Recently, I came across a video of 102-year-old Alice Barker, who had been part of a dance group called the Sepia Steppers during the Harlem Renaissance. In the video, you can see a younger Barker dancing alongside other light-skinned black women at various jazz clubs. It's rare to find this kind of positive historical footage of black women, and Barker's enthusiasm is contagious—but I couldn't help but notice that there were no dark-skinned women dancing.
This wasn't uncommon at the time. Some of the popular Harlem venues in the 20s and 30s, like The Cotton Club, only hired light-skinned dancers. But even today, in music videos and television shows, dark-skinned women are largely absent. The black women we do see in popular culture are those with the types of white features deemed beautiful: small noses, straight hair, thin bodies.
These beauty standards are the subject of a forthcoming documentary film by Natalie Bullock Brown, called Baartman, Beyoncé & Me. The film aims to dissect the messages black women receive about beauty, including the value placed on light-skinned women with "white" features. Her project is both historical and contemporary, ranging from the exoticization of black women like Sarah Baartman (sometimes called the Hottentot Venus) to the false sense of empowerment from black pop stars like Beyoncé. Brown also reflects on the messages she received about beauty growing up, from the way her mother tried to de-sexualize her black body, to the rejection she felt from boys, to the displacement she felt at her predominantly white school.
A Kickstarter campaign to fund the film, which ended last week, raised over $17,000. I caught up with Brown to learn more about the goals of the documentary and the types of messages society sends to black women and girls about who gets to be beautiful.
VICE: Could you tell me about your background?
Natalie Bullock Brown: I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Part of what shaped my identity—and probably what directly led to this film—is that from second grade until I graduated from high school, I attended a 98 percent white, Jewish private school. I grew up on the [predominantly black] South Side of Chicago, and my school, which was called Francis W. Parker, was located on the [predominantly white] North Side. I took the bus out of my neighborhood into what was essentially another world.
Why did your parents send you there?
My parents separated when I was four. I lived with my mom and she's a retired public school teacher. She was determined not to allow me to have the public school experience. She wanted me to have more options and to be exposed to more kinds of people, [and have] academic opportunities that I wouldn't have had if I'd gone to public school. As a school teacher, she knew what the possibilities were for black students. Even with the better public schools, she was not pleased with the sort of education they provided.
Was it worth it, being sent to a school like that?
That's a really great question. I would not trade that experience for the world because of all the things that my mom hoped for me. Through that experience I got a grade-A education and my classmates donated very generously to my Kickstarter campaign. I made friends for life and we still have a close bond.
As far as my black identity, my mom tried very hard to balance my experiences: I went to a black church, I was a member of a choir in Chicago that was fairly diverse but predominantly black. That provided a counterpoint to what I was experiencing at school. But certainly, because I went to school with white kids who came from wealthy backgrounds—whereas I was living in a single parent home, pretty solidly lower middle class—the contrast was very stark.
As I became a teenager and became interested in boys, I know I experienced a bit of a quandary, knowing that there may not be as many opportunities for me to date someone at school. If I liked someone, [I knew] they might not like me because I'm black; because I didn't look like the white girls who were in my class, or even the mixed-race girls.
In hindsight, was that a justified fear or just typical teenage anxiety?
I think that it was a little bit of both. There's definitely an angst that comes along with being a teenager that guys aren't gonna like you, or the ones you like ain't gonna like you. It was exacerbated by the fact that I was one of four black kids, let alone girls, that were in a high school class of 60-something kids in a predominantly white and rich high school. The possibilities for a viable boyfriend were pretty low.
I have to say, that's a similar experience to my own. When did you first have the idea for the documentary?
A couple of years ago. I started really thinking about my experiences as a black female from girlhood on and really began to dissect it: things that had been said to me, choices I had made, things I'd allowed men—black men in particular—to perpetrate against me. I was going through an awakening. Really dealing with experiences that had happened in my life.
I also watched Venus Noir, about Sarah Baartmen, and I felt it really resonated with me. I struggled in one sense empathizing and sympathizing with her, and in another sense being in the seat of a white viewer or voyeur and looking at her and feeling repulsed by the size of her behind and her features and it was a head trip. I wanted to distance myself from her.
Why do you think Baartmen had such an impact?
I was raised to contain my black body and my behind. My mom always made sure as a teenager that I wore a girdle and the impact that had was pretty negative.
Wait, what's a girdle?
A girdle is basically like underwear that's really tight. It holds everything in place so you don't jiggle. I was made to wear one from the age of 14 or 15 until I said "I ain't putting this on because it's uncomfortable."
Shit, that's a pretty big symbol of body oppression. Why do you think she wanted you to wear one?
My mom wore one herself and I think she had been raised to wear one. I think black women throughout generations have been doing it. It's not something that I would have my daughter wear, but I think that my mom was under the impression (without probably really thinking about it) that she wanted to de-sexualize me.
She said something to the effect of, "You don't want to tempt anyone." My family is fairly religious, so she didn't want anyone looking at my anatomy essentially. [She wanted] to contain it, because you know, when you get older and you're in puberty, everything is blossoming. It was about keeping that in check, so that I didn't come across as a sexual being.
Do you think being over-sexualized is a problem for many black women?
Yes, definitely. There is an assumption that is made about women, especially if our anatomy fits the stereotype, which is, you know, a Sarah Baartman-type body where everything is very pronounced, that is very different. And because it's different, it's not seen as seemly as it's a little more obvious than the typical white woman's body.
I've noticed that with the explosion of the "booty" in popular culture, it seems to be less of a taboo to have a big butt or big lips these days. Would you agree?
I think it depends on who the woman is. That's a part of what I want to look at in the film. Someone like Beyoncé benefits from it, but pretty much every black women suffers from what society says about black bodies and their sexuality. But I think with people like Beyoncé or any other celebrity who has some of these attributes that we're talking about—either a large chest or a big behind—they can kind of get away with it in the sense that they have all of the protection within their lives because they're seen as exceptional.
The average black woman walking around with a big behind and a big chest is not seen as exceptional and we don't get a pass. They don't have to go through the harassment and ridicule and negative backlash the average black woman has to deal with.
What about colorism? Have you experienced it?
I'm not an expert, but from what I have observed and what I've experienced, colorism is alive and well in the US. There are still assumptions darker-skinned people make about light-skinned or mixed-race people. The idea that light-skinned people generally think that they're better, or that they're more arrogant, definitely exists in America as well.
What about colorism in the media?
I think that there is a level of colorism that occurs in society as well, yeah. Someone like Lupita Nyong'o is again one of these "exceptional" dark-skinned woman who, because society has crowned her beautiful, is causing darker-skinned women to be given a different type of look now. But that consideration is pretty much limited to celebrities. It's not really extended to average black women. It's kind of like tokenism.
Are there other examples that you've noticed?
If I think about the TV shows on a network like BET, I think that because it's BET there's an effort to show a diversity of black women. But if you look at the regular networks—the ABCs, the NBCs, the CBSs—unless you're Shonda Rhymes, for the most part you're going to see black female characters who are fairly light-skinned. And I think that's a reflection of what is deemed beautiful enough to fit into prime time television. You know what I'm saying?
I do. By the way, do you see yourself as a dark-skinned or light-skinned black woman?
I've thought as myself as dark-skinned actually—which is funny, because there are definitely people who would call me light-skinned. Looking at myself as dark-skinned has come from observing and feeling very strongly that [light-skinned women] are attractive. You've got to have some level of white blood in you to have the sort of features that are going to approximate white features to make you attractive. This is something I couldn't have articulated when I was 16 or 17 and really struggling with the way I looked. But that's what informed my thinking that I was dark-skinned.
Are you more accepting of the way you look now?
It's taken a lot of work to understand how race functions in our culture, and the value of making a race feel a certain way about itself. I've had to learn a lot. It's taken the affirmation of people who are important to me to make me realize that it's a crock you've been buying into, and you are beautiful [even if] your nose isn't as straight as a model's.
I've learned to love myself. It's hard to dig all that stuff out and get rid of it altogether but I'm so much further along than I was. It's a work in progress. I'm grateful that I'm black and I believe that we are beautiful in all of our manifestations.
Is that part of your goal with the film?
My goal is to pull the cover off what white supremacy has done so insidiously for so long: They've turned us against each other as well as making black women feel ugly. I want people to realize, All these things that I've been doing to make myself look a certain way, I don't need to.
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