The African Body and Popular Culture

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This article centers itself on body politics, with a specific focus on reflections regarding the body in African popular culture. Relying on the experimental findings and analytical works of South African writers/researchers Mpho Motseki and Toks Oyedemi, this article aims to aid in contributing towards an informative discussion on body politics from the perspective of popular culture’s influence on beauty ideals and representations of the African body. More specifically, the article discusses celebrity culture/social media influence and the power held by African celebrities who use various social media platforms to promote ideals regarding the body in certain African societies (particularly, but not limited to, South Africa’s Black community). Some South African celebrities, such as Khanyi Mbau, are considered in this article in relation to their beauty performances and very public acts of body alterations over the years. The article addresses body issues that plague Black African communities, such as issues and topics of colorism, weaves, body shapes, and the age-old fetishization of the African body in media and advertisements on a global front.

The Body and Ethnicity in Africa (Skin color/Beauty Ideals/Colorism in Africa)

Mpho Motseki, a contemporary from the South African University of Limpopo, raises a valid and important point in her assertion that: “Celebrities and celebrity culture tend to influence young people’s ideas of culture and the aspirational perception of self and identity” (136).  As we enter the digital age, the rise of celebrity influencer power through the use of various social media platforms has become incredibly impactful on beauty ideals and perceptions worldwide, Africa is no exception to this reality. Evidently, celebrities play a large and powerful role when it comes to public influence and promotions of beauty standards/ideals. With such power comes a great responsibility attached to their use of social media platforms. In South Africa, celebrities are the bulk of pop culture and the ways in which celebrities communicate their perceptions of beauty and the ideal body on media platforms has the largest impact on pop culture. In the journal article Motseki reports findings from a South African study conducted to examine the sort of messages, particularly regarding body type/femininity and beauty ideals, that are being sent out to young women by popular celebrity figures on social media platforms as depicted by the various ways in which: “celebrities present their bodies in the performance of beauty on social media” (136), Motseki further goes on to announce that the findings of a study revealed that, in present day South Africa: “celebrity culture perpetuates the ideology that Black beauty can be achieved through natural skin colour erasure, extended artificial weaves and a thin body frame ” (136). It is worth noting that, Motseki’s findings could ultimately confirm a latent hypothesis that; in South Africa, popular culture as reflected through social media prevails as an influential determinate of certain standards of beauty. It is precisely in this respect that celebrities, as photographed and depicted in the media, easily become worshiped or referenced as archetypes of the ideal representations when it comes to body preferences, presentations and beauty ideals.

Skin lightening among Black women in various Black African societies is a body alteration trend that is commonly endorsed by many local celebrities. It could be argued that, purely based on the images and captions that they upload on their social media, celebrities implicitly manage body trends and beauty ideals, according to Motseki and Oyedemi’s examination: “Black women who use skin-lightening products confirmed that they use the products because models and celebrities use them and the notion of beauty in advertisements is defined as being light-skinned” (140). One South African celebrity icon that easily exemplifies this is the famous South African socialite, television persona and influencer Khanyi Mbau, who openly and proudly admits to having bleached her skin as an act of enhancing her beauty. Another example comes from a local South African musician, Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Mnisi, who bleached her brown skin to a very light pink color and controversially made statements about how she was motivated to do the skin lightening procedure by the fact that she considered her brown African skin as having been ‘ugly’. Additionally, in West Africa a Cameroonian celebrity known as Dencia, even went as far as producing and manufacturing her very own “Whitenicious” skin line comprised of products that lighten the skin (Motseki 1), products that the celebrity claims to use on her own skin as well.

Sociologist Margaret Hunter defines the term ‘colorism’ as being: “a process that privileges light-skinned people of color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market” (237), colorism is essentially a notion that promotes the practice of skin color stratification and is inherently prevalent and linked to brown skin communities. Skin lightening practices have become increasingly common among Black celebrities as well as ordinary Black women across Africa. All throughout the African continent, certain bodies are privileged above others on the basis of the skin color complex. Evidently, light-skinned bodies are positioned at a more advantageous standing, both socially and economically within Black communities, while on the other hand ,darker-skinned individuals are seen and treated as being less desirable and inferior. Hunter points out that: “Research demonstrates that light-skinned people have clear advantages in these areas, even when controlling for other background variables” (237), additionally Hunter also reveals that: “ dark-skinned people of color are typically regarded as more ethnically authentic or legitimate than light-skinned people” (237). Therefore, it is important to note that colorism is a post-colonial ideal and explicitly reflects the cultural legacy of colonialism that continues to exist within the Black community; it is a direct manifestation of a racially discriminative system that has formulated a popular culture mired in latent psychological beliefs reinforcing ideas pertaining to the inferiority of Black people.

Motseki also affirms that the practice of skin bleaching can be traced to a psychological mis-orientation and even mental disturbance, noting that: “the colonial psyche has created a feeling of low self-worth resulting in low self-esteem among Black populations as they occupied the lowest rung of the colonial hierarchy” (41). Moreover, the prevalence of colorism throughout African popular culture not only provides an unfortunate basis for self-hatred within Black African communities, it also poses as a threat towards biogenetic blackness as well as solidarity and unity among Black Africans as a whole.  Motseki’s study holds that: “skin bleaching is accurately interpreted as a profound attack on genetic blackness and by extension African descendants.”(41). Finally, it should be noted that, while Black people continue to discriminate against one another based on the ‘skin color complex’ enforced by pop culture: “multibillion-dollar skin bleaching and cosmetic surgery industries” (Hunter 237), continue to flourish at the expense of the Black population.

The African Body in popular culture- Weaves, body types and fetishizing of the African body in media

Media and marketing tend to propagate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ prototype image comprised of a thin physical make-up. It is precisely this ‘slim’ prototype image that gets cast by a large majority of advertising campaigns as being the perfect body image, particularly in terms of femininity and female excellence. Many young women in South Africa look to pop culture to tell them what is considered beautiful or acceptable in society, therefore, the perpetuation of these overly specific and confining beauty ideals regarding the body inevitably generates an unhealthy infatuation and romanticizing of celebrity bodies. Airbrushed images featuring celebrity figures are presented by the media and revered as being the ideal body type (usually slim), these cultural sentiments regarding the body bombard woman continuously and in many cases result in plus-sized and even average-sized woman acquiring feelings of body-dissatisfaction, lowered self-esteem and in some cases even developing eating disorders.

South Africa is a country that still suffers some of the effects of its brutal apartheid past. As a result of the country’s racially discriminative history, underlying limiting beliefs still linger on a psychological level among the nation and remain prevalent within the culture. Particularly, the sentiment expressed towards Black South African women is that their natural bodies and African features are not good enough as they are. It is unfortunate that even on the African continent, these women are constantly faced with the challenge of having to ‘fix’ and change their natural characteristics to conform to pop culture’s latest definition of ‘Black beauty’.

Black South African women are not only plagued by issues of having to keep up with pop culture’s skin color trends and body shape preferences, they additionally have to deal with beauty ideals around the issue of their natural hair. The narrative of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair’ is highly prevalent among Black communities. In the Black community, hair is a very important feature of the body and it is often connected to a woman’s identity. Popular culture often projects a notion that ‘good hair’ is defined as straight and long hair, while ‘bad hair’ is defined as afro-textured, coarse or short hair. As a result of these indoctrinating ideals projected by pop culture many Black women resort to using chemical relaxers to straighten their natural hair, wearing weaves, hair extensions or wigs, to achieve the look that popular culture deems to be desirable. In the case of weave or wig wearing, Black women are seen sporting Peruvian or Brazilian hair on their heads, while in doing so they thus hide their natural African hair. While many Black South Africans enforce the ideals themselves, the beliefs behind the discriminative ideals stem from colonial ideals that latently promote European beauty standards. In fact, in another study conducted with a central emphasis on hair culture and ideals amongst Black South Africans, Motseki detailed findings that confirmed that: “many young black women do not wear their natural hair as a result of many stereotypes and issues with social acceptability” (139). In the case of chemical relaxers, Motseki makes the claim that the practice leads to: “a cultural violence of identity erasure in the pursuit of achieving an idealised body feature ”(139), this is a fair claim to consider given the fact that chemical hair straightening practices like relaxing permanently alters the natural texture of African hair.

Sexuality, Fetishizing and the African body in media

Finally, it is important to consider ideologies behind some images presented by popular culture as a primary depiction and representation of the African body in media. When discussing the representation of the native African woman in popular culture and media, anthropologist Aleksandar Bošković, recalls an 1898 National Geographic advertisement. The advert featured an image involving a half-naked African woman with a focus on her body. This example lends itself to the discussion on body politics in popular culture, because it highlights the regard and metaphorical ideals related to the native African body. In his recollection, Aleksandar Bošković describes the 1898 National Geographic advertisements as follows:

Looking blandly at the camera, the woman is standing right next to her husband, and they are both (as the natives should be) naked from the waist up. The caption under the photograph is truly informative: ‘These people are of dark bronze hue, and have good athletic figure. They possess some excellent traits, but are horribly cruel when once they have smelled blood’ (178)

The advertisement reflects an age old depiction of the African native as somewhat animalist, hypersexual and subhuman; a colonial sentiment that once assigned the African native to a category of “other”. Given that the advertisement was the first photograph image of a semi-nude African woman, Bošković describes the advert as having been: “an inauguration of a certain way of representing “native” women or “women of color” (178). Adjacent to this conception is a similar sentiment and depiction relevant to the African male body that Bošković notes as being a sentiment stemming from early colonialism when Europeans first arrived in Africa. According to Bošković, historically speaking, when early western colonialists first arrived on the African continent they perceived ‘African culture’ as being very uninhibited in terms of its expressions of sexuality (179), as a result of this perception- the generated opinion by the Western colonialists towards the African natives was that the natives were sexually uninhibited: “On the one hand, the imagined sexuality of African men was perceived as dangerous and threatening – coming from the (perceived) promiscuous cultural background, they were imagined to be totally superior to the white men (myth of the black lover with huge penis)” (179). Similarly, the view generated of the native African women was that: “they were perceived as ‘easy’ and ‘willing’” (Bošković 179). It can be argued that it is these colonialist sentiments that may have contributed towards the often hyper sexualized archetype image of the Black woman in present day popular culture, as seen in media and on entertainment platforms – especially music videos and in rap/hip-hop culture. Bošković’s reading presents and confirms the claim that: “the ‘Africa’ has served as a metaphor for the exotic, different, mysterious other” (178). Still, it should be noted these images and perceptions regarding the African body can be understood in large as being significant indicators of, not only colonial embellishment, but also colonial insecurities in relation to sexuality and the body.

 

Bibliography

Bošković, Aleksandar. “Out of Africa: images of women in anthropology and popular culture.” Etnolog (2006): 177-183.

Hunter, Margaret. “The persistent problem of colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality.”      Sociology compass 1.1 (2007): 237-254.

Motseki, Mpho, and Toks Oyedemi. “Social media and the cultural ideology of beauty among young black women in South Africa.”  Communitas 22 (2017): 136-148.

Motseki, Mpho Cynthia. Black erasure and celebrity peddling of whiteness: a study of skin bleaching among black women in South Africa. Diss. 2019.

 

Mbali Hlubi is a South African native who was born and raised in Benoni, Gauteng. She graduated from Rhodes University where she majored in English Honors with a minor in Philosophy. She is passionate about music, public speaking, literature and creative visual art. Mbali loves traveling and has been to four different continents. She particularly enjoyed her time in South Carolina where she did a study abroad exchange program at Furman University.

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