In case you haven’t heard: we’re officially in the era of the big booty. In a very recent article titled as such, a columnist for Vogue Magazine attempted to offer a history lesson on the “recent” emergence of the big booty. According to Vogue big booties were not a thing until J. Lo, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea and other big name pop stars graced us with the beginnings of the big booty movement. The article goes so far as to assert that until very recently “a large butt was not something one aspired to”.
In fact, for many years, black and brown men and women have celebrated a larger or more curvy aesthetic: songs like Brick House (1977), Sir Mix-A-Lot’s big booty anthem from the 90’s as well as more recent hip hop and rap songs have celebrated the features which Vogue claims stood in direct opposition to sex appeal until very recently. Long before mainstream white America came to the realization that braids, big butts, and twerking were “cool”, black men and women were embracing them as a part of their general, cultural aesthetic.
I first heard the term ‘Columbusing’ courtesy of a College Humor video that poked fun at the very real phenomenon of cultural appropriation; specifically the tendency for white people to claim that they have “discovered” facets of others’ cultures that existed long before being deemed cool or trendy by mainstream America. Back in April, Carimah Townes also wrote on this subject in response to Vanity Fair’s big-booty focused spread on Jen Selter, a Jewish white woman known on Instagram for selfies that prominently feature her behind (she was also mentioned in the Vogue piece). Carimah correctly states that “we cannot and should not conclude that women of color have a monopoly on curves”. Yet at the same time we must not ignore a historical context which has for centuries excluded the natural features of many black and brown women—including complexion, lips, hair, and curves—from the popular definition of what it means to be beautiful or sexy.
This exclusion and subsequent appropriation is yet another example of the Columbusing of black culture in America. By ignoring historical opinions of a cultures own aesthetic, the piece consequently argues that recognition by white culture is the only way another culture may garner value. As a result, Vogue and many other media outlets end up perpetuating the very damaging and dangerous idea that culture must only be celebrated upon being present on white bodies or upon being validated by white culture. The act of only placing value on certain aspects of a culture upon its connection to lighter skin furthers the myth that people of color, and in this instance, women of color, are worthless in isolation from white culture. The authors tone implies that black cultural conceptions of beauty are entirely invalid unless in harmony with white cultural conceptions. Though this is not a new concept, the past few years have been rife with examples of this very phenomenon. There are ways to appropriately and respectfully engage with other cultures: the first step is to acknowledge the all encompassing significance of a culture to the people that live it day in and day out.