We’ve seen this all before, though. Brown is the latest victim of the way the internet, namely men, objectifies black women’s bodies. This is nothing new—a curvy black woman puts on an outfit and the male gaze can’t stop gawking. This often ends with society placing the ultimate blame on the woman for not wearing “appropriate” attire that will control boys’ urges. This is the cycle of rape culture.
There is nothing wrong with Brown’s work attire, and people pretending that it is the issue are being dishonest about what’s actually being discussed. A simple look through her Instagram page will show that in the classroom, Brown frequently wears formfitting dresses that are knee-length and high-neck. Her dress is often accompanied with flats or heels, and sometimes a blazer. The photo taking the internet by storm is no exception.
Her neckline is past her collarbone, her sleeves go over her shoulders, her dress makes a full stop at her knees and she is covered in every photo taken at school. It is her body type that we are critiquing, not her clothing. This is no different from the way society shames fat, thick, curvy women and how they dress—and these critiques are exacerbated for black women.
Historically, black women’s bodies have constantly been policed and sexualized. SaartjieBaartman, also nicknamed “the Hottentot Venus,” for example, was taken as a slave from the “bushmen” tribe more than 200 years ago. She was then paraded around London and Paris in so-called freak shows so that people could pick and prod at her large buttocks. That story once again made headlines after rumors spread early this year that Beyoncé planned to write and star in a film about Baartman. The rumor turned out to be untrue, but not the policing.
Even Beyoncé isn’t above critique when it comes to her body being policed. Before Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan vowed to help Beyoncé if the police wouldn’t provide securityduring the Formation World Tour, he was policing her body. Last year, in an interview with HipHopSince1987, Farrakhan shared details about the sexualization of female artists like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, noting that “when you strip a woman down, a man becomes a dog.” He followed with, “How can a man think straight looking at the beauty of Beyoncé?”
The problem is that we place the onus on women and girls to control the urges of young boys and men, as if that isn’t the essence of rape culture. People across social media have gone to the extreme in blaming Brown’s newfound internet attention on her not dressing “modest enough.” But to suggest that curvy women are being immodest is to imply that they—and only they—should dress without curves, without their real bodies. It is deeply misogynistic and polices expression, and seems to apply only to black women.
The context surrounding what is “appropriate” work attire is rooted in respectability politics, is anti-black and is often weaponized against black women specifically. This is carried out in other forms of policing of black women—for example, when they’re told that hairstyles are inappropriate and worthy of punishment.
Anyone who grew up in predominantly black middle and high schools rememberss the “fingertip test,” in which girls would literally have to extend their arms down to their sides to measure the appropriateness of a skirt or dress. If the end of the skirt or dress extended beyond the fingertips, then it was deemed appropriate. If not, many girls were sent home. Not only can this pushout result in education inequities because of a very real school-to-prison pipeline—one that forces black girls out of school—but it polices attire and blames them for what’s considered a distraction.
Even as a young teenager, I knew this was wrong. It didn’t take long before I realized that curvier girls couldn’t get away with wearing certain clothes—and that isn’t their fault, even though society places the blame on them. But instead of owning why rules and regulations are placed on curvier black girls, we make them liable for their own unwanted attention.
The truth is that we find Brown attractive and can’t help looking at her curvy body because of our own problematic male gaze. Instead of being honest about that, we impute our inappropriate thoughts to her young students. These are students we could easily teach not to objectify women and girls. Instead, many of us are using this as an opportunity to put down our faux progressive cards and pick up a conservative one—just to police attire on a curvy woman because we have bought into respectability politics.
Children do not naturally and normally sexualize people; as adults, we do that for them. Brown is doing nothing inappropriate.According to Brown, “I just wish they would respect me and focus on the positive and what truly matters—which is educating the children of the future generations and providing and caring for them.”
Sadly, though, patriarchy has already won when we are discussing the appropriateness of a school teacher’s wardrobe, as opposed to teaching boys and men not to objectify her regardless of what she’s wearing.