Written with Gcobani Qambela
“It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights — if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” In the novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes about the tragic tale of a black child, Pecola, whose wish in life is to have blue eyes. Morrison has stated that she wrote the novel from the view of a child who has surrendered completely to other people’s “master narratives” about what she should be so that she can imagine what it must feel like to have to learn that one is not desirable (ie ugly), growing up in a world that constantly tells you that “you are not it”.
The past week seems to have been open season on the bodies of black South African women, especially in social media. This starting with the public humiliation and body shaming of arts and culture portfolio committee chairperson Thandile Sunduza and the “bad fashion choice” she made at the State of the Nation Address. Sunduza, who was busy minding her own business last Thursday, found herself at the centre of yet another dreadful experience in which a black female body was rendered undesirable as it is. Less than a week later, this climaxed with misogynoir levelled against popular actress Boity Thulo for posing (semi) nude as part of the Marie Claire magazine “Naked Issue” (which aims to raise funds for “The Lunchbox Fund”). The picture from the Marie Claire issue, which she shared with her thousands of Twitter followers, raised mixed reactions from the clearly sexually overexcited (heterosexual) men, to others praising its aesthetic appeal, but more disturbing a larger number of misogynistic comments calling the young woman a “hoe” (whore). Comments around this black woman’s body centred around “posing naked will never fight poverty honestly, people must stop making excuses for being hoes”.
There are clearly marked material differences between Thulo and Sunduza, ranging from their age, the industries they operate in, and their body types. One woman, a member of parliament, participated in the State of the Nation ceremony, which is of particular significance to a South Africa that is celebrating 20 years of democracy. The entry of black bodies not as servants but as leaders in the national assembly symbolises the triumph of black people over a system whose brutality was felt on the bodies of millions of South Africans who spent their lives running away from being beaten by police forces carrying sjamboks that were meant to discipline unruly black bodies. This is a woman who is part of a generation that continues to have vivid memories of having lived in a past South Africa where black bodies were reduced to commodities or criminals. It is less than ironic that then this person finds herself having to run for “cover” in 2014 as attacks were, yet again, directed at her bodily integrity by a different kind of police.
Thulo on the other hand undeniably represents a different kind of black womanhood, as the “new age black woman” who has not lived a significant part of her life under the gaze of the brutal apartheid state. Thulo has been able carve her own path and sip deeply from the wells of freedom women and “young lions’ of Sunduza’s generation dug. Yet, what connects Sunduza and Thulo as black women living in post-apartheid South Africa is the extent to which they live in a society that still tells them their bodies are not theirs. The predatory remarks directed against these women expose a country that is never satisfied with black women as they are. While the body-shaming endured by Sunduza would at first glance appear to be corrected by her losing weight, we see in the case where black women like Thulo would undeniably have the “ideal” or “perfect” body, they are still scrutinised at the same level. Many remarks about Thulo centred on respectability politics that are telling her to cover her body as desirable as it might appear, in the same manner in which Sunduza was also told to conceal her body because it is not desirable.
Maheshvari Naidu and Kholekile Hazel Ngqila in “Enacting masculinities: Pleasure to men and violence to women” observe that these discourses around the bodies of women have the effect of being appropriated to render such bodies “docile” and without agency. In “Deep Frames, White Men’s Discourse, and Black Female Bodies”, Brittany Chevon Slatton notes that black female bodies are often constructed as the direct opposite of what hegemonic femininity traditionally represents. She notes that these constructions place “black women outside the bounds of hegemonic femininity, beauty, sexuality, and womanhood”, while often white middle-class womanhood is held as the model of the normal womanhood. In “The thin/thick body ideal: Zulu women’s [bodies] as a site of cultural and postcolonial feminist struggle”, Winifred Ogana and Vivian Ojong note that in South Africa there are still many patriarchal discourses that contribute to the ideals people carry about the perceived “ideal” body size women should have which thus consequently affects the agency of women and the ways in which they respond to such imageries about their bodies.
While last week the image of Sunduza’s buttocks and waist were circulated as a sign of that which is not desirable, on Monday, the image of Thulo which also highlighted the same body parts has been championed as the celebration of an “African-made body”. This cannot be divorced from the painful history spanning decades of parading the bodies of black women as exotic, hypersexual and dangerous. In Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman (edited by Natasha Gordon-Chipembere) we are reminded about the importance of looking deeply at the history of women like Baartman whose black bodies were not theirs but rather presented as a spectacle for exhibition; we must never forget as Jude Clark notes that the multi-layered trauma of the “impact of multifaceted sexual violation that black women [and their bodies] have suffered throughout history”.
Reports from people who know and have met Sunduza seem to hint at a warm and happy black woman that is loving and living out loud. Thulo choosing to share her body, in a traditionally white publication (that is often resistant to showing black female bodies on the cover) suggests a young black woman exercising her agency and making strategic choices about where and how the public engages her body. Yet the resistance and drawback that they both have endured vividly shows that we still have a long way to go in South Africa before we can celebrate black female bodies as they are, and not as the “master narrative” dictates they should be.
Lady in red, a character in Ntozake Shange’s classic play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, defiantly exclaims: “I found god in myself and I loved her/ I loved her fiercely.” Commenting on the continued resonance of this play 40 years since it was written, Shange notes that it is indeed “bittersweet” because it shows that “though we have achieved many a milestone, the stories and struggles of our lives as women, and in particular, women of color, are still not granted the full address due”. The circus of the past week is yet another reminder of the continued struggle that faces black women as they re-write and widen the scope and performance of their womanhood.