Will I always be perceived as the black girl with the big tits and the fat ass, or am I seen as the black girl with the big tits and the fat ass because of the way I dress? My mother would argue the latter. When I almost moved into a notoriously crime heavy part of Boston, my mom and I had a chat. She talked to me about crime rates, about how to be safe at night, about my behavior, and most importantly to her, about the "provocative" way I sometimes dressed. She believed it was inviting street harassment.
My opinion? I'm a grown woman, and I should be able to wear whatever I want. But my mother — like it or not Mom, this is true — cares a lot about how people perceive her, and me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that her mother, my grandmother, used to always put on lipstick before she left the house. "You never know who you're going to see," she'd say. I was taught from a young age about the importance of perception.
So when Nicki Minaj's now infamous Anaconda album cover caused a Twitter explosion this summer, I was especially interested to see how it was perceived. I wasn't surprised when people said Minaj was ratchet, slutty, hyper-sexualized, and a bad role model.
When Minaj responded to the backlash by captioning her album cover "Unacceptable" on Instagram in juxtaposition with other "acceptable" images, she ended up making an unexpected but powerful point about the different standards black and white female sexuality are held to.
The controversy that arose made me wonder what people think about me based on how I present myself. Am I asking for negative male attention if I wear something that shows off my body? Am I opening myself up to criticism if I'm not completely covered? How are the perceived rules different for me as a black woman?
When I saw fellow Bustle writer Marie Southard Ospina's OKCupid experiment looking at how people responded to her dressing as different "types" on the site — goth, retro, natural — I couldn't help but wonder how the results would be different for me as a black woman. I decided to give it a shot.
I changed the pictures on my profile once a week, allowing enough time for new people to register the change. The information on my profile always remained the same; the only thing that changed was the pictures. I didn't respond to any message during the duration of this experiment. Every comment you see under each persona is a direct image of the original first message I received from that user. No user appears twice in the results.
I broke myself down into a few different personas, each representing one facet of my identity: The "Video Girl," The "Hipster/Nerd," The "Afrocentric," The "Professional," and The "Me-Yoncé."
The video girl
Inspired by Nicki Minaj's 'Anaconda' album cover, this look was the most stereotypically "hyper-sexualized" of the five looks. This "video girl" side of me comes out from time to time on the weekends, if I'm going to concerts/events, or when I just want to look sexy. It's the sort of look my mother would deem inappropriate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was by far the most popular look when it came to the number of visitors viewing my profile. This look also received the most sexually explicit messages, along with messages that linked my race to my sexuality.
In the messages I got while this persona was up, I was heavily fetishized. Responses mentioning a love for darker women, black women, or big butts were common.
This was definitely the most difficult profile to keep up for an entire week. After the first round of responses came in, I felt really emotionally drained and exhausted. It's hard to see how people think of you written out as opposed to just living your life without knowing.
What does it even mean when someone says "I've never dated a black girl but I've always wanted to?"
A kid from my high school once told me, after a few beers, that he'd never been with a black girl and wanted me to be his first. He smiled, an almost sneer-like toothy grin, as if what he'd said was some sort of compliment. Was I supposed to be flattered? Why am I something to be sampled, like a new type of non-dairy ice cream? "Oh I've had the vanilla, I think I'll have a scoop of the chocolate just to give it a whirl."
Some of the responses made me feel like a lot of people think of me as just a different flavor, so much so that I considered calling the whole experiment off. It wasn't until I talked to a friend of mine that I decided to trudge on. She argued that regardless of how the comments made me feel, there was something to be learned from these responses and their honesty. So, I kept going.
This persona is a mixture of my appreciation for FKA Twigs and my love for some things that could warrant me being called a "nerd." It's also how I dress when I'm in class, on campus, or studying.
If I'm wearing thick rimmed glasses, my septum ring, and a crewneck t-shirt, I'm still a black woman — I'm just not as blatantly and overtly sexual as the video girl look.
The messages this profile received reflect how dramatically a few accessory and wardrobe changes influenced who some users assumed I was, and the degree to which they fetishized me. In comparison to the "video girl" persona, this look garnered responses focused on the interests I listed on my profile. I got a lot of questions asking about Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, Tasty Burger, my nose ring, and, for some reason, smoking weed (an interest mentioned nowhere on my profile).
None of the messages mentioned my race at all.
I remember the first weekend I had these braids. I was out at a bar in Boston, and some guy made a joke likening me to a member of TLC because of my hair. I remember thinking to myself, "Which member of TLC was known for having braids like this? Oh yeah, none of them." After that, I think I became hyper-aware of the fact that people seemed to perceive me as "more black" when I had braids. I started experimenting with African head wraps and traditional prints in an effort to embrace a side of my heritage that had previously gone unexplored.
I felt that this look was the look where my race was most blatantly on display (or at least it was supposed to be), but only one visitor mentioned my race explicitly. I was expecting to have a ton of fetishized messages, but to my surprise, people just gave me compliments and occasionally mentioned information I had included in my profile.
This was the first profile where I realized maybe I couldn't control people's perception of me just by changing what I wore. I had expected people to have a certain reaction, and when no one took the bait, I was so insanely frustrated. It seemed I understood the way people perceived me even less than I thought I did.
I consider myself a young professional. In addition to freelancing and getting my master's, I work at an e-commerce company. The dress code at work is extremely casual, but from time to time I have meetings as well as events I have to attend, and need to dress up a bit. This look is about as professional as I get.
This profile was one of the most interesting to observe. A friend of mine said these pictures made me look kind of shy or reserved (which is funny because I would never use those two words to describe myself). Most of the messages I received seemed to reflect that. I got the most succinct responses for this look — a lot of "hey's," "hi's," "hello's," and "how are you doing's." I received no comments about my race.
The other looks showed a side of me that I think is more approachable, while this side of me is very straight-forward, a little quieter, and less open. I wondered if the way I present myself in a professional setting makes me seem at all unapproachable.
I was the most stressed about posting this persona because it was just me being me. I wear a lot of black. I wear my septum ring almost everyday. I'm usually laying around in bed. I love wearing big black floppy hats and sunglasses that make me look like John Lennon. I tried to take pictures that represent aspects of who I am and what I'm about as a collective whole.
The pattern of messages I received for this look was the most erratic, perhaps because it was the least specific. Some people talked about Tasty Burger, some mentioned my nose ring, some wrote about my hair, and some just stuck with a casual "hello."
I think this profile came off as the most approachable, which made me happy since it was just me being me. No one really overtly fetishized me or linked my sexuality and race for this profile either.
As the experiment came to a close, I felt more confused than when I had started. It seemed as if men only really linked my race and sexuality in the first profile, and the responses to the rest of the personas I presented were fairly consistent. I thought back to when Marie did her experiment on OKCupid, and her results were far more varied. When she was doing her "goth" look, people really responded specifically to that particular look. "Let's be sad together," one wrote. "You're depressingly beautiful. Get it? Because you're beautiful and I am betting depressed," another said. When Marie was doing her "all natural, no makeup" look, people responded specifically to that particular look. One user said he respected her posting unaltered photos, but also thought she was crazy for doing so. Another said she was cute, but looked a bit sickly.
Like mine, Marie's "party girl" look received the most sexually explicit responses as well, but even those reactions seemed directly related to what she was wearing, not her race. She's Latina, but perhaps because Marie is so fair-skinned, her club look didn't prompt racial fetishization in the same way that mine did.
In my experiment, it seemed users placed me into one of only two categories: over-sexualized black being, or just "normal" girl. That is what fetishization looks like — reducing someone to a type, rather than a person. This fetishization implies that people of color are no more than our bodies and our skin color, that we are something to be explored or "tried." And as I was forced to painfully confront, that noise is difficult to block out.
After a couple of weeks doing this experiment, I started to question why I wore the things I did, especially my "video girl" wear. I took all of my going out clothes from my dirty clothes hamper, from my closet, from my drawers, and dumped them onto the floor. I started picking up each item, one by one, to decide why I wore it, if I could be in any way fetishized if I was seen in it, and whether that was enough to deter me from wearing it.
After a few hours of sorting, it seemed like almost anything I wore could possibly draw what, in the aftermath of the experiment, could be classified as the wrong type of attention, or result in me being fetishized.
Staring at the pile of clothing, I realized that people will always want to put me in a box — but that doesn't mean I need to conform to what they think is acceptable or palatable. I don't need to tweak my expression of my sexuality to make certain people feel comfortable or to ward off negative attention. That's the strength in what Nicki Minaj did: her album cover said Yes, I'm a sexualized black being. So what.
And as difficult as it was in the beginning, that's what this experiment taught me in the end. I can be sexy and black, and while people may fetishize me, that still won't stop me from expressing my sexuality in the way that I choose to.
I decided to keep all of my "video girl" clothes, not just because I don't want to throw them away, but because I refuse to live my life on anyone's terms but my own.
I woke up the next morning, wiggled into my favorite jeans that hug my hips just so, popped in my septum, slid on my favorite black crop top, and with my midriff showing and head held high, I walked out the door. Would some people see my tightly denim-clad ass and crop top and think damn, I've never been with a black girl but I want to now? — potentially. But that doesn't mean I have to stop wearing tight jeans. Especially these ones, because they're my favorite.
Images: Nicki Minaj/Instagram (2), Paige Tutt