A Black Girl’s Take On Sexuality and “Body Geography”

bell hooks speaks with Charles Blow in early October during her annual residency at the New School (Photo credit: Mila Stieglitz)

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.

Miley Cyrus "We Can't Stop" (ihatjjr.com)
Miley Cyrus “We Can’t Stop” (photo credit: ihatjjr.com)

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.

(Credit: Ms. Magazine Blog and African American Policy Forum)

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.

8 thoughts on “A Black Girl’s Take On Sexuality and “Body Geography”

  1. Charles Blow and bell hooks’ talk on body geography and mapping desire changed my outlook on sexuality too and I am lucky enough to have discussions about sexuality often. Even so, although we were both affected by the lecture, it is clear that we have different responses to it. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness on this post. Thank you Jessica!

  2. I think this is a really important issue that we all have to address. In this culture black girls are over objectified and over sexualized. This inherently makes it harder and harder for them to find their own self worth, which translates into their further invisibility and discrimination in our culture. We are so lucky to be able to have this discussions on sexuality! Beautifully written.

  3. the conversation you had with yourself about your thoughts about sexual fluidity is very similar to one I had. before I had come out I was very confused because I know I liked boys and when I was in a relationship with a boy I questioned my attraction towards girls. which just doesn’t make any sense. I really like your last line, when you’re talking about women taking control of their own bodies. But something that many people don’t understand is that taking control doesn’t necessarily mean understanding, we don’t need to understand ourselves to allow other people to accept us.

  4. Jessica, this is a stunning post! Your exploration and analysis both within yourself and in the media is so articulate and so incredibly honest. The post does a wonderful job of stating some deeply important and largely invisibilized issues and present them in such a way that they are accessible to the reader. Reading your post has instilled me with a sense of urgency. That the over sexualization of black girls has gone silenced for so long astounds me. Thank you, thank you for completely changing the ways in which I think about the presentation of sexual orientation and the privilege that may or may not come with it.

  5. I really agree with the fact that within media, there is only one image of a black women and the relationship that they can have with their bodies. I also agree that it can lead to the invisibility of black women because all black women are expected to act the same way and act as “Baby Mamas, Angry Black Women, Unhealthy Black Women and Uneducated Sisters.”

  6. It’s really interesting to see how sexuality is both condemned and encouraged among black women, and the ways that power often plays into the discussion of sexuality (or lack thereof). The dehumanization of black women in mainstream media is appalling and must be addressed. Your blog post is really well written, insightful, and interesting!

  7. I love this post. The sexualization of black women in the media and then telling your personal stories was really wonderful. It is horrible how the media shows black women (and women in general) and Im so glad you wrote such a wonderful piece and brought light to this issue.

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