In 1810, Sara Baartman, a slave from South Africa, was brought to London by her owner with the promise of wealth and fame. Under the name “Hottentot Venus”, she was paraded and humiliated throughout Europe as a “freak show” on account of her large buttocks and other conspicuous physical attributes that were believed to be uniquely African. Today, via the various technological vehicles of pop culture, the “hourglass” female aesthetic has transformed from the odd “other” into the coveted ideal. Models, artists, and actresses including Jennifer Lopez, Tyra Banks, Beyonce Knowles, Kim Kardashian, and Amber Rose personify this aesthetic, and their desirable assets are featured prominently in a plethora of media outlets. This now-celebrated aesthetic has both positive and negative implications for the physical and mental health of the women that are subject to it.
The hourglass female aesthetic brings attention to an interesting indicator of health and health risk: the waist-to-hip ratio. The way in which fat is distributed in the body is often determined by genetic, dietary, and other types of factors. It is well documented that truncal obesity, or a concentration of fat in the abdominal region of the body, is a major risk factor for a variety of chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease. Thereby, the size of the waist with respect to the size of the hips emerged as a measure of the distribution of adipose tissue (fat) in the body and its abdominal concentration. In general, a waist-to-hip ratio of .8 or lower in women has a protective effect against coronary heart disease and other chronic conditions. The waist-to-hip ratio as an indicator of health risk is not without its limitations, however, as both lean and obese individuals can easily have the same ratio. Thereby, waist circumference has emerged as a stronger indicator. However, the waist-to-hip ratio continues to be widely employed as a measurement of health risk. Some studies have indicated that the relationship between waist-to-hip ratio and coronary heart disease is stronger in Black-American women than in White-American women, which is notable from an anthropometric perspective.
Hip Hop music is the first cultural behemoth to widely promote the hourglass female aesthetic that is characterized by a low waist-to-hip ratio. In the narrative of Hip Hop, a woman who is “thick” is usually heralded as the woman of choice. “Thick” generally refers to a woman having large breasts, hips, thighs, and/or buttocks. Perhaps the most iconic Hip Hop song to highlight the attractiveness of full-figured women is “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot. In the song, he derides the portrayal of extremely thin women that are bereft of curves as the ideal in pop culture while expressing his appreciation for women with full figures and big buttocks. While the song and its corresponding video is considered to be derogatory by many, others view it as an entertaining nod to women that have “a little meat on their bones” and herald it as a self-esteem booster for the millions of women that do not have the typical “model body” and thus struggle with their body image. Other songs that incorporate a similar message include “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-n-Effect, “Big Ole Butt” by LL Cool J, “Bonita Applebum” by A Tribe Called Quest, “Ms. Fat Booty” by Mos Def, and “Badd” by the Ying Yang Twins and Mike Jones. The messages in these songs represent scientific research that indicates that Black-American men are more likely to favor women with heavier figures and a lower waist-to-hip ratio than White-American men. Nicki Minaj, the most successful female Hip Hop artist to date, has stirred a lot of controversy with the size enhancement of her buttocks as a caricatured representation of this desired aesthetic. However, its promotion is not new nor is it limited to Hip Hop music. The songs “Brickhouse” by the Commodores, “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child, “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen, and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” by Trace Adkins illustrate the embrace of the hourglass aesthetic in the Funk, R&B, Rock, and Country musical genres. The promotion of this aesthetic does not end with music and music videos. In 2003, St. Louis based artist Nelly developed the “Apple Bottoms” clothing line to celebrate and provide fashion for curvaceous women.
Perhaps it is the perceived “celebration” of the curvy woman that has allowed for Hip Hop artists to prominently feature if not exploit the female form in their music and corresponding music videos. However, for many, Nelly surpassed the threshold of tolerance for his artistic portrayal of the hourglass aesthetic. In the chorus of his 2004 song “Tip Drill”, Nelly says in so many words that he must be attracted to the ample backside of a woman because he is certainly not attracted to her face. The music video features scantily-clad women undulating in front of the camera, many of whom have their faces obscured from view and their buttocks and other body parts on full risqué display. Towards the end of video, Nelly dares to slide a credit card through a woman’s buttocks, causing them to shake. The video led to large organized boycotts of his music led by activist groups and the loss of Nelly’s corporate advertising deals. Shortly after the video was released, Nelly attempted to visit Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, the premier historically-Black institute of higher learning for women, where he was denied entry because of the “Tip Drill” backlash. “Tip Drill” is considered to be one of the biggest mistakes in Hip Hop history, and Nelly’s career has yet to fully rehabilitate. However, the Apple Bottoms clothing line continues to thrive.
It is ironic that the ideal female aesthetic as described in Hip Hop can be viewed as both derogatory and uplifting by its listeners. The hourglass aesthetic has important implications for the physical and mental health of women, particularly women of color. There is no doubt that the promotion of this aesthetic contributes to the fact that Black-American women are more likely to have a positive body image than women of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and are also less likely to have eating disorders. However, Black-American women are also more likely to be overweight or obese than women of other backgrounds. Black-American women also generally experience higher levels of stress than women of other backgrounds, causing the production of the stress hormone cortisol and the consequent deposition of adipose tissue in the abdomen. Women with the coveted hourglass shape may incorrectly conclude that, because their body fat is concentrated in their hips and buttocks more than their waist, that they are healthier and have less of a need for exercise than women with a higher waist-to-hip ratio. However, a low waist-to-hip ratio is protective only to a point. Also, for every large and curvaceous woman who feels celebrated by Hip Hop music, there is another woman without the hourglass shape that feels inadequate as a result of the high value it holds in the culture. For example, in the song “A Milli”, Lil’ Wayne says in so many words that a woman without a large behind has nothing to offer. Conversely, some women that do have a prominent backside may internalize the idea that it is the most important or valuable thing they do have to offer. It is positive that larger, curvier women may interpret these messages in a way that is beneficial to their self-esteem. However, more Hip Hop artists should incorporate messages about the beauty of women of all shapes and sizes in their music, as well as highlight the plethora of other attributes that make a woman beautiful. Songs including “Womanology” by KRS-One, “You’re All I Need To Get By” by Method Man and Mary J. Blige, “The Light” by Common, “Beautiful” by Snoop Dogg, and “Make Me Better” by Fabolous and NeYo do this nicely.
The Hip Hop Public Health team, with programs such as Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. and Hip Hop F.E.E.T., strives to teach children that size is not necessarily an indicator of health, but rather fitness and fat composition. We encourage them to eat healthily and exercise to prevent or curb obesity, but we also encourage children to love and respect themselves and others regardless of one’s physical attributes. Though the waist-to-hip ratio should be kept in check, the health of one’s mental and emotional state is invaluable and directly affects one’s ability to maintain or improve physically. Whether thick or thin, listen within for the win.