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#BlackBodiesMatter: Cross-Cultural Examination of Black Women’s Motivation to Engage in Body Modification

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Abstract

The purpose of this study is to examine the willingness and motivation to engage in body modification to attain an ideal body image from a cross-cultural perspective of Black women in the United States and Black women in South Africa. Semi-structured interviews (n = 30) reveal that exercise is the most salient method of modification because it is inexpensive, promotes health and wellness, wards off familial health issues such as diabetes, and shapes the body to better fit clothing. Surgical methods are considered but, naturalness, costs, and potential health effects are viewed as deterrents. Both groups vary in terms of depicting what each group aspires to replicate through body modification. The findings in this article contribute to social comparison theory by expanding the theory and providing a lens for examining Black women’s body modification.
https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934716686022
Journal of Black Studies
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Article
#BlackBodiesMatter:
Cross-Cultural
Examination of Black
Women’s Motivation
to Engage in Body
Modification
Rokeshia Renné Ashley1 and Jaehee Jung2
Abstract
The purpose of this study is to examine the willingness and motivation to
engage in body modification to attain an ideal body image from a cross-
cultural perspective of Black women in the United States and Black women
in South Africa. Semi-structured interviews (n = 30) reveal that exercise is
the most salient method of modification because it is inexpensive, promotes
health and wellness, wards off familial health issues such as diabetes, and
shapes the body to better fit clothing. Surgical methods are considered but,
naturalness, costs, and potential health effects are viewed as deterrents.
Both groups vary in terms of depicting what each group aspires to replicate
through body modification. The findings in this article contribute to social
comparison theory by expanding the theory and providing a lens for
examining Black women’s body modification.
Keywords
cross culture, body modification, Black women, cosmetic surgery, qualitative,
South Africa
1University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA
2University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA
Corresponding Author:
Rokeshia Renné Ashley, University of Missouri, 179 Gannett Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, USA.
Email: rra99d@mail.missouri.edu
686022JBSXXX10.1177/0021934716686022Journal of Black StudiesAshley and Jung
research-article2017
2 Journal of Black Studies
Introduction
The number of African Americans participating in cosmetic surgery has
increased. Cosmetic surgery is the utilization of advanced technologies to
augment the appearance of otherwise healthy individuals, this includes
plastic surgery and laser surgical procedures (Voelker & Pentina, 2011).
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (2013) reported that over 1.2
million African Americans underwent plastic surgical procedures in 2013.
Selika Borst, assistant director of a plastic surgery research firm in Chicago,
said “Black women are just more conscious visually than ever before” (in
Jeffries, 2010, p. 1). Borst attributed this to Black women being exposed to
other Black women engaging in the practice, such as Kelly Rowland, Vivica
Fox, and Vanessa Williams. Liposuction and tummy tucks are frequent
requests because many Black women want their stomachs and thighs to be
thinner. Other Black women opt for breast lifts or breast reduction surgeries
(Jeffries, 2010).
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (2015), buttock
implants have increased by 98%, and buttock lifts by 44% from 2013 to 2014.
Some women who desire to increase the size of their butts cannot afford the
cost of a certified plastic surgeon, and they obtain services on the black mar-
ket (Martin, 2015). This has led to concern for black market augmentation
because of occurrences of extreme illness and death for some patients.
According to the Dallas Morning News, a 34-year-old nursing-home staffer
died after receiving butt injections from someone other than a certified plastic
surgeon. To date, reported deaths related to butt injections on the black mar-
ket have happened in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, New York,
and Mississippi (Martin, 2015). The aforementioned reports of increases in
selective surgery for body modification, and the resulting medical issues,
have not been matched with equal interest in empirical studies of Black
Americans’ attitudes, motivations, and reasons for engaging in this practice.
Body modification is defined as the participation in cosmetic or plastic sur-
gery, or activities or use of devices to intentionally modify the body.
Investigations of body modification have focused primarily on White
female university students and factors that influence them to modify their
bodies, including socialization, social networks, modification experiences,
feelings of inadequacy and abnormality, exposure to media, and perceived
positive life expectancy (Bartky, 1990; Delinsky, 2005; Engeln-Maddox,
2006; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Haiken, 1997; Henderson-King &
Henderson-King, 2005; Hobson, 2003; Swami et al., 2008; Voelker &
Pentina, 2011). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the will-
ingness and motivation to engage in body modification to attain an ideal body
Ashley and Jung 3
image from a cross-cultural perspective of Black women in the United States
and Black women in South Africa.
Literature Review
Idealistic Body Images in the United States and South Africa
Historically, the wide variations in body size, shape, skin color, and hair
texture contributed to differential treatment among sub-groups of Black
women. Those with body features, most closely matching those of the dom-
inant culture faired more favorably both socially and economically (Glenn,
2008). Currently, the message, conveyed primarily through magazines and
television, is that to be accepted by society, women must strive for thinness
(Hesse-Biber, Livingstone, Ramirez, Barko, & Johnson, 2010). Western
ideals include the permeation of the thin ideal, contrarily Black South
African women associate thinness with unhealthiness, and fatness with
wealth, happiness, good health, beauty, and strength (Mchiza, Goedecke, &
Lambert, 2011; Puoane, Tsolekile, & Steyn, 2010). Larger or overweight
figures are more desirable to receive attention from men and clothing would
fit better (Draper, Davidowitz, & Goedecke, 2014). According to Evans and
McConnell (2003), some Black women feel that mainstream beauty ideals
do not relate to them. However, awareness and internalization of the thin
ideal and perceived pressures to be thin are factors that affect some Black
women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies (Cafri, Yamamiya, Brannick, &
Thompson, 2005).
Many South Africans have distorted body image and are dissatisfied with
their body size (Mchiza et al., 2015). In South Africa, body image scholarship
particularly focuses on White women (Mwaba & Roman, 2009) and eating
habits (Hewat & Arndt, 2009). Western media does not always encourage
Black South African women to attain a thin body type, because they have a
“different perception of ideal beauty from their Western counterparts”
(Mwaba & Roman, 2009, p. 908). Black South African women do not desire
smaller body sizes (Mchiza et al., 2011). Nonetheless, there is a conflict
between Western ideals and Black South African women’s traditional body
aesthetics (Hewat & Arndt, 2009). Ideal body sizes stem from intra-family
resemblance (Mchiza et al., 2011). Specifically, the ideal body size is having
a smaller upper body and larger buttock and hips (Draper et al., 2014). Black
women in South Africa are more concerned about their shape than White
women, and they could experience eating pathology issues because of
Westernization, disavowal of traditional values, mainstream media standards,
social change, and identity struggles (Hewat & Arndt, 2009).
4 Journal of Black Studies
Kelch-Oliver and Ancis (2011) found that some Black women believe that
the White standard of beauty is to be thin, and the Black standard emphasizes
shapely and curvaceous figures. As a result, a significant amount of pressure
is put on Black women from the perspective of dueling images (thin and cur-
vaceous), leaving them confused, anxious, and affecting their mental and
physical well-being (Poran, 2006; Zhang, Dixon, & Conrad, 2009). To attain
these figures, Black women resort to eating disorders to comfort themselves
and depict the “ideal” image (Engeln-Maddox, 2006). Eating disorders, body
image, and body modification have been studied in scholastic research, how-
ever; body modification from a comparative cross-cultural context has yet to
be studied.
Body Modification
Women are socialized to see themselves from the perception of others
(Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Furthermore, some women concerned with
their appearance feel shame if they do not meet the expectations, and will
likely accept cosmetic surgery (Bartky, 1990; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997;
Haiken, 1997). Hobson (2003) argued that modifying the female body
through cosmetic surgery, exercise, or dieting renders the female body as
abnormal, unfixed, unnatural, or unhealed.
Social networks, magazines, television, and reality shows are areas where
potential consumers are exposed to cosmetic surgery (Henderson-King &
Henderson-King, 2005). Voelker and Pentina (2011) examined attitudes
toward, and utilization of cosmetic augmentation procedures among
Generation Y individuals. A social exchange theory framework was advanced;
suggesting that exposure to others who have utilized cosmetic augmentation
increases an individual’s favorable attitude toward cosmetic procedures
(Voelker & Pentina, 2011). Media beauty ideals are significantly associated
with positive life expectations if the participant’s body image was changed
(Engeln-Maddox, 2006).
Increased monetary profits from cosmetic surgery suggest that surgery
may be a common method for self-improvement. The likeliness of engaging
in cosmetic surgery was predicted by greater media exposure, reports of a
peers’ experience of cosmetic surgery, and improved importance of self-
worth (Delinsky, 2005). Greater willingness to undergo cosmetic surgery is
also associated with greater media exposure (Swami et al., 2008). Also, when
Australian women are subjected to sexual objectification, they are more
likely to accept cosmetic surgery to enhance their appearance (Vaughan-
Turnbull & Lewis, 2015). However, other studies of media exposure, includ-
ing viewing advertisements or television programs, or reading articles about
Ashley and Jung 5
cosmetic surgery as a factor affecting the likelihood of having cosmetic sur-
gery resulted in inconsistent outcomes (Brown, Furnham, Glanville, &
Swami, 2007).
Numerous studies of cosmetic surgery that used university student sam-
ples reifies body image ideals: cite socialization, social networks, exchanges
of body modification experiences, feelings of inadequacy and abnormality,
exposure to media, and positive life expectancy as motivational factors for
engagement in cosmetic surgery (Bartky, 1990; Delinsky, 2005; Engeln-
Maddox, 2006; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Haiken, 1997; Henderson-
King & Henderson-King, 2005; Hobson, 2003; Swami et al., 2008; Voelker
& Pentina, 2011).
There is a gap in the literature related to Black women’s motivations to
engage in body modification. Studies have evaluated Black South African
women’s body size and body image however; little research has been com-
pleted examining motivations to modify their bodies from a Western cross-
cultural perspective. This study serves to confirm and explore motivations of
Black women’s engagement in body modification from a cross-cultural con-
text using a U.S. and South African sample. Many socio-cultural factors
uniquely influence Black women. This is why it is imperative to understand
Black females’ perceptions of, and willingness to engage in, body modifica-
tions. The objective of this project is to provide an understanding of feelings
about methods of body modification Black women would use on themselves
to achieve an ideal body. To fulfill this objective, the following research ques-
tion was developed:
Research Question 1: What motivates Black women to engage in body
modification?
Theoretical Framework
Social comparison theory is commonly used in the study of communications
where one is investigating the relationship between body image disturbance
and media exposure (Zhang et al., 2009). Festinger’s (1954) social comparison
theory states that an individual strives to find an accurate self-evaluation com-
pared with others with similar qualities. Therefore, this theory predicts that
Black women would compare themselves to other Black women with similar
bodily features (Fujioka, Ryan, Agle, Legaspi, & Toohey, 2009). Thus, when
Black women assess themselves in comparison to Black women in media, their
body esteem and self-satisfaction will be influenced (Frisby, 2004).
Although media heavily distributes images that convey White women’s
body image as ideal, studies show that some Black women are unaffected by
6 Journal of Black Studies
White women’s body image (DeBraganza & Hausenblas, 2010; Evans &
McConnell, 2003; Frisby, 2004). In comparison with White women’s main-
stream image, some Black women positively assess their own image (Evans
& McConnell, 2003). In addition, social comparison theory suggests that
resemblance and ethnicity of models in the media affect Black women’s self-
evaluations because of strong self-congruity (David, Morrison, Johnson, &
Ross, 2002; Schooler, Ward, Merriwether, & Caruthers, 2004).
Cultural perspective studies provide indications of how individuals are
shaped by their environments. Kaiser (1998) indicates that socio-cultural fac-
tors and cultural perspectives combine to form the context for how people
experience and evaluate their lives. Given the assumptions of the cultural
perspective, authors of this study assumed the following:
1. The ideological message that encompasses Black women’s body
image dictates what images or body types are more valuable;
2. Black women may want to shift their realities by manipulating or
modifying their bodies, by combining or juxtaposing images that are
not commonly seen with each other; and
3. Culturally constructed images as ideal can exaggerate and stimulate
the imagination, and influence management of personal appearance.
Method
Data collected for this study were qualitative. Prior to conducting interviews,
the authors obtained approval for conducting research on human subjects.
Interviews were conducted in the United States and South Africa and partici-
pants’ identities were kept confidential. Pseudonyms were used to ensure
anonymity of participants. Following the protocol outlined by Hocking,
McDermott, and Stacks (2003), the interviews were “one-on-one” in nature,
with only the interviewer and interviewee present during questioning. This
method was selected because it provided the researcher the desired interper-
sonal experience to get in-depth accounts of each participant’s motivations to
engage in body modification.
Sample
At the southern most point of Africa lies South Africa where there are over 47
million people who are classified by culture, language, belief, and race.
Opposite to South Africa’s racial demographics, the United States catego-
rizes its 295 million people by White, Black, Latino, Asian American, and
Native American (“United States,” 2016). Seventy-five percent of the
Ashley and Jung 7
population in South Africa are classified as Black (or African) with major
ethnic groups Swazi, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Venda, Tsonga, Ndebele, Basotho,
and Bapedi (“South Africa,” 2015). In the United States, approximately 13%
of the population is Black, which includes Black immigrants from Jamaica,
Haiti, and African nations. To be included in this study, participants had to be
of African descent, identifying themselves as a Black woman (biologically)
living in various cities in the United States or South Africa. Participants
ranged in age from 18 to 25 years. A total of 30 interviews were completed,
with 15 participants from each country.
Chain sampling (Hocking et al., 2003) was used to recruit participants in
South Africa, including Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria, and the
Greater Philadelphia area in the United States. The sampling began with the
researcher using email and phone calls to contact key informants to receive
referrals to potential participants. To stimulate the chain sampling, the
researcher then asked each participant to refer other qualified participants. A
total of 37 invitations were sent out, and 35 potential participants responded.
The verbal and written invitations included a brief statement describing the
study, the participants’ role, method of data collection, estimated time of data
collection, and notification that participants would receive refreshments dur-
ing the interview. The first 15 participants who accepted the invitations com-
pleted interviews.
Researcher
A 23-year-old African American female graduate student was the primary
researcher and coder of interviews for this study. At the time of data collec-
tion, she lived in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Prior to collect-
ing data, the researcher noted her biases and assumptions of possible findings
to reduce the influence on analysis. The researcher assumed that media would
be the primary motivation for body modification. Furthermore, she assumed
that Black women would not want to engage in surgical methods of body
modification. The researcher expected there would be substantial similarities
in conversation among different cultural groups. Overall, the researcher has
not had traumatic experiences with body image or body modifications. She
demonstrated reflexivity to discovering new information through the data.
Instrument Development and Procedure
Social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954) is the primary component used in
the development of the instrument. This theory states that an individual
strives to find an accurate self-evaluation compared with others. The Black
8 Journal of Black Studies
standard emphasized shapely and curvaceous figures (Hesse-Biber et al.,
2010; Kelch-Oliver & Ancis, 2011); and, this cultural ideal of beauty will
influence Black women to compare their bodies to the Black standard
(Festinger, 1954). If any supplementary research materials are desired, they
can be obtained by emailing the authors.
Semi-structured interviews were developed using open-ended and close-
ended questions. The questions focused on understanding motivations and
willingness of Black women to engage in body modification (see the appen-
dix). The researcher formed questions prior to interviews that would prompt
in-depth discussion, and allowed for discussion of other topics. The inter-
views took place in a comfortable environment, commonly at participants’
places of work, the researcher’s office, or reserved public spaces. All inter-
views were conducted face to face. The researcher was able to travel to both
areas. Travel was funded by an institutional grant. The interviews were
recorded using Audionote–Notepad and Voice Recorder, an application pro-
vided by Luminant Software for Apple devices, and transcribed. On average,
interviews lasted approximately an hour and half. Member checking was
completed as an external validity check to ensure that interpretations were
accurate and that themes accurately reflected participants’ responses. The
researchers allowed participants to reflect on the data and interpretation to
confirm the credibility of the results (Creswell & Miller, 2000).
Three participants, two from the United States and one from South Africa,
reviewed findings via email and provided feedback. All agreed that the find-
ings were completed in a sensitive and accurate manner. Bland from the
United States said,
Findings illuminate various ways in which black women engage in modification
practices . . . I believe that these findings do a good job of capturing the essence
of the thoughts, motivations, and methods of internalizing the standardized
body image.
Member checking strengthened the validity of thematic findings and inter-
pretations of women’s responses. It also revealed the importance of this study
to the participants.
Data Analysis
After completing interviews in the United States and South Africa, audio mate-
rial collected during the interviews was manually transcribed. The audio and
transcribed data were repeatedly and meticulously reviewed to identify note-
worthy statements and content produced from the interviews. A classification
Ashley and Jung 9
system was established to aid in categorization of responses based on Creswell’s
(2013) categorical coding matrix. This study focused specifically on the shape,
build, and body (form) of Black women. Therefore, responses regarding hair
(length or texture) and skin tone (light or dark) were excluded. Findings from
this study should not be generalized.
Motivations of Modification Through Exercise
Exercises included jogging, sit-ups, push-ups, and lunges to burn fat. Women’s
motivations to engage in exercise for body modification included health and
wellness, feeling well in day-to-day routines, avoiding family history of health
issues, creating an idealized shape of a Black woman’s body, attracting a pre-
sumably wealthy suitor, and having clothing fit appropriately.
Idealized shape exercises were tailored to maximize the buttock and tone
the waistline. Black women in this study overall reported that they engaged
in exercising to stay fit. Exercising to stay fit was viewed as a lifestyle. In
terms of modification, many of these women chose exercise because it was
viewed as more natural, or a less invasive method of changing their bodies.
For example, Rolihlahla from South Africa said,
Well, I do work out a lot, that’s because I do want to keep, uh I have what you
call love handles, I always wanted to get rid of those to have a sort of straight
and then curvy so, I think yeah I have, I do intentionally do, yeah.
Rolihlahla’s explanation of her reasons for exercise, which was congruent
with other participants, represents the acceptance of the idealized Black
woman’s figure. Using exercise to modify features shows that these women
are visually conscious of their shape and form. Awareness of physicality was
viewed from a familial perspective of staying in shape to circumvent a family
history of diabetes. Tanya, from the United States, said seeing her family suf-
fer motivated her not to make the same mistakes of lacking exercise and
controlling her weight.
One of the primary exercises of choice noted by participants was squats.
According to Ashley from the United States, squats are to round the buttock
area. Most of the participants noted that squats would increase the mass of
their posterior or make their rear end shapelier. The participants also alluded
that they would feel better about themselves, have better social or economic
outcomes, and would fit their clothes better. Glacia, a South African partici-
pant, wanted to exercise for a healthy mind and body, but she said that
women may exercise for financial or romantic relationship gains. Glacia
said and sang,
10 Journal of Black Studies
Kanye West has that work out plan song as well. (Sings) “Thanks to Kanye’s
workout plan, I’m the envy of all my friends, see I pull me a baller man.” That’s
what I think.
Glacia’s assessment of the relationship between the modification of Black
women’s body and a “baller man” represents the commodification of the
Black woman’s body. In South African culture, participants noted that women
who have an appeasing figure have higher dowries and women in the United
States are attached to men with higher social status and economic strength.
Laeeqah in South Africa referenced Blac Chyna, an exotic dancer who exudes
the idealized figure and rose to stardom by her romantic counterpart, rapper
Tyga. This example and expression by Glacia reifies the ideological message
that encompasses Black women’s body image dictates what images or body
types are more valuable (Kaiser, 1998).
Aside from working out to be fit or mimic the image of the idealized
images of a Black woman’s body, some of the participants reported that
they wanted their clothes to fit better. Akhona from South Africa said that
she would exercise “to look like those girls who are wearing those awe-
some clothes.” Some participants also noted that they used body-shaping
devices, such as Spanx to modify their figures. Priscilla from the United
States said,
I would go down the route of exercising, doing my squats because at one point,
I just felt like some of my outfits would look a little nicer if I actually had more
of a round shape bottom or my hips would be a certain way or my legs would
be nice and firm as opposed to like just being out of shape or because like the
outfits would be more make it look a little better.
Achieving a certain body type so that clothing looks better documents a dis-
connect between producers and consumers of fashion. According to partici-
pants, the fashion industry does not tailor clothing or fashion-related media to
Black women. Mavu from South Africa said,
I honestly don’t think they care because they have their template of somebody
who’s supposed to look a certain way and if you don’t look that way they don’t
care and unfortunately black women we don’t look that way, we are much
bigger, more hips or whatever, we don’t and we’re shorter, so I don’t really
think they care enough to translate it to black fashion, and I think even if they
do, I know Levis did it with the curves or whatever, but it becomes kind of
offensive when every time you hear something they say, “It’s curvaceous, it’s a
black person,” every single time. I mean, don’t white people become curvy? So
I don’t think the fashion industry cares at all.
Ashley and Jung 11
Mary from the United States said that she has a hard time finding appropri-
ately sized pants. Also, other participants from both continents supported this
view by commenting on how they have made unsuccessful attempts in find-
ing clothes that would fit their body type or reporting how different clothing
companies such as Levi Strauss & Co. or Woolworth’s customize clothing,
specifically for “curvier” women.
Motivations of Modification Through Surgical Methods
Body modification via surgical method would be considered at a later point
in life, primarily after childbirth, to rectify their bodies after the experience.
South African participant, Ntsumi said,
The only thing I would ever think about, thought about changing is my tummy
pop out after I have my kids I would go for a nip and tuck, and I think that’s the
only thing I’ve ever thought of in terms of body modification, yah. I was like if
I can’t get, get back in proper timing, if it flabs after pregnancy, then I would
have a small job done there, if my breast become droopy after breast feeding
kids, maybe I’ll pick them up.
The most noted time that these women would engage in invasive body modi-
fication would be after childbirth because of assumed weight gain or after an
extreme tragic accident. Sandra from the United States mentioned if she was
shot or attacked by a Labrador retriever, she would modify her body.
Although participants had knowledge of cosmetic or plastic surgery, many
said they could not engage in the practice because it was not financially fea-
sible. However, some women indicated if financial resources were available,
they would use surgery as a method of modification. Awareness of the costs
associated with having professional body modification services was coupled
with an awareness of black market services for body modification. According
to Dantelle from South Africa, women and transgender women go to “spas”
to receive butt injections where the result hardens the buttock or even causes
patrons to die. The process is described as injecting into the buttock a filler of
gels and silicon used at construction sites.
Some women witnessed via media health risks associated with body mod-
ification. Mavu from South Africa said,
I’ve watched shows and documentaries about how black women in the States
are trying to, recently I watched a biased documentary about Miami black
women in the States were trying to modify their bums and stuff, and I think one
lady she was a tranny, or a transvestite, to be her name, she, her name was
Duchess and she went around obviously telling people she can do plastic
12 Journal of Black Studies
surgery, and a whole lot of people followed her, and they asked her to do the
surgeries, and turns out she was putting silicone in there. Like raw silicon in
their bums and people were having lots of complications due to that.
The researcher noted that some participants considered plastic or cosmetic
surgery but thought it to be too extreme and would not want to risk their
health.
Motivation to Modify Based on Comparison
The physique of their peers was another motivation for body modification.
Mary from the United States noted that the people around her, like her friends,
who frequent the gym may have a more toned figure, and this would motivate
her to replicate their workout routine. This would cause self-reflection and
comparison, and one would question, “What are y’all doing that I’m not
doing?” according to Gale, from the United States, who supported this claim.
Comments from others also influenced participants’ views of their bodies
relative to modification. For instance, if family members noted that common
familial physical features, like a big butt, are missing, there would be an
inspiration for modification. Also, men speaking about other women and
their figures provided motivation to modify. Some of the participants’ moti-
vation came from romantic partners’ suggestions to enhance particular areas
of their bodies.
Consistency with the literature was manifested when media was cited as a
motivating factor for body modification. Social media, television, music, vid-
eos, and film sources were cited for providing unnatural and unrealistic mod-
els for comparisons. Moesha from the United States said that she would look
to media to find out what she was supposed to look like. Media conveys that
bigger and rounder butts were better and of higher social status. This finding
supports a view that Black women may want to shift their realities by manip-
ulating or modifying their bodies, by combining or juxtaposing images that
are not commonly seen with each other (Kaiser, 1998). Participants from
South Africa emphasized how much media from the United States motivates
their intentions to modify. Thavesri, from South Africa said,
From what we’re seeing coming from America, I feel like that’s where my
whole ass thing comes from America. America perpetuates that black booty
and black woman and because South Africa has the tendency of taking a type
of America, copying and pasting it here, that’s if you look at the music videos,
you look at the movies, the songs. Uhh then you start hearing stories about butt
implants, and you know, all that we hear from there. And so I feel like as for me
Ashley and Jung 13
personally, from what I’ve seen America always perpetuates the big booty on a
black woman.
The perpetuation of “perfectly proportioned” celebrities such as Nicki Minaj
and Blac Chyna in the United Sates give South African Black women the
“original view or opinion” of what they should be, according to Rolihlahla.
Furthermore, this finding suggests that culturally constructed ideal images
can exaggerate and stimulate the imagination, which can give concepts for
personal appearance management (Kaiser, 1998).
Cross-Cultural Perceptions
Women of the United States were not as confident in responding to questions
about their perceptions of modification by their South African counterparts.
When queried, it was clear that the Western (U.S.) figures that perpetuate the
quintessential curvaceous ideal were dominant in South Africa, and that less
is known concerning the depiction of South African Black women’s body
image. Many U.S. participants claimed they were not aware of what a Black
South African woman would look like, but they thought women in South
Africa probably modified their bodies because they are exposed to Western
media. In referring to images in Western media Bland, a U.S. participant said
it “kind of like takes over or has taken over.” This comment supports a belief
that images of Black women in the United States are likely to be transferred
to South Africa. There was an overwhelming assumption by participants in
the United States that Black South African women were more natural and did
not aspire to change their bodies. Moesha from the United States said,
I would hope or think that a black woman’s body perception in South Africa
would be more I guess accepting so whatever it is that you were born with
that’s what your body is, I would hope there isn’t really one I guess standard
like this is what a black woman’s body looks like in South Africa and then
everyone else following to get like that. I would think that they would be more
accepting than we are here in the United States, but I honestly don’t know.
The women in South Africa were perceived by participants from the United
States as being encouraged to follow a different type of curvaceous figure that
does not emphasize a tiny waist. U.S. participants viewed women in South
Africa as confident and accepting of their bodies the way “God made them.”
If women in South Africa did engage in modifications, women in the United
States thought that it would be related to cultural traditions of modification,
such as neck coils of the Ndebele tribe, or tattoos, piercing or scarification.
14 Journal of Black Studies
Women in the United States were perceived to be skinny by South African
participants. The perception of both groups is that Black women in the United
States are modifying their bodies more than Black South African women. A
South African participant, Ntsumi said,
I’m guessing they do get implants, boob, breast implants, but I mean like
there’s such a huge obsession with the big bum and the Kim Kardashian bum
and Nicki Minaj bum, that I probably can. I’m assuming so I could be making
an ass of myself that there are bum implants.
Most South African Black women felt that some Black women in the United
States modified their bodies to attain the idealized images or copy celebrities
such as Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, Ciara, or Nicki Minaj.
Appropriation of a Black Woman’s Body
Non-Black celebrities with big butts, including Kim Kardashian and Christina
Aguilera, are noted to have appropriated a Black woman’s figure. According
to Ashley from the United States, the appropriation of culturally appropriate
features, such as having a large butt, to persons of another culture is inauthen-
tic. This sentiment reifies that there is a quintessential form of a Black
woman. However, a Black woman without a big butt would still be consid-
ered as having a Black woman’s body simply because she is Black; but she
would be lacking in terms of meeting the societal expectation of having a
curvaceous figure. Comments made by other participants were congruent
with Ashley’s statements. The comments echoed the same belief and refer-
enced Saartjie Baartman (Netto, 2005), the historical marker of a Black wom-
an’s body. Ashley said,
. . . you know culture appropriation, and how like they use to talk about like,
what was that woman’s name who was like put on display cause she had that
huge butt, huge breasts and the black vagina was different, I feel like now all
this stuff was like disgusting before, now it’s like maybe I do want my lips to
be bigger, so now like Angelina Jolie, people love her lips, Christina Aguilera
love her breasts, Kim Kardashian oh she’s a white girl with a fat ass so like
these are things that black people have had since the beginning of time like just
like the sun has been shining since God created the Earth, black people have
had these features and now all of a sudden oh it’s OK, cause she got a little tan
and a big butt . . .
These comments serve to illuminate a perception conveyed by study partici-
pants. The perception is that White women who modify their bodies to obtain
Ashley and Jung 15
the Black woman’s culturally appropriate features are respected or applauded
more than Black women with similar features. These are the same features
embodied by Saartjie Baartman that were sexualized and shamed during the
1810s because of her physical appearance (Netto, 2005).
Discussion and Conclusion
This study’s objective was to confirm and explore Black women’s motiva-
tions for engaging in body modification from a cross-cultural context, and
provide understandings of methods Black women would use to achieve an
ideal body. Findings in this study highlighted cultural differences and simi-
larities between Black women in the United States and in South Africa and
their perceptions about body modification, using surgical modification
devices and exercise to attain an ideal body image.
Semi-structured interviews of both groups revealed that exercise was
the most salient method of modification because of its low cost and posi-
tive impact on women’s health in warding off health issues such as diabe-
tes. Exercise was also mentioned as to contributing ample body shape for
better fitting clothes. Surgical methods of augmentation were considered if
a major life change, such as childbirth or accident, occurred, but this
method was thought to be financially unfeasible. Furthermore, surgery
was not viewed as a natural method and health effects of this method were
mentioned as a deterrent. Both groups had similar motivations for body
modification, but they varied in depicting what each group aspired to rep-
licate through modification. Peers, media, and romantic partners were vital
entities that contribute to the motivation of body modification. Participants
in the United States thought South African women’s body modifications
were traditional or cultural in nature and involved methods such as scari-
fication or neck coils. Participants in South Africa thought that most
women Black women in the United States modify their bodies because of
media influences.
The representation of a Black woman’s body is still considered a
monolithic conception based on Black women in media, which emphasize
the curvaceous ideal, and its replication with Black women that are not in
media. For participants in this study exercise is the most widely used
practice for body modification. Exercise is inexpensive, serves to help
prevent health ailments, and is natural. Because access to funds could be
a barrier for surgical modification, socioeconomic status becomes a deter-
minate of the methods selected for body modification. Furthermore, the
perception of being natural becomes a determinate for modifying the
body surgically.
16 Journal of Black Studies
The findings in this study contribute to social comparison theory (Festinger,
1954) by providing another lens for examining Black women’s body modifi-
cation. The responses of participants reifies Festinger’s (1954) social com-
parison framework. Participants cited that self-comparison to peers and
representations of a Black woman’s body were motivators for modification.
Generally, social comparison theory has been explored to understand body
disturbance as a result of media exposure, attitudes, and perceptions about
one’s body but not in terms of modifying one’s body (Festinger, 1954; Zhang
et al., 2009). Therefore, this study extends Festinger’s framework by incorpo-
rating the concept of comparison as a mediating factor for Black women in
making decisions about body modification.
Kaiser’s (1998) cultural perspective is used to conceptualize how body
modification motivations are considered for Black women. Kaiser suggests
that a comparative body is one that is idealized and culturally constructed.
Black American and Black South African women in this study compare
themselves to the exaggerated, curvaceous figure depicted in Western media
and promoted by socialites and celebrities. They view the idealized curva-
ceous figure as more pleasing and valuable than their own bodies. Hence,
they are motivated by various influences in their environments, such as tele-
vision, music videos, and social media, to reject physical realities of their
own bodies. They use various ways and means to alter their physical features
to match those considered culturally desirable. The women’s social and emo-
tional currencies are increased through modification of their physical features
to match their cultural ideal. Attaching value to body modifications either by
natural or surgical means designates a modified body as a commodity, hence,
making it more valuable.
Interesting findings give way for numerous implications and future
studies. Instead of tailoring clothing, participants were apt to tailor their
bodies. As the participants used exercise to modify their bodies to fit cloth-
ing, this finding highlights a disconnect between Black female consumers
and producers of fashion. Therefore, producers of fashion should take a
larger stake in understanding the needs of Black female consumers, which
would probably deter modification. The gap between producers and con-
sumers highlights the reinforcement of mainstream beauty ideals, where
the homogeneous perpetuation of beauty is detrimental to the mental and
physical well-being of Black women. Based on theoretical conceptions,
future studies should examine how Black women participate in commodi-
fying themselves. What methods of modification are more successful in
elevating their perceived value? Does this translate to financial growth or
attaching herself to a financially successful romantic partner? This can
also be cross culturally compared, for example, examining the factors in
Ashley and Jung 17
the exchange of dowries in an African country in comparison with a Black
American woman modifying her body.
To conclude, the major implication from this study is not only that further
investigations of Black women’s body image and body modification should
be conducted but also there should be a shift in materials that are marketed
and sold to Black women to better fit their needs and are more reflective
images of Black women in media.
Appendix
In-Depth Interview Questions
Black woman’s body image
1. How do you identify a Black woman’s body?
2. What does a Black woman’s body look like?
3. How does your body compare to your depiction of a Black woman’s
body?
4. What has contributed to your interpretation of a Black woman’s
body?
5. When you see a Black woman’s body in the media, how is it
presented?
Media
1. How does your body compare to your interpretation of how a Black
woman’s body is presented in popular media (including TV, popular
source magazine, and social media)?
2. How do you feel when seeing the portrayal of a Black woman’s body
in the media?
3. How do you feel the fashion industry affects Black women’s body
image?
4. What is the message you think the media is trying to convey about a
Black woman’s body?
Body modification
1. Is it possible to construct a Black woman’s body using body modifi-
cation? How?
2. Have you deliberately altered your body (by exercise, body modifica-
tion devices [i.e., waist shaper], or cosmetic/plastic surgery) inten-
tionally to achieve the image presented in media of a Black woman?
Why?
3. What would motivate you to engage in body modification?
18 Journal of Black Studies
Cross cultural
1. What is the U.S./South Africa cultural standard of a Black woman’s
body?
2. What types of Black women’s body do you see in the United States/
South Africa?
3. What are your perceptions of a Black woman’s body in the United
States/South Africa?
4. Do you think Black women in the United States/South Africa modify
their bodies?
Sarah Baartman
1. Do you know who Sarah Baartman is?
2. If so, do you feel her image is connected to the body image of Black
women in South Africa or the United States?
a. How has Sarah Baartman’s body image impacted your own body
image?
Acknowledgments
Most heart-felt thanks to Carol Henderson, John L. Jackson Jr., Marsha Dickson,
Rosetta S. LaFleur, Kurt Oderson, Bertha Jacobs, Willie Floyd Jr., Binta Bah, and
Jonathan Wilson Jr., as well as, most important, the beautiful Black women who
allowed their story to be shared.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was supported by the
Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies and the Office of Graduate and Professional
Education and Institute for Global Studies at the University of Delaware.
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Author Biographies
Rokeshia Renné Ashley is a second-year doctoral student at the University of
Missouri-Columbia in the Missouri School of Journalism. Her research focuses on the
relationship between Black women’s body image and body modification and its mani-
festation in health and global communication, particularly in spaces of indigenous
populations of Africa.
Jaehee Jung is a professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at
University of Delaware and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Women
and Gender Studies. She has done extensive cross-cultural research in social–psycho-
logical aspects of clothing and consumer behavior with focus on body image issues.
... In South Africa, there is an intrafamilial resemblance for ideal body sizes (Mchiza et al., 2011). Nonetheless, there is tension between Western ideals and Black South African women's traditional body aesthetics (Ashley & Jung, 2017;Hewat & Arndt, 2009). Ideal body types derive from intra-family similarities (Mchiza et al., 2011). ...
... These types of historical notions of objectification in its various forms echo in current experiences of objectification, where women indulge in self-objectification, disordered eating, and emotional distress. From such experiences there is also motivation to engage in cosmetic or plastic surgery (Ashley & Jung, 2017). This study will help us understand how the constructs of objectification theory vary for Black women by country and identity. ...
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