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The Washington Post’s She The People: Michelle Obama and the Broadsides on the Black Woman’s Backside

by Michelle D. Bernard

February 6, 2013

Michelle Obama speaks to grassroots supporters in Loudoun County on behalf of her husband President Barack Obama during a campaign rally Oct. 9, 2012 at the Leesburg, Virginia Country Fairgrounds in Leesburg, Va. (Paul J. Richards -- AFP/GettyImages)

Michelle Obama speaks to grassroots supporters in Loudoun County on behalf of her husband President Barack Obama during a campaign rally Oct. 9, 2012 at the Leesburg, Virginia Country Fairgrounds. (Paul J. Richards — AFP/GettyImages)

Krissah Thompson’s story, “Michelle Obama’s Posterior Again the Subject of Public Rant” got me thinking about somatic norm image — in other words, how cultures define beauty — and about my days as an undergraduate at Howard University, one of the nation’s premier historically black universities.  As female students at Howard, our somatic norm image could be seen in the pride we had as students in all that made us black women, our posteriors included.

One of the reasons I, like thousands of other black women, chose Howard, was because at Howard and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, we understood that “black”, in all its iterations, is beautiful.

Whether light-skinned, caramel colored, or ebony, our professors reaffirmed what our parents had taught us: “Black is beautiful.”

Whether blue, green, or brown eyed, our black was beautiful.

Whether straight haired, wavy haired, or woolly-haired, our black was beautiful.

Whether we had small eyes, large eyes or Asian eyes, our black was beautiful.

Whether we had large or aquiline noses; small or large lips, our black was beautiful.

And whether we had small, medium, or large butts, our black, was beautiful.

Michelle Obama is in no way overweight. She exudes athleticism and beauty.  Countless women, black or white, would be thrilled to have her toned arms, abs, thighs, rear end or any other part of her physique. Moreover, their husbands, wives or significant others would be similarly thrilled.

 Michelle Obama’s black is beautiful.

In his book, “Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience,” my former professor, Frank M. Snowden, Jr., provided archaeological evidence that what is commonly known as “Steatopygia” or the large and distinctive posterior that is characteristic of many black women of African descent has been a part of our cultural identity since at least antiquity.

In his book, Snowden stated that “of the many peoples who entered the Greco-Roman world were the dark- and black-skinned Ethiopians of Africa.” Snowden argued that these black Africans (also referred to by some as Kushites), were a “favorite illustration of a physical type differing from the Greeks and Romans.”

In a photograph in his book provided by the National Archeological Museum of Athens, we see a depiction from the fifth century, B.C., of Heracles and “three rather steatopygic [black] women” attendants of King Busiris.  In another photograph provided by the Museo Nazionale in Rome, we again see “steatopygic women [from the early second century A.D.] on a marble relief tomb near Ariccia,” Rome.  These were all black women.

The point is, it appears that our distinctive posterior is simply the way many of us were created.  The early Greeks and Romans celebrated and depicted our beauty in their art and their artwork is something truly to behold.

The cornrows worn by so many black women didn’t become beautiful by the standards of many whites until we saw them on Bo Derek.

Our large, shapely lips didn’t become beautiful to many whites until the world saw them on Angelina Jolie.

Now that Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez are sporting what is still largely seen in the United States as a “black woman’s butt,” it’s become something considered beautiful by white male cultural standards.

It’ll be interesting to see what Bob Grisham, the high school football coach who referred to the first lady as “Fat Butt Michelle Obama,” or conservative radio host Rush Limbuagh who has referred to the first lady as Michelle “My Butt” Obama will do if they find out that  one of the hottest selling items on the internet is the “Brazil Butt Lift” sold by Beach Body.

Somatic norm image within the white community is changing to reflect what has always been the standard of beauty in the black community.  The one thing that remains the same however is that our black is, and has always been, beautiful.

Bernard thumbnailMichelle D. Bernard is the president & CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.  Follow her on Twitter @michellebernard.

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