On Sunday an interview with Helen Mirren ran in The Guardian which featured the actress thanking an unlikely subject for her contribution to the body positive movement. Mirren, speaking on how a new generation of women are redefining beauty, said:
“I’m not into the Kardashians, it’s a phenomenon I just don’t find interesting, but – and this is the big word: B-U-T-T – it’s wonderful that you’re allowed to have a butt nowadays! Thanks to Madame Kardashian, and before her, J-Lo. We’re also allowed to have thighs now, which is great too. It’s very positive.”
While we’re in the spirit of positivity and thanksgiving, allow me to issue a big fat thank you to Helen Mirren. For without this sordid declaration of gratitude we may have never had such a glaring example to point to in our efforts to explain the depth of contempt which underlies our charges of appropriation.
Despite examples of appropriation popping up right and left during the past two-three years, our demand for acknowledgement of the influence we’ve had on what society now deems trendy – baby hair, “boxer braids,” afros, dashikis, etc. – has been likened to a jealous student running to tell her teacher she was actually the first one to raise her hand in class and should’ve been called on because she knew the correct answer. Essentially, our cries have been dismissed like those of a child who wants credit for something that doesn’t matter. But the truth is attribution does matter, and Mirren just perfectly explained why.
In 2016, it’s mind-blowing that any woman could, with complete sincerity, credit Kim Kardashian with making a feature not natural to her frame acceptable, when in reality what Kardashian and her entire family have done is make natural booties unacceptable and encourage women to undergo life-threatening procedures for the sake of obtaining those unnatural physical characteristics. While the blame for the phenomena of back-door butt injections doesn’t solely rest on Kim and her sisters’ backsides they are hardly a symbol of body positivity, particularly in light of the ignorant pride in which they toss their surgically bloated booties in our faces without having to endure the pain rotund derrieres have caused women to which they are innate. And while J. Lo was once considered a pioneer in the curvy category because of her posterior – and I won’t take away from the robust backsides of Latina women, which it should be acknowledged is due to their African ancestry – that no self-described Black woman was mentioned by Mirren, and rarely is in this conversation, is why we go so hard on appropriation and must continue the fight.
Women like Mirren miss the point that when they confess individuals like Kardashian give them permission to have butts and thighs, Black women simultaneously get the message that it’s not OK for us to have the same features. After all, if it were, Kim wouldn’t be such a big deal. Mirren and all those who came before her would’ve gotten the memo when Carolina Beaumont modeled the first “Champagne Incident” in 1976. Hell, y’all not even gonna give Beyoncé an honorable mention? The woman wrote a whole song about being “Bootylicious,” yet Kim is the one who gives you permission to love your body as it is when she didn’t even love her own as it was?
This is how black girls and women continue to get the message that light and white is right because the only thing that separates a Beyoncé or a Tracee Ellis Ross from a Kim K and J. Lo is melanin (and not much at that) and hair texture. So the fact that Mirren can see herself as having more in common with a surgically enhanced woman who exploits her butt for nothing more than the sake of self-promotion, than women whose round hips and full thighs are tangentially embraced as an extension of who they are speaks greater volumes than her words of thanks.
Like so many causes white feminists choose to take up, the burden of big butts isn’t theirs to bear – it never has been and never will be. While there are certainly enough unrealistic beauty standards to go around for all races, it has only ever been black women, like Saartjie Baartman, for whom butts specifically were a “problem” to be investigated and harnessed for the enjoyment of others to no monetary or social benefit of our own. And yet we knew, inherently, that there was nothing wrong with the way our curves naturally formed (or didn’t) until the Kardashians became the universal staple of beauty and suddenly not even our robust butts were up to par. Yes, thank you Madame Kardashian and all those who drank the cup of the big booty Judy Kool-Aid from which Kim’s success drips.
Sure, Kim willingly participates in and profits from appropriation, but any benefit she reaps is wholly dependent on the inability for the masses to see beauty in the same features she possesses when displayed on someone of a darker hue. And as long as highly regarded women like Mirren continue to play into that dichotomy, appropriation will never be a thing of the past.