The life of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ still feels familiar for those used to being gawked at.
You might not know Sarah Baartman’s face, but you know her body.
Sarah Baartman — also known as Saartjie or the “Hottentot Venus” — was born in the late 18th century in the Eastern Cape (part of modern-day South Africa). She was brought to the UK with a ship surgeon who profited from exhibiting Sarah for the entertainment of the British public because of her steatopygia. This meant that she had excess fatty tissue around her hip and bottom area, spectacular enough to warrant her, well — a spectacle. She subsequently spent most of her adult life being exhibited as a caged freak-show attraction both in London and Paris, where she died and was displayed even in death up until the late ‘70s.
There are many details about the life of Sarah Baartman that are still either unknown or unconfirmed. This includes her birth name, her cause of death, and the extent of any agency she may or may not have had in the events of her adult life. A lot of us won’t even have even heard of her, yet her story bears a troubling resemblance to the experiences of generations of black women down the line. Sarah Baartman’s reality as an attraction to behold, gawk at, and prod at manifests itself today in every hyper-sexualized fetishist remark veiled as a compliment, and every depiction of my big black ass as either comedic fodder or the accessory of the moment.
A lot of us won’t even have even heard of her, yet her story bears a troubling resemblance to the experiences of generations of black women down the line.
Sarah’s story has always resonated with me as a young black woman with a pretty shapely behind. As a teenager especially, I was no Sarah Baartman, but I still turned heads. My developing body was the pink elephant in the room, creating tension that was exacerbated by my being both the youngest and the only girl in my family. Lewd comments from men on the street old enough to be my father went hand in hand with warnings and admonishments from relatives to…