Bootylicious Filter: Butts, Photoshop, and Digital Appropriation of the Black Female Body3/31/2013
Ten years ago, Adobe premiered the first modernized version of what we now call “photoshop”. Its Cr...
Ten years ago, Adobe premiered the first modernized version of what we now call “photoshop”. Its Creative Suite package included software that allowed for a state-of-the-art experience in digital creation and editing, from fashion photography to newspaper design. In 2013, after countless updates and improvements to the software, it continues to reign supreme. Industry professionals and leisure users utilize it for a wide variety of things—including the exaggerated enhancement of butts, particularly on non-Black women.
In fact, this practice has gotten so common that a Twitter account—which has since stopped “operations”—was developed for sheer purposes of identifying posteriors enhanced by photoshop.
At first glance, it might not seem troubling. Cosmetic enhancement, or the image of it—whether through invasive surgery, teenage bras stuffed with socks, or enlarged breasts by way of photo-editing software—is not a new phenomenon. From Chinese foot-binding to Victorian waist-training, women have been modifying their bodies in the name of vanity for centuries. However, the affixation of big, round behinds to pictures of non-Black women—when linked to historical contexts—means something deeper. It’s not just a male chauvinist tactic. It signifies further commodification of the Black body and a new kind of appropriation exclusive to a technologically advanced society.
Contrary to what Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian would have many think, the big butt was not always admired. When compared with blond hair and blue eyes, it still isn’t admired for the same reasons. Instead, it was othered. Since Sarah Baartman’s involuntary participation in 19th century European freak shows, and even before, the Black female body has served as a site of sexual lechery. In artistic depictions of the Black female body, the breasts are large and supple; the waist is small, leading to round, exaggerated hips and perfectly globular buttocks. Large butts meant open, available access to an exotic, primitive, sexually deviant experience. Some would argue that it still does.
Though I wouldn’t go as far as calling non-Black urban models Sarah Baartman, because they have agency, these women are positioned in the photographs for a certain type of consumption. But if you remove the Black woman—Black skin, Black hair, and other Black features—from this body, does the butt mean the same thing? When butts are photoshopped onto racy photos of non-Black women, are they still tools of hypersexualization or does fair skin, straighter hair, and lighter eyes counteract it for a “perfect woman” effect?
This is where photoshop and commodification hop into the conversation and muddy the waters. In a funny, but telling comment, Tina Fey remarked:
But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.
Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful.
Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.
The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.
Of all things to take from the Black female body aesthetic, a photo editor’s decision to use the butt speaks volumes about perceived Black female identity.
The digital appropriation of the Black female body allows consumers of these photos to feel and experience a perceived sexual experience exclusive to the Black female body—without an actual Black woman present. It allows “sellers” of these photos to hustle a modern aesthetic bionic woman, with physical attributes from every race or ethnicity cut and pasted onto a superwoman. Like Tina Fey said, the end result is a fair-skin, straight hair, light eyed woman who will make her big round booty twerk and clap. In the year 2029, when photos start talking, these images will probably have Dominican accents too—since the Latina identity is highly fetishized too.
Then, there is the issue of context. All non-Black models’ butts aren’t being enhanced. Only ones in very specific scenes—pictures targeted to “urban” audiences. This also implies a lot about Western perceptions of Black male sexuality, that it remain primitive, animalistic, deviant—second rate, and immoral in comparison to White men.
In several Black cultural arenas, including rap music, “Ebony” pornography, and strip clubs, the big butt is praised. It is fetishized by White men, celebrated by Black men, resented by (some) White women, envied by others, and admired by Black women. The “big booty” is depicted as bait, unveiled and emphasized to attract the Black man, and as a symbol of promiscuity, indicating a woman who boasts a populous record of sexual partners. Women with ample hind parts are encouraged to wear different types of business attire, so as not to look too “hot” in professional settings, and regardless of the social context or individual identity of the respective woman, the big butt is often equated with a “stripper body.”
In retrospect, by photoshopping big butts onto non-Black women in stigmatized settings, these technological advancements only serve to reaffirm the hypersexualized stereotype. Non-Black women with big butts, whether authentic or photoshopped, aren’t in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Elle, or even Maxim. Here we were, thinking technology only bettered society. Actually, no we didn’t—but you get the picture.
People are allowing these enhanced photos to dictate their preferences in reality. Call it the booty matrix, where the lines between real and fake are blurred by a few clicks of an editor’s mouse—and The Booty Forensics’ Twitter timeline is a good look into how many people are opting for the blue pill.
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Asia Brown is a culture critic, writer, and author. Her 2nd novel, White Girl Hair, debuts on July 6th. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for a Master of Arts degree in Communication Studies, specializing in rhetoric, media studies, and popular culture. Follow her daily musings on Twitter: @AsiaBrown