#TeacherBae And The Sexualization And Fear Of Black Curves
By Mycah Hazel
When Patrice “Tricey” Brown, an elementary school teacher’s aide in Atlanta, posted professional photos to her Instagram page, she almost certainly couldn’t have expected that they would be posted in other online forums and subsequently go viral. Nor could she have anticipated the backlash her sartorial choices would inspire — ultimately causing her school district to issue a statement saying she had been “given guidance” on her attire. Why? Because Brown wore clothing that, far from being outright inappropriate, at times hugged her natural curves.
The social media firestorm was marked by the hashtag #TeacherBae, with people expressing either sexist contempt or support for the school staffer with the audacity to have a certain body type.
More than being about the general body-shaming of women, the incident tapped into an often-overlooked form of racism, sparking a conversation that has been long overdue: Have we really come to accept black curves, or have we oversexualized and materialized them so much that we only allow them to exist in certain settings?
Black bodies have long been used for the convenience of others. In slave days, it was economically and socially convenient to put blacks on ships, plant black bodies in the heat to produce the day’s basic commodities, whip us if we weren’t working hard enough, or kill us if we looked at a white person long enough.
Still today, black bodies — or more accurately, the features commonly attributed to black bodies — continue to be used at the convenience of others. Only now, this convenience comes in the form of hypersexualization. The influx and sexual commodification of “thick bodies” has led us to forget that curviness isn’t just an Instagram trend, goal, or keyword for a Tinder profile. It’s an actual body type that people have in settings — like, say, a school — which are not designed for sexualized consumption.
Black women’s bodies and the curvy features that have historically and genetically been attributed to these bodies are a fixture of entertainment and media. “Thick” black girls dominate hip hop music videos to validate the rapper’s success (since success is obviously measured in the width of a woman’s derrière), while photos of curvy black girls dominate Instagram feeds and are routinely consumed by those who seek them out.
The black female body, or at least our culture’s idea of it, has since been appropriated as an ideal for other ethnicities as well, under the guide of “thickness.” Just look at the popularity of Kylie Jenner, whose hip ratio is guaranteed to fill up my Instagram feed each day. Or look at the popularity of women like the “unusually curvy” German-Pakistani model Amina Blue, who was the focus of Tyga’s “One On One” music video and one of the stars of Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 4 NYFW show. There’s even a cottage industry that’s been built up around this idealization: The increasing popularity of waist trainers, twerking, and “baddie culture” have turned the black curvy body into an archetype that, if someone doesn’t already contain it, can be achieved in a few easy steps.
The more curvy bodies are used for others’ consumption, the more we become trained to only see them through a hypersexualized lens. They’re no longer physical bodies, but goals. They’re unattainable. They’re unreal. Curvy bodies are viewed less as a body type and more as a social media myth — and women like Tricey Brown, who choose to place their curvy body in a classroom instead of a video shoot or sexy Instagram snap, get caught in the crossfire.
We shouldn’t be disturbed by the discovery that curvaceous bodies can also be educated bodies. Though her critics would scoff at such a statement, Tricey Brown is a much-needed example of the positive representation many blacks have been calling for. Representation isn’t just a matter of race, but race and body. Just as there have been calls for more black women in places of stature, curvy black women deserve representation in non-sexualized settings.
It’s quite easy for slimmer women to switch between sexy and “serious.” Cara Delevingne went from the scantily-clad (and inarguably sexy) Victoria’s Secret model, on the one hand, to a corporate woman (turned monster, but that’s beside the point) in Suicide Squad. No questions, no complaints. But it isn’t so easy for a curvy black woman to fit into an office setting without her body being scrutinized.
Tricey Brown forces us to recognize that black women with curves don’t just exist to add spice to your timeline. They are educated women contributing to society. You can open and close an app, but you can’t hide a body type when you don’t want to see it — especially since it doesn’t exist for your sexual gratification anyway.
Since it’s become so intertwined with the movement toward bodily acceptance — and since too many people have blown money on waist trainers — the idea of “thickness” will probably never expire, and some people (i.e. reality stars who’ve built makeup brands and business relationships out of this idea) definitely won’t want it to. However, the black curves that essentially inspired thickness won’t go away either . . . and they aren’t just on Instagram. They’re in your face, at your job, at your office, and, like it or not, around your schoolchildren.
If you can’t accept black curvy bodies in all spaces, then maybe you should stop being such a waste of space.
Lead image: Pixabay