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Policing Beauty: When Booty Is a Crime

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On Thursday, Nicki Minaj released the cover art for her newest single "Anaconda," in which she wears a sports bra, G-string, and Jordans. She immediately started trending on social media, with many people calling the artwork inappropriate. However, as she pointed out on her Instagram account, Sports Illustrated models in thong bikinis, posed to similarly display their buttocks on the cover of easily accessible magazines, have been accepted and even praised as part of sports entertainment for years. While media has accepted the near-nudity of white models, Minaj, dubbed "Black Barbie" for her equally well-known backside, is being critiqued for the same imagery.

There is no doubt that the bodies of women have been policed for centuries regarding the acceptability of what they can and can't show, but the comparison of Minaj to swimsuit models brings attention to the intersectionality of race and gender in this matter. Minaj is not only a woman, but a black woman with a famously large derriere in comparison to many of her white counterparts in the entertainment industry, which is partly why the uproar has ensued. This speaks first to the fact that women who are more curvaceous than the Hollywood standard are not accepted in certain depictions of beauty. Secondly, it raises the issue that women who belong to racial or ethnic groups that celebrate curves have an even smaller representation in media, and trouble brews when that beauty is shared with a predominantly white audience.

Even a brief glance through history reveals the complex treatment given to black women over their bodies. In the early 1800s, Sarah Baartman was abducted from South Africa and sold to London, where she was placed on display at a "freak show" for Europeans who would pay to see her large butt. She was dubbed "Hottentot Venus" for her appearance, which, though natural to her, was different and therefore exotic to Europeans. Ironically, while Europeans exploited Baartman's features as a spectacle to behold, they also regarded her as wild because of them, as if her body somehow made her sexuality inherently more animalistic.

Here lies one of the oldest designations of Eurocentric beauty as normal and the beauty of other ethnic groups as abnormal. Furthermore, it speaks to the sexual politics regarding women's bodies. When exactly the notion that larger breasts and buttocks meant increased sexuality in a woman's nature was formed is unknown, but it is one that has prevailed throughout history and permeated today's entertainment.

In the '90s, Tyra Banks made waves as the first African-American woman to ever be featured on the cover of magazines GQ, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and Victoria's Secret. This was significant not only because of her race, but because of her body type. Banks was also considered to be much more curvaceous than other models at that time, and has since encouraged the acceptance of curves in all of her endeavors, including pushing the "booty tooch" for contestants on America's Next Top Model.

We now live in a time in which Beyonce has made "bootylicious" a compliment, Jennifer Lopez is twerking in celebration of curves, Meghan Trainor claims to be "bringing booty back," and Kim Kardashian is called hot for her selfies. However, the entertainment industry is still struggling to accept women's beauty in different sizes, particularly women with a lot of junk in the trunk. Eurocentric beauty norms are advertised nationwide in America, and beauty celebrated outside of that is almost considered part of a counterculture. What progress society and the entertainment industry will make is unknown, but there is hope for the future as women continue to exert their agency by releasing imagery and music celebrating their curves.