever taken up doing. Reclaiming ownership of myself and standing in my own by celebrating my individuality, the things that make me different from the masses, and learning to love it, wholly is hard work and it’s ongoing, but it’s necessary. The love I have for myself has grown deeper than I could have ever imagined, and all that was only possible when I shifted the focus from you on the outside world to me and my inner world.