The New Black Body

My case for equal-opportunity cosmetic enhancements

(Thomas Barwick / Getty)

For as long as I can remember, my stomach has been partitioned into the north belly and the south belly, divided by the belly-button border. North Belly, aka “N. Beezy,” is the more tyrannical of the two. Depending on her mood, she will ruin any clean-lined look I’m going for. On bad days, N. Beezy sticks her head over the balcony of my waistband, soaking in the good weather, chatting with passersby, waving to onlookers like, “What the hell you looking at? This is my balcony and I can come and go as I damn well please.”

South Belly, aka “S. Beezy,” is shy. Depending on the tightness of what I’m wearing, she can fade away, but her imprint is always there. Most would refer to her as a FUPA. When I sit, she lays her head on the top of my lap. She peeks out the sides of hipster, bikini, thong, G-string, and high-cut brief underwear, like a kitten playing behind a curtain. These two are my oldest and dearest frenemies.

I could, in theory, pay to make them disappear. Society has come a long way on its views toward cosmetic surgery. Once a tightly guarded secret among the rich and famous, elective plastic surgery has become so mainstream and affordable that it’s easier to count the number of people who haven’t gotten “a little work done.” On any given day, a picture of a woman angled with her perfectly augmented ass positioned toward the camera and a face that bashfully says, “Oh, this old thing?” appears on my social-media feed. The caption is always part Nietzsche, part NeNe Leakes, and the “likes” are in the thousands—or millions, if you’re a Kardashian.

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This IG model has a stomach so flat you can bounce a bitcoin off it. My thumb hovers over her alluring smile but I dare not double tap—I’m judgmental and jealous. Would I be frolicking on a beach if my entire stomach fit under a string-bikini bottom? Yes. Would my quality of life be better if my boobs sat up at attention instead of swaying toward my solar plexus? Yes. Would I be happier, funnier, more fulfilled? Maybe.

This post was excerpted from Hilliard’s recent book.

I’m not saying all people with body fat below 25 percent are living their best lives. However, a majority of my life-long insecurities stem from having a body fat index over the 32 percent obesity mark. I can’t imagine what it feels like to have self-esteem issues that aren’t weight-related. I’ve always had boobs and an ass, but they were often hidden by loose and ill-fitting clothes, casualties of Operation: Hide Yo Gut.

Girdles, Spanx, and now popular-yet-organ-shifting latex waist trainers are uncomfortable and cumbersome. A Colombian faja seems like a good idea until you need someone to help snap you into it. Sure, the results are amazing, but after a few hours of sitting in one, my vagina went numb. I have a drawer full of control-top, tummy-flattening cellulite casings in a range of sizes to fit whatever my current waistline is. I’d buy so many rolls of plastic wrap for tummy wrapping, you’d think I was a drug dealer packing up kilos. If a nonsurgical product promised results, it was worth a try. “I just want to lose my stomach.”

Just. That word undermines the task at hand as if it’s an easy, small feat. If I were to achieve a flat stomach, I’d have to eat six times a day and work out with military discipline. Perfection is expensive: If you didn’t pay for it through blood, sweat, and tears, you’d better have the cold hard cash to actually pay for it.

Women started undergoing breast augmentation in the late 1890s. The first recorded instance of breast reconstruction happened in Germany, where a doctor inserted fat from the patient’s hip into her breast, which had a benign tumor removed. Early cosmetic fillers would be banned by today’s medical boards. Doctors injected women with paraffin wax, beeswax, vegetable oil, ivory, and glass. Side effects included blindness, tissue-eroding ulcers, deformity, and in some cases a complete breast removal in order to save the woman’s life. The first doctor to bring breast augmentation to the United States stuffed his ladies with celluloid, silk floss, and silk, giving a new meaning to a “smooth chest.” The first silicone breast implant was used in 1962, and the rest is breast history.

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.

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.

Would Celie still feel the same in 2019, after seeing the thousands of manufactured beauties, their tagged surgeons, and pay websites and email for bookings? If Celie was a woman of today, she’d start a crowdfunding page highlighting her hard-knock life, with a goal of $20,000. She’d chronicle her total body makeover—from plastic-surgeon consultation to postsurgical recovery—on her IG story.

Can you be a strong black woman if you can’t accept your flaws? Reality is, the social responsibility of being a strong black woman used to mean not changing what makes you, you. If you broke away to redefine yourself, we saw it as a personal attack on the rest of us, the sisterhood. You were a sellout, self-hating, less of a woman. Why would people trust you when you didn’t believe in yourself? But for far too long, black women’s bodies have been seen as public domain—first as property, then as a source of community and spiritual strength. It’s none of our business what you choose to do to your own body. If you like it, we should love it.

This article was excerpted from Hilliard’s recent book, F*ck Your Diet.