Of body and beauty

It was probably in 2007 or 2008 when this situation that I’m about to share occurred. At that time, an Anthropologist friend had suggested that I write about it and, perhaps, offer some sort of theoretical analysis. I wasn’t keen on writing about personal experiences for an academic audience then, and I still maintain that position now. In my view, it’s one thing to draw upon my own experiences to analyze a phenomenon, but it’s a whole different matter to locate my experiences at the center of academic writing. In any event, some years have passed since the incident that I’m about to share and this is an appropriate platform to reflect on the perceptions women have of other women’s bodies. By “other” women, I mean women of diverse nationalities as well as race. More specifically, I’m referring to Black South African women’s view of Asian in general and Chinese women’s bodies in particular.

One year I signed up for a gym membership with my partner at that time, Keo. She had started an internship at the provincial treasury department, which was in downtown Johannesburg (Joburg or Jozi). By that time, I already had Mr Brown (my 1987 Toyota Corolla), so I would drive us into town on the mornings that we’d scheduled for gym. The gym was in the Carlton Center, a shopping mall that has been around, probably, since the apartheid period. It’s a predominantly Black shopping center, frequented by people who worked in town. The people who worked in town included professionals, cashiers, cleaning staff, etc. Even the gym members were all Black South Africans. Obviously, I stood out. On the workout floor, I did receive occasional stares. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem occurred behind closed doors, in the women’s shower and changing room. Because we’d work out in the mornings, it’s normal for us to shower before I dropped Keo off at the treasury department and I headed to the University of Witwatersrand (Wits). Like everyone, we’d be naked for the shower. And because the showers were few and people were trying to rush to work, it’s common for women to share showers…or, at least, Keo and I did to be efficient. Of course, the entire time that we’re inside this shower/locker room, everyone’s talking. I didn’t think the women were necessarily talking about me. If I recall correctly, Keo didn’t talk much in the shower. I’m not sure how many times this had happened, but one day Keo blurted out for me to not bend over when I was about to lotion my legs. When I asked why, she told me that the women were looking at me. I’m sure I hadn’t understood what she was referring to specifically. At some point she explained to me that there were women waiting for me to bend over, so that they could look beneath me. Somehow they have heard that “the hole” was in a different area, making Asian/Chinese women more desired sexual partners to men. I still don’t know where this “hole” could be. Keo didn’t elaborate, as the scenario in this room was more upsetting to her than it was to me (at least initially until it became perpetual and annoying). These women spoke in Zulu, so I didn’t understand the exchanges. Apparently, one time, the older female staff member was responsible for inciting others to watch me. Needless to say, Keo and I cancelled our gym memberships soon after.

The curiosity these women exhibited over a particular body part of mine made me wonder how colonization has shaped the subconscious or unconscious minds of African women in general and Black South African women in particular. Specifically, their views of their own as well as other women’s bodies. Indeed, Saartjie or Sarah Baartman – also known as the “Hottentot Venus” – was on my mind. Baartman’s external physique, specifically her “large buttocks,” and genitalia (e.g., an elongated labia) were curiosities to Europeans in the 19th century. The Khoikhoi woman was brought to London, and her perceived exoticism was exhibited across Britain for a number of years before she appeared in France. She was a scientific curiosity. She was also subjected to medical examinations by Georges Cuvier, at the Museum of National History. From what I’ve read here and there over the years, Baartman’s body was dissected and parts of her (e.g., brain and genitals) were displayed at a museum in Paris. It was only in 2002 that her remains were returned to South Africa to rest.

Scholars in race and gender studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, and cultural studies, among other disciplines and fields, have written about the influences of Baartman’s treatment – and, even, dehumanization – on racial perceptions and representations of Black women. But, what I experienced at the gym that year seems to be something deeper: that is, Black women’s internalization of this 19th-century exoticization and racialization of their bodies. What does it mean for them to turn that European colonial gaze to view me, whereby their primary curiosity about me is my genitalia?  Or has there always been a parallel construction of exotic Asian women in which these women could readily access? Does the belief that Asians are a mysterious group of people have a role in these African women’s curiosity? I suspect that answers are overlapping. It doesn’t help that the music videos that have featured Asian women, which I’ve seen in South Africa, completely sexualize them. In the videos the Asian women are also submissive, awaiting the overtures of the Black male singers.

A Chinese friend, who recently traveled to Nigeria in search of business opportunities, just shared with me a few days ago that she couldn’t understand why the Africans at the market place think that this one overweight Chinese woman is attractive. She said that she’s told the Nigerians that in China, this particular woman wouldn’t be considered attractive or desirable. My friend said that no one believed her. While she couldn’t understand what the Nigerians saw as beautiful, the Nigerians seemingly couldn’t understand why that particular Chinese women would be regarded as unattractive. Having lived in South Africa, especially a Black township, I suggested to my friend that maybe it’s because of the woman’s light skin color or that the Nigerians didn’t see her weight as an issue. My suggestions fell on deaf ears. I think she remains skeptical of whether Nigerians know what beauty is…just as the Africans I’ve encountered in Guangzhou, who are also skeptical about whether Chinese people have any sense of aesthetics.

I have yet to come across a scholar, including myself, who has questioned Chinese or Africa people’s notion of beauty, especially of one another. Being similar to other social identities, beauty, I believe, is a socio-historical construction, interwoven by patriarchy and race as well as other values that have emanated from people’s experiences over time. So, the question raised in my earlier blog about inter-racial relationships in the Africa-China nexus, must push beyond a surface reading of…skin color.

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