Growing up a black girl in a semi-religious household, the conversation on sexuality was never brought up, unless it had to do with the man I was going to marry or the family I would have. My family is not ignorant about the existence of sexual orientations beyond heterosexual, however, they have always been dismissive of the conversation on sexuality, choosing to stay silent if I ever inquired about how they would feel if they found out I was a lesbian (simply as a hypothetical). After a while, this standoffish way of answering my questions led me to believe that sexuality was not an important part of my life.
But after attending a talk facilitated by bell hooks and Charles Blow at the New School called Radical Sexuality: Body Geography, my entire world flipped upside down. This was the first time in my 16 years of being a young black girl that I had ever heard a black woman and a black man speak so freely on the subject of sexuality. And not sexuality in the context of that awkward talk on the birds and the bees, but in a larger sense of how one creates a relationship with their mind, body, and spirit.
I found it extremely powerful when hooks and Blow indicated that sexuality, for many individuals, is not static but actually sits on an ever-moving spectrum. hooks made a remark about the difference between intrinsic sexuality and the external practice of sexuality. She explained how even though you may be a lesbian it does not mean you must always be in a romantic or a sexual relationship with another woman. Just because you may identify as one sexuality, does not mean that relationships with other people, whether sexual, romantic, etc., are off limits.
This notion of sexuality as, in bell hooks’s words, “movement and practice,” is not something that everyone may be able to wrap their head around. However, I think it is important especially for myself and possibly other young black girls to realize that we do not have to limit our sexuality to a single box.
I specifically remember hooks emphasizing the importance of having a relationship with one’s own body. For women, and specifically black women, it is important to learn that understanding one’s body should not occur in, as hooks says, “a perverse place.” She also goes further to say, “life is an endless negotiation with ourselves and the world…” It made we wonder, ‘How can such a task of creating a relationship with one’s body be achieved in the world I live today?’
I started my research by revisiting mainstream media with a feminist lens. The examples I found of current day portrayals of black women mainly consisted of long straight hair (weave), the over-sexualization of the “big booty” and being able to “shake it,”and the “baby mama” or “ratchet” archetypes. I looked at Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop,” Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” and A$AP Rocky’s “F**kin’ Problems” as some of the most well-known depictions of black girls and women, especially when featured in mainstream white media and mainstream black hip-hop.
I personally do not find anything wrong with a black girl showing off what she’s got, however, it becomes problematic when that is one of the only prominent portrayals of black women in today’s media.
In 2013, Essence published an article on a study they conducted with 1,200 women on the portrayal of black women in the media. They found that: “Younger women — ages 18-29 — were more likely than older women to be aware of negative typologies [e.g., Baby Mamas, Angry Black Women, and Unhealthy Black Women] and also more likely to find them compelling. This may be because younger generations consume more media overall, especially digital media, where many of the negative types run rampant.” In the same study, Essence found that “non-Hispanic, White women cited negative typologies as most representative of Black women they’ve encountered in real life — namely, Baby Mamas, Angry Black Women, Unhealthy Black Women and Uneducated Sisters.”
So it is not far-off to say it is not an easy task for young black girls and women to explore their sexuality in this day in age. When the media constantly portrays black women in such a one-dimensional manner, it begins to make young black girls and women believe they belong in such a narrow box. I mean, some of my closest friends are still surprised, and seemingly disappointed, when they discover that I am a black girl who cannot twerk.
Taking it back to the bell hooks and Charles Blow talk, it becomes even more difficult for young black girls to find their own sexual self-worth when living in a world where mainstream media always finds a way to make the black female body an “oversexualized object.”
This hypersexualization of young black girls and women connects strongly to the invisibility of black girls in America. In the same month I attended the hooks talk, my high school feminism class led an International Day of the Girl assembly where we presented and spoke on topics that greatly affect girls nationally and globally. My talk focused on the invisibility of black girls in the fight for #BlackLivesMatter and within our overall societal structures such as education.
Many young black girls who identify as straight and as LGBT+ have no accurate representation in the media. Our society does not recognize or acknowledge that black girls face some of the same forms of discrimination that young black boys and men face on a regular basis.
For example, young black girls in New York are 53 times more likely to get expelled and 6 times more likely to get suspended compared to their white counterparts, for reasons that have no real merit, as seen in an article titled “Black Girls Matter” by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Many do not know about these harmful statistics because the problems that face young black girls in America are seen as insignificant or even nonexistent. Until that moment society stops feeding into the oversexualized and dehumanizing stereotypes mainstream media has about us, young black girls will always be forgotten.
We need to change this conversation immediately. After hearing hooks and Blow, and looking into mass media, it’s obvious that young women of color need to be the only voices heard in the conversation on our own bodies.