After attending this panel and feeling like I got gypped out of a discussion about our own, as well as, society’s perceptions of Black female bodies I haven’t been able to shut-up. What with the unapolegetically full-figured, ebon beauty Gabourey Sidibe on the cover of NY Times Mag and Precious opening in theaters this weekend; with South African runner Caster Semenya on suicide watch after being photographed nude with her legs in stirrups by the International Association of Athletes Federation; with all the ridiculous chatter about First Lady Michelle Obama’s “toned arms” in papers from here to Pakistan, there’s enough about the pain and pleasure, grace and disgrace centered on, around, inside and up under the Black female body that I could talk for days, maybe weeks and not even mention Oprah. Now who woulda thunk that just a year ago?
I think Greg Tate said it best when he commented on the missed opportunity, saying:
A panel on the public perception/display/exploitation of various black womens bodies– Hottentot, Michelle (Obama), Serena (Williams), Caster, Precious– mos def would have leveled the trauma field and made for a richer, more self-revelatory and far less hair n skin conflicted forum. Skin and hair contretemps is a case of DNA vs beauty in the eyes of massa and miss ann–their rules, our pain, once again. But body image is where the personal and the political collude to wage psychological warfare on everybody in Holly-weird-ed out America, and I’d bet on the panel, equally.
Personally, whenever I think of Black women and body image, I think first and foremost of photographer Mfon Essien. She is my biggest inspiration. She’s my personal Black Body Superhero. Just last month, I discovered this more than beautiful essay on Mfon written by Eisa Ulen. It opens:
She looked it in the eye, showed its face on film. Breast cancer took photographer Mfon Essien’s life, but not her beauty or her soul. Mfon Essien processed Black magic. She aimed and clicked and captured images, the sound of her camera sending out a drumbeat of celebration. Like an ancient priestess, an obeah woman, a queen mother, she combined elements– paper and mysterious liquids—in the dark. She developed power. When she shot, she generated life. And when life tried to assault her, she shot back and made herself eternal.
I love Mfon most because she embraced her flaws and made them gifts, superpowers if you will at a point in her life when I think I would have been ashamed of my body. She reminds me, without a gold lasso I may add, that I am much more than the sum of my parts. That we are skin, flesh and bones, but it’s our spirit and love of self that makes our bodies beautiful, sexy, strong and unrepentant. You see in 1998 at the tender of age of 28, Mfon was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. She underwent a major mastectomy to remover the cancer. Mfon knew that learning to live without her left breast was going to be an experience she needed to accept. And like many artists that find themselves at the crossroads of life, Mfon used her art to make that important first step. I interviewed her in 2000 and she shared: “I (photographed myself) specifically to heal immediately and to get over the mourning. I was like ‘you don’t have a breast and you’re not having plastic surgery anytime soon. So get it together and feel sexy today. Take these pictures now!’” (More on my talk with Mfon)
I have a photo of Mfon in my living room, another photocopy in my bedroom and she’s all over my Twitter page. In Eisa’s tribute she also states:
She bravely faced her own camera. She chose to reclaim her body through The Amazon’s New Clothes, a series of nude self-portraits, arresting images of a Black woman feeling her own power. The photographs exalt womanhood, representing Mfon in all her triumph, in all her truth. Through them, she reaffirms her innate grace, refusing to allow a scar to define her. Poised and relaxed, Mfon glories in her body, fiercely asserting her own life force. (Read Eisa’s Tribute)
Mfon’s image and her words are affirming and victorious just as I know on a certain level Gabby’s image will be for obese Black girls this side of the Pacific. It’s high time we all bravely face our own cameras, create our own truth and be empowered, sexy, healthy and at ease.