New research suggests that black women are more likely than white women to be sexually objectified and perceived less than fully human. According to Watson, Robinson, Dispenza, & Nazari (2012) sexual objectification is “the experience of being treated as a body (or collection of body parts) valued predominantly for its use to (or consumption by) others.” It was also discovered that racist, sexist, and classist ideologies contributed to sexual objectification experiences among African American women. The sexual objectification of African American women dates to the slave era, whereby they were considered subhuman and likened to animals with uncontrollable sexual appetites. The historical institution of slavery, attraction, current stereotypes, and sexuality are factors that impact the objectification of black women’s bodies. 

Photo courtesy of Janet Mock 

Contents

  1. Historical Sexualization and Dehumanization
  2. Stereotypes
  3. Attraction
  4. Suggested List of readings:

“The significance of Sarah Baartman”

“Nicki Minaj’s Wax Figure & the Treatment of Black Women’s Bodies”  

1. Historical Sexualization and Dehumanization

Historically, black women’s bodies have also been hypersexualized for years. Two centuries ago, Sarah Baartman, a South African woman known for her large buttocks, was placed on display in European “freak shows.” In an article by the BBC, Bartmaan was brought to Europe by a British doctor, stage-named the “Hottentot Venus”, and was paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, where crowds were invited to look at her large buttocks. Baartman died in 1815, but her brain, skeleton, and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Bartmaan had a condition called steatopygia, which is an excessive buildup of fat that causes a protuberant buttocks. On stage she wore skin-tight, flesh-colored clothing, as well as beads and feathers, and smoked a pipe. Wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her. Today, people view her as the epitome of colonial racism and exploitation.  

Dehumanization is a process in which a group or an individual is perceived and treated as less than fully human. The dehumanization of Black people in the United States has been a recurring issue since the signing of the Constitution in 1787. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution declared that African American slaves counted as three-fifths of a person, indicative of their subhuman status at the time. According to Anderson, Holland, Heldreth, & Johnson (2018) “Black women are more commonly presented in visual media as animals and are objectified to a greater extent than White women.” (Anderson, Holland, Heldreth et al., 2018) found two ways in which an individual or a group can be dehumanized. First, they can be denied uniquely human attributes, such as civility and rationality, and thus subtly likened to animals (i.e., animalistic dehumanization). Second, they can be denied human nature attributes, such as warmth, emotionality, and vitality, and thus subtly likened to machines or objects. 

2. Stereotypes

Societal stereotypes about a wide range of social groups persist in the United States, are promoted or reinforced through the mass media, and can have numerous detrimental consequences. The sexualization of Black women not only contributes to their objectification by others, but to the stereotypes that others place on them. One common stereotypical representation of Black women is that of the Jezebel, which is an alluring and seductive African American woman who is highly sexualized and valued purely for her sexuality. The Jezebel is one who is reduced to her body and is treated as something that is only useful for the pleasure of others. The Jezebel and other stereotypes still exist today toward African American women and are highly represented in mainstream media.  

3. Attraction

The attraction of a man towards a black woman places a large impact on her body being oversexualized and objectified. Although our society places value on thinness being the ideal body type that will attract men, cultural body preferences may prove otherwise. Rosen (1993) hypothesized that “African-American males, being influenced by a more mainstream culture (one more in tune with cultures in the rest of the world), would show preferences for body silhouettes of more plump women than would white males.” Referencing historically to Sarah Bartmaan, the larger body type of an African American woman has always led to physical and sexual attraction. 

Culturally, in terms of body shape, black men seem to prefer black women who have larger figures or curves. When a black man views a black woman who has larger breasts, wider hips, and a larger butt, this appearance is aesthetically pleasing in terms of wanting to pursue a physical or sexual relationship with the woman. The perceptions of men toward African American women’s bodies is also impacted by the media’s influence. 

Bibliography

Anderson, J. R., Holland, E., Heldreth, C., & Johnson, S. P. (2018). Revisiting the Jezebel Stereotype. Psychology of Women Quarterly42(4), 461–476. doi: 10.1177/0361684318791543

Rosenthal, L., & Lobel, M. (2016). Stereotypes of Black American Women Related to Sexuality and Motherhood. Psychology of Women Quarterly40(3), 414–427. doi: 10.1177/0361684315627459

Watson, L. B., Robinson, D., Dispenza, F., & Nazari, N. (2012). African American Women’s Sexual Objectification Experiences: A Qualitative Study. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36(4), 458–475. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684312454724

Other Internet Resources

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35240987

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/24573089.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Addb20c874143ca369014b7ad52e3c4da


Taylor Simmons is a graduate student in the Humanities MA program at Old Dominion University. She received her undergraduate degree in Communication and hopes to fulfill a career in the television industry. In her free time, she enjoys shopping and watching reality television. She believes that her leadership has enabled her to succeed through her matriculation thus far. Her goal is to one day have a talk show where she can use her platform to continue to inspire and empower others.