Black Women’s Asses, Cosmetic Surgery, and the Politics of Ambition

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By Aya de Leon

As an ambitious woman of color, I avidly read commentary this season on Julie Chen’s remorseless decision to have eyelid surgery. With East Asian women, the body part targeted for racism is often the eyes. With black women, the first line of attack is on the hair. But our hair is a moving target.  Always growing, easily restyled—pressed straight one day, short and natural the next. And when it comes to body parts not so easily changeable, the bulls-eye sits squarely on the black female ass. Our asses are on blast from the Venus Hottentot to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s parody “Oh–my–god, Becky, look at her butt” in Baby Got Back  to Miley Cyrus’ slapping the ample rear of her dancers on the VMA awards.

As a woman of African heritage in the Americas, the properties of our asses shape how we move in the world, and how we get categorized, sexualized, objectified, and dismissed. As an Afro-Puerto Rican woman, I grew up with a medium sized ass—too big for white people in the 80s, but versatile. In my teens, I hid my ass in loose clothes to keep from getting too much attention from men of color. In my twenties I featured it prominently in spandex when I courted that same attention. By my thirties, I found a balance, not leading with my ass, but not hiding it, either. Throughout it all, as a dancer and cyclist, I counted on this major muscle to keep me in motion. Finally, as an ambitious young woman of color, I rarely spent time sitting on it.

I have been willing to sacrifice many things for my career, including my ass. To be clear, I still have my ass, but have made significant ass-related sacrifices, which did not include cosmetic surgery. In my 30s, I had a career as a touring spoken word/hip hop theater performer. I made a living, traveled all around, and developed a great body of work. My actual body, however, paid the price. As an independent artist, everything was always cobbled together. I needed a personal assistant but couldn’t afford one. I worked and worked all the time. I just didn’t have time to workout. When I was stressed, I ate. When I was home, I ate healthy food, when I was on the road (half the time) I found myself eating things like scary mystery meat tacos in the Las Vegas airport. I gained 40 lbs. When I stopped touring so intensely, I lost 40 lbs. In the process, I lost my perky young adult ass, and ushered in the era of the more settled middle-aged ass.*

Of course, I took this ass loss as a body acceptance opportunity, and kept it moving.

But this decision takes place in the context of a society and economy that is actively hostile to women of color to having creative careers. We were brought here to be the help—pick the cotton, scrub the floors, nurse the babies—and the society has yet to develop a new default setting. These days, we are tracked into a multitude of low-wage service jobs—not limited to domestic work—that include teaching, clerical, social service and non-profit work. There is little infrastructure to support us having careers as writers, artists, and intellectuals. In my case, it was the lack of support for the work that has meant putting my body on the line.

For me, part of the problem is the usual pesky racism and sexism where women of color have fewer opportunities and are paid less, even when the quality of the work is excellent. Part of it is the pesky internalized racism and sexism that means women of color have ambivalence about our own ambition, or aren’t prepared for success. Sometimes it’s the pesky sexism and racism that the work and stories of women of color are not of interest to many men or white people. Instead of being considered as having “universal” appeal, we serve a smaller, niche audience, and receive niche compensation. With all of these institutional and internalized disadvantages, women of color often lack the ability to command enough resources to pay for professional support.

While men of color face racism in many different parts of the arts world, they are well-represented in the spoken word and hip hop theater communities, and their work is in high demand. Additionally, many of my male counterparts of color had a different access to support resources via unpaid labor. They mainly broke into three categories:

1. Wife/girlfriend domestic: these guys have female partners who take care of things at home (like children or housework and cooking) so the guys can get out there and grind on their careers, then have a supportive household to come home to.

2. Wife/girlfriend professional: some men have a savvy wife or girlfriend who becomes their manager and handles the administrative end of their careers.

3. Legion of adoring female fans: some male performers (often unattached) are considered so attractive and charismatic that they have many women helping them in various roles from aspiring girlfriend to enthused volunteers. Women with crushes on them put in time on their projects just for the opportunity to be near them, a part of their lives.

Even the queer men had female supporters who offered them non-reciprocated support. None of these options were on the menu for me as a woman artist, so I just hustled my ass off. I don’t regret it.

Similarly, Angela Bassett states she didn’t regret her decision to go under the knife to have her butt reduced to play Tina Turner in the movie What’s Love Got To Do With It. I recall hearing about this in the ’90s, and being outraged. Cosmetic surgery was not nearly so common then, which made it a big deal. The idea that white film producers would ask an African American woman to have cosmetic surgery to play an African American woman was shocking to me.

Angela Bassett (right) playing Tina Turner (left)

Angela Bassett (right) playing Tina Turner (left)

In spite of the limitations of the film’s creative vision, Bassett was phenomenal as Tina Turner. For a black actress, that kind of role comes once in a lifetime. Bassett has never gotten another role of the same magnitude (but then again, I’m not writing for film…yet). Here’s what I wish Bassett had said: “I wanted that role. I deserved that role, and I was willing to do whatever I needed to get it. But no man had the right to tell me to cut my body when it was just fine the way it was. Still, that’s the racism and sexism of the business, and the price I had to pay.”

Bassett didn’t say that.

Instead, she said in an interview that it was a good move.

Julia Carrie Wong describes this dynamic perfectly in her commentary in Salon about Julie Chen: in these disclosures, women of color accept, “the subjective reading of white men as a valid reality, and this is perhaps an even greater injury to her self than the surgery she does not regret. But…until we are able to dismantle the white patriarchy that is so frequently and insistently wrong, the least we as women of color can do for ourselves and each other is to remember that what we are actually saying with our bodies is one thing that is real and absolutely right.”

And white men’s subjective readings of black women’s bodies change. In the 1990s, Angela Bassett needed a butt reduction to be ready for primetime, in this decade Nicki Minaj apparently needs a butt augmentation. While Minaj won’t confirm the fact that she has had implants, instead, she uses the speculation to her own advantage “I don’t mind the questions, I don’t mind the fascination …people are sitting in the barbershop talking about my butt…As long as they’re talking about Nicki Minaj, I’m good.”  However, the extreme difference in before and after pictures would put any questions to bed. She has a drastically different body that can only be explained by heavy padding or surgical transformation.

Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj

Thus, we watch the big black female ass go in and out of fashion. In the 1870s, the Venus Hottentot inspires the bustle in all of Europe. 120 years later, Angela Bassett allegedly has too much ass, and now, with Nicki Minaj, the ass is back and bigger than ever.

Although I would never have cosmetic surgery, I’m unlikely to face that choice. As an independent artist, there’s no industry pressuring me, and no bankable advantage to doing it. Besides, as an independent artist, I couldn’t even afford it. But what I have in common with Bassett and Minaj is that, as black females, we’ve all had to sacrifice our asses in one way or another.

I guess the biggest difference is that Bassett condones it, Minaj exploits it, and I’m just plain pissed about it. I know I was lucky to spend a decade living as a touring writer/performer—I know very few other black women who have had that opportunity. But I spent a lot of those years ass-out in low-paying gigs, alone in one star hotels, and on Greyhound. Touring as a solo performer with no one to have my back was an ass-kicker. By the time I came off the road, my ass was exhausted, and there was no one to say, hey girl, sit your ass down and relax, I’ll take care of things for a minute while you catch your breath.

I’ll always rail about the conditions of racism and sexism that would make women of color have to choose between the integrity of our bodies and the chance to do what we love. But I respect the ambition, even in Chen, Bassett, and Minaj. If I had it to do again, would I do it differently? Girl, if I had two asses to sacrifice, I absolutely would.

eulogy for my ass

friends   loved ones
we are gathered today to pay our respects
to bid farewell
to my young ass

born in less bootylicious times
she grew up perky    precocious
always reaching for the stars

in spandex
throughout the late eighties
shaking in clubs and parties
an upstanding   thong wearing
righteous ass
a hip hop ass

my ass persisted
until 2002 I gained 40 lbs
size 19 & it’s all good
and 2005 I lost 40 lbs
Q: look at you!  have you lost weight?
A: whatever
and it seemed
my ass
had shifted

certainly nothing
a spin class couldn’t fix
or maybe the right
pair of jeans?

tempted by
victoria’s secret
super push-up
what the fuck?
I’m a 25-year
veteran
feminist
not gonna spend no hard earned
eighty dollars on denim with
a built in girdle

still the specter of
ass-death
loomed

farewell
sweet young ass
why didn’t i tell her how much i loved her when she was here?

fuck that
how did i learn as a young woman to         dismember        myself        ?
absorb value hollered into my body on the street

we’ve got a negress here
sturdy    strong
slap!
look at those firm haunches
ougtta fetch a good price gentlemen
a good price
i say
where do we start the bidding?

no longer on the auction block
not even dating on the modern meat market   I’m married
yet somehow the loss of my youthful ass haunted me
a secret stash I could always fall back on
if this writing thing didn’t work out
this college professor gig fell through
i would always have my ass

but everything has its season
a time to defy gravity    and a time to bow down
to its 9.8m/sec2

behind every great woman
is a hard working ass
thanklessly bringing
up the rear guard

i honor these fallen   forgotten soldiers
ass not what your country can do for you

yet from this untimely death may new life begin
my grown ass  a phoenix
rising from the ashes

i praise these gluteus maximi
who have propelled me
across continents and
hold me up even now
as i write this poem
the ass not half empty but half full

i like to think of my young ass
in heaven
like a guardian angel
watching over me
as i dance    make love    ride my bike
switching along in time
as i walk the road
of life

in god not in the bod we trust
accepting aging is a must
especially when
you’re 40+
asses to asses      dust to dust

Aya de Leon is a writer/performer working in poetry, fiction, and hip hop theater.  Her work has received acclaim in the Village Voice, Washington Post, American Theatre Magazine, and has been featured on Def Poetry, in Essence Magazine, and various anthologies and journals. She is currently working on a sexy feminist heist novel and The Puffy Hair Project, a children’s book for people whose hair defies gravity.  Aya is the Director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program, teaching poetry, spoken word, and hip hop at UC Berkeley. She is as a guest blogger for Bitch magazine, Mutha Magazine, MyBrownBaby, Movement Strategy Center and Mothership Hackermoms.  You can find her at ayadeleon.wordpress.com or on twitter @ayadeleon.

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