The Beyoncefication of black women: an impossible position to occupy

2014-07-06 05:48

The other day I was walking in the street in my neighbourhood in Khayelitsha. I was approaching a group of young men standing on the street corner. As I approached, I saw them start to leer and one of them started walking towards me. As a reflex response, I crossed the street to try and avoid head on contact with him. He whistled and summoned me to stop because he ‘wanted to talk to me’. Being a woman who has lived in townships the majority of my life, I know what that kind of ‘talk’ means. It means he wants to get my telephone number so he can show his friends how macho he is, what a player he is and how alluring he is to this unwitting woman.

In any case, I refused to look or acknowledge him. As I walked on, I heard him say: “yintoni inxaki yakho? Ucinga ndizakutya? Umbi noba mbi. Thina siqhele ooBeyonce not ooLauryn Hill.” Translation: “what’s your problem? Do you think I’m going to eat you? You are ugly. We are used to Beyonces not Lauryn Hills.” I kept walking.

Even though a part of me felt the urge to turn around and unleash a rebuttal, common sense and the very real need for self-preservation prevailed. I am well aware of the countless stories of women who have been attacked and violently beaten or even killed over smaller issues in township streets. Women, in particular black women, are harassed and verbally assaulted in the streets of South African townships. Widespread sexism and street harassment of women is rampant, not only in South Africa, but the world over. One only has to spend time on the internet visiting websites like the Everyday Sexism Project, I holla back and End Street Harassment to read about the widespread sexual harassment and street harassment of women.

However, I digress. Something about this very misogynoir, patriarchal and idiotic comment made by this guy actually sounded very familiar. He echoed a systemic and prevailing belief of beauty and the impossible standards that the popular culture and consumerism impose on black women. His statement implied that my natural hair, average built and dark skin was not pretty nor was it worthy of his recognition and standards of beauty because natural is not beautiful.

For decades, the media has received criticism on their role in the portrayal of women as the goddess-like, skinny and often-blonde sex bombs that set impossible standards for most women to achieve. The standard being skinny white women with straight lush blonde hair is the golden rule and anything in between is exotic and a rare find. In instances where black women are used as the standard, one is usually encountered with images of Naomi Campbell, Beyonce, Rihanna, Halle Berry and various women who do not disrupt the normal order nor defy the mainstream standards imposed on black women by white-owned media and white dominated fashion and beauty industries. Women like Alek Wek, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott and even Oprah have struggled with mainstream critique over their appearances because they do not conform to the standards set by the marketing industry, fashion world and the media that provides these images with an outlet for consumption.

The Beyoncefication of black women is on the increase with unrealistic expectations that many girls and women may never achieve nor care to achieve in their lifetime. Beyoncefication being that Beyonce is the standard, upon which all black women are expected to aspire, an expectation that women need to be curvaceous yet have a petit body, sleek and well-groomed weave being a necessity than an option, and dance like warriors without breaking a sweat. The increased demand on black women to try and realize this ideal has resulted in the ‘othering’ of any other form of beauty that falls outside of the Beyonce paradigm. The hegemonic binary narrative here being: Beyonce is beautiful and therefore Lauryn Hill or anything else is not. Black men and some women are instrumental in the Beyoncefication of black women through their shaming of women who fall outside of the ‘mainstream’ beauty standard.

In his mind, comparing me to Lauryn Hill was an insult. Therefore an assault on my natural body and being, which he deemed to not be beautiful, was meant to shame me and cut deep. It didn’t. I am not Beyonce, I don’t strive to be like Beyonce nor do I prescribe to the Beyoncefication of black women. I am affirmed in who I am and do not need to aspire to a standard that does not resonate with me. I am not alone; there is a whole movement of people like me.

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