Currently reading : Saartje Baartman and the contemporary female fetishized body.
Saartje ‘Sara’ Baartman or better known through her colonial nickname the ‘Hottentot Venus’. (Hottentot was a phonetic description of the Khoi-San people – Now considered derogatory. Hottentot was used because when spoken quickly it imitates the sound of the (now largely extinct KhoiKhoi Language) at the time and Venus eludes to the name of the Goddess of love , however Baartman experienced nothing but abuse throughout her life.) became one of the most famous women of her day in europe from the years 1810 to 1815. During Baartman’s short life her body was fetished to the point of sadism even after her death.
Born in 1789 she was taken from her native South Africa to London as a slave where she became the objects of a humiliating freak show for no other reason than the dimensions of her body. There is no doubt that Baartman’s body was unusual in its exaggeration of her buttocks and it has also been documented that she had an elongated labia. Put on display as an objective of curiosity she was presented like an animal to paying visitors with the price of the show including the opportunity to touch her if they weren’t ‘too afraid’ to.
After this period of her life she was moved to Paris where she became the subject of biological paintings where scientists tried to prove that her body was that of a prehistoric form. To extend the already unbearable humiliation to Baartman’s existence her genitialia which was meant to have been of a larger scale was repeatedly offered money if she would display it to an academic audience.
Towards the end of her life she was finally subjected to prostitution in private parties at first, then developing alcoholism she worked in a brothel and died of an unknown disease however it has been speculated that it was either from syphilis or from alcoholism.
However the objectification of her body didn’t end after her death, it was then dissected and placed into formalin by a French anatomist and zoologist that used his research to attempt to demonstrate in front of the French National Academy of Medicine a racist theory of evolution for which black bodies were considered as pre-humans.
A mold created of her corpse was then exhibited by the prestigious Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974, and it was only in 2002 that the demands from the Khoïkhoï (racistly called “Hottentot” by the Afrikaners), supported by the post-Apartheid South African government, were met by the French government in order to send back Baartman’s remains to be buried on her native land. Nelson Mandela requested her remains be brought home in 1994. It took eight years for the French to pass a bill to have their “scientific curiosity” return to South Africa. It is truly disgusting that it took a total of 187 years for her body to put to rest for the show to end of Baartman her pain is over.
The variations of colonised subjectivity that Baartman experienced was heartbreakingly varied, obviously there is the formation which took place through her being a slave which is more obvious but then this is also miser with the capitalized spectacle of her body which combines racist objectification with the display of her body as a commodity, and then the academic interest for her body’s morphology to serve colonial ideologies through the simulacrum of scientist evolutionary demonstrations even after her actual death.
The slave master, the capitalist entertainer, the pimp and the racist scientist are the four aspects of the same figure of the colonialist. This dominating figure wants to simultaneously have access to free or under-payed (wo)manpower, to develop an economy of spectacle to its bourgeois audience, to subjugate the colonized body to his desire eventually to justify the system of rationality he uses to legitimatize his acts through the fallacious construction of an ideology that excludes the colonized body from the realms of human beings entitled to rights. (source)
It is interesting looking at Baartman’s life not only as a lesson to the extremity of colonised society but how currently women’s bodies are fetishised for having exaggerated African features. The Kardashianation of our contemporary society over the last few years has seen a boom in women amplifying and distorting the natural dimensions of their bodies to maintain some kind of current ideal of what is now deemed as sexy. It is of course unusual for women who are not from the decent of South American or African genetics to create the shape of this kind of body without the aid of either intensive exercise or surgery. But even then many women who naturally emulate this shape are going through surgical procedures to extend this physical shape. There is a kind of extremity in how rapidly this trend in body shape has escalated which brings up ideas of curiosity in how these women’s bodies will appear once this trend falls out of fashion.
How one kind of body was deemed with such colonial venom and disgust 160 years later we now seem an amalgamation of this kind of shape come into the most sexually fetishized and generally unrealistic formation for many women emulating this look to acheive. It is difficult to say whether there is anything empowering about this transformation as its main purpose it to entice male sexual interest which seems rather backwards in terms of what someone like Baartman’s body went through (or basic feminism?). But then again there is the argument that this shape celebrates a figure which has almost always been ‘out of fashion’ which is no bad thing. The issue here is more about the artificiality and painful procedures that women are experiencing to attract other men.
We now see women creating whole careers for themselves simply for the shape of their bodies with women such as Blac Chyna or Kim Kardashian flaunting a kind of impossibility which sits so uneasily and quite surreally on their small frames. Especially when their fame stems from very little other than previous sex work or being the partner of a more famous man. Only a few years ago this kind of body would have been considered unattractive to both sexes but what does it say about our society that women are being fetishsized in this way and men from all over the world are spectating and enjoying it? Many women are looking up to these examples and mimicking this look as something desirable. As the availability of more and more extreme pornography becomes common place and even more mundane but totally unrealistic sexual acts become so easily streamed into the majority of the growing worlds minds the physical components of the over exercised porn stars bodies is also seeming to trickle down to more and more women.
Modifying your own physicality is always a personal choice and people must always create something that they believe will endorse self confidence or an aesthetic of decision, but I can’t help but feel that men are still not enduing as much pain for the sake of attracting other females and this type of body shape unless natural creates some difficult issues in how we still see women as objects of sex and how so many women are happy to be subjected like that.
Illustrations of Saartje Baartman