Updated: Sep 12, 2019
Lil Sis, I wish I could show you what you’d see twenty years down the line...Maybe then it would be different. Wish I could somehow make you see that for every mistake made, there is this certainty: Consequence is a relentless stalker.
I saw the selfies of you on Instagram, bold, brazen, laughing…proud of your half-nakedness, your “Y.O.L.O” statement to the world and I remembered what it was like to be nineteen. The confidence fueled by utter ignorance and naiveté, harnessed by the vision that doesn’t see beyond the moment you are in. Oh, yes, I remember it well. Like most nineteen year olds, you couldn’t tell me anything. I was grown, the world was mine and if given a chance, Hollywood wouldn’t know what hit it. It seems funny now. I knew everything, but I knew nothing, and such is life; youth is the gift given absent the wisdom needed to operate it. A time when the voice of sagacity sounds like the “Waa Waa” of a grown-up in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Still, in this moment I boldly scream into your storm, hoping that some how my words will serve as seed to the girls who will one day be women and undoubtedly see things differently.
Lil Sis, “big butt mania” didn’t begin with Kim; I promise you it didn’t. Before her was Sarah Baartman, and trust me, when it happened to Sarah, it wasn’t because she was “smiling” for the camera.
Saartjie (Sarah) Baartmaan, who came to be known as the Hottentot Venus, was an African woman from the Khoikhoi tribe born in 1789 in South Africa’s Gamtoos Valley. When Sarah was barely in her twenties, she was manipulated and lied to by an English doctor named Alexander William Dunlop and his partner Hendrik Cezar. They promised Sarah freedom, fame and fortune if she agreed to travel with them to London and perform in their show for five years.
Instead what Sarah experienced was a barbaric assault to her dignity and a savage disregard of her humanity. Dunlop’s “show” featured Sarah half-naked in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros. He promoted Sarah as a scientific oddity, a strange and disturbing creature based on how large her genitalia was in comparison to that of a white woman.
Fascinated by the size of her buttocks and labia, English men and women came in droves to gawk at what they considered to be her hideous deformity. For five years Sarah Baartman was objectified throughout Europe as a freak-show attraction, billed as the Hottentot Venus, a grotesque exotic beast that you had to “see” to “believe”. Sarah died in Paris, in 1815, at the age of 26. After her death, the gross desecration of Sarah Baartman continued.
In 1816 the Musee de l’Homme took a death cast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and vagina to be displayed in jars. European scientists used the study of her genitalia to justify their racist crackpot theories on the inferiority of black women. Sarah’s vagina and brain were not removed from public display until 1974. In 1994 President Nelson Mandela requested that her remains be brought home to South Africa. The French government did not honor his request until 2002 on August 9, when her remains were returned and buried on South Africa’s Women’s Day, at Hankey in the Eastern Cape Province.
Lil Sis, I know you think you know what you’re doing but you don’t. The truth is, it’s partly my fault. I let this “hip-hop reality-TV” culture convince you that your anatomy is the sum of your worth.
I can see where the confusion came from. Attention-seeking stunts to “break the internet” are worth their weight in gold. Sales increase and money is made not from a display of talent but when assets are put prominently on display. Sex tapes leaked and feigned outrage may just lead to a reality show and multi-million-dollar branding.
It is the Hottentot Venus: Rebooted, a grotesque fascination with features characteristic of the African female physique. A fetishizing circus act no woman can fully emulate. Nonblack women are encouraged to freakishly alter their bodies to achieve this look. While black women are systematically disenfranchised by a Eurocentric standard of beauty that says: We want your booty, but we don’t want YOU. Not your hair, not your nose or your skin color, just your butt.
You probably won’t believe me, but I’m going to tell you anyway: You’ve been tricked. Tricked into believing liberation comes from the outside and not the inside. Tricked into thinking that your worth is dependent on how you look, instead of on what God uniquely put inside of you.
Do you know who you are Lil Sis? You are a masterpiece made up of different emotions, perspectives, gifts and talents that only you possess. All females have breasts, a vagina and buttocks. There is nothing original about any of those things. What makes you special is the unique inner beauty that is yours alone. That is something that can never be duplicated. You are one of a kind. Taking the time to cultivate and grow that woman within is the beginning of your legacy.
Contrary to today’s pop culture paradigm, liberation is not found in facilitating the objectification of your body under the guise that it’s okay because you are the one calling the shots. Whether you do it or it is done to you…the statement is the same: I am nothing more than my breasts, my vagina and my buttocks. I glorify what is most common about me because I can offer nothing else. True freedom comes when your inner potential is unleashed without compromise, when nothing stands between your opportunity for education, enlightenment and advancement. When you are allowed to dream and to infinitely be more than your reflection in the mirror, you are liberated.
It shouldn't have ended up like this. We were supposed to teach you, to show you the splendor and the beauty of the next stage. Instead we fell for the lie that our value could only be found in our ability to look like we are still you, forever.
I saw the example you’d been given, and I wondered…when exactly did youth become a hotter commodity than wisdom and experience? Nowadays, it seems the badge of honor is not in what you learn on life’s journey but in being able to look like you never took the journey at all.
I’m all for health and fitness, but they in no way trump the inherent value in sharing what we’ve learned as mature women with the next generation. If we are obsessed with trying to look like we are still twenty-year-olds and still placing value on the things that they place value on, what was the point of growing older, other than the passage of time? Why are we trying to compete for youth instead of teaching our youth how to do it better and with more class? I love the grace with which my mother has aged: she is beautiful inside and out. I love watching women like Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Mary J. Blige and Michelle Obama; they are the epitome of grace and style. Can you imagine how foolish it would be for them to give up all they have gleaned and all they have to offer to be a size two with no wrinkles? It’s time for us to lead by example. It’s time for us to show young women that their worth and value emanate from within and that their power is cultivated when they pursue the depth of their possibilities with faith and tenacity.
I’ll admit you have it harder than I did. Every (half-naked) selfie and every (probably-shouldn’t-have-said-that) tweet is now a forever-traceable digital record. Kind of like bad credit, easy to get, hard to get rid of.
It’s a different world than the one I grew up in. You are exposed to more, all-day, everyday, non-stop. That’s why I wrote you this letter. Although I didn’t experience what you are experiencing, I have made some mistakes of my own. Each ripe with consequences that cost me time, money and peace of mind. Each tested my faith in God and my faith in myself. But after the dust settled, this is what I discovered: It was the mistakes that grew my character. It was the falls that made me stronger. It was the disappointments that taught me how to renew my hope and stand in faith yet again. One day you will be old like me (smile) and you will reach out to someone younger and share your testimony. Offer them this quote from my book: The Dunes.
“Pretty” grows on trees like a grape in a vineyard. But “Beauty” like wine develops over time through the crushing of what was and the conversion of what remains to create a sweet new beginning”.
Lil’ Sis, may you wear the lessons of your journey with pride, knowing that because of them you are infinitely more beautiful. Keep your head up always…face exposed to the sun.
Your Big Sis,