From 2005 to 2013, the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery found that black patients increased by 56 percent. In 2016, 8 percent of all plastic surgery procedures were for black patients. Looking for answers, I turned to Maxwell, a longtime friend and professional photographer. He’s seen the change in black women’s bodies up close. “I think black women don’t feel loved and appreciated, so they’ll go anywhere for acceptance,” he told me. I get what he’s saying. Black women are trained to be proud and, of course, strong. We have to be, for all the reasons Malcolm X once famously listed: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
Part of that pride had been body acceptance. So, what, you’re shaped like a refrigerator box? Keep your hair and nails done and be the cutest refrigerator box on the block. No butt; accentuate your breasts. No breasts; toot that booty out. Got neither; learn to rap and win guys over with your spunky attitude, until you have the money to pay for enhancements. One can argue that most current female artists, sadly, wouldn’t have a career if they didn’t have enhancements—boobs, hips, ass, lips, nose. And that’s just the female rappers. At least they are open about it. You can make more music when you don’t have to spend time ducking questions about your ass shots.
Read: America is too glib about breast implants
Of course, the rush for the new black body—breast implants, tummy tuck, Brazilian butt lift—has some downsides. Women who can’t afford professional treatments have resorted to deadly and illegal injections with substances found in home-improvement stores. Those who survive are left with debilitating scars and lingering health issues. The other, less severe, issue is uniformity. Too many women look the same, like they took a deep breath and forgot to exhale. Like a ball of Play-Doh that’s been squeezed in the middle by a toddler. Like an hourglass with too much sand.
It’s funny the things that get embedded in our minds from childhood. My young aunts had a VHS copy of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It was 1987, and I was starting to gain weight and feel ugly. On weekends, we’d sit on the floor in front of the one TV in their brownstone and watch it. My favorite part was the singer and temptress Shug Avery telling the homely, unattractive, and abused Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg) that she was in fact beautiful. Standing before a mirror, the two black women barely surviving in the Jim Crow South share a raw moment uncovering Celie’s confidence. Briefly, we see Celie straighten her back, lift her head, uncover her big toothy grin, and soak in who God made her to be.
Just as soon as her self-esteem rises to the surface, it retreats and doesn’t come out until years later, in a confrontation with Celie’s common-law husband and abuser, Mister. After decades of abuse, Celie stands up to Mister at a family dinner and declares, before leaving him for good, “I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here.” Even at age 6, I was wowed by her resolve.