Warning: Killer Curves in Spandex

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 29, 2005

Everyone knows this woman. She's on every city street -- walking along, drawing second glances, being judged. She's a type. She is dressed in a provocative manner that typically involves an extravagant display of cleavage or a disconcerting amount of leg. At all hours of the day, this woman enjoys wearing tight, revealing clothing and draws astonished gazes to her barely covered derriere.

In her full glory, she does not have the kind of lanky figure preferred by Hollywood, Seventh Avenue or the advertising world. Instead, she is all curves. The seams of her skirts and jeans have been selected so they strain against ample flesh. It is hard not to look at this woman in fascination because her attire is, by most standards, the kind that belongs in a nightclub or, in the worst case, on a street corner on the seamier side of town.

This woman is not part of popular culture's "real woman" campaign in which ladies who are not model-thin use their curvaceous bodies to advertise everything from Dove skin care to treatments for irritable bowel syndrome. This is not a professionally styled, G-rated woman. This is not the comedian Mo'Nique championing the virtue of "big girls" while she stands on stage hosting "Showtime at the Apollo" decked out in a perfectly elegant evening gown that gently skims her plus-size hips.

This woman is R-rated. She has a full figure and she likes to encase it in spandex. She dresses like a hooker -- not a paid escort, not a high-priced call girl, not a prostitute with a heart of gold working her way through law school. She looks like a hooker, although that is not her profession.

And she exudes so much confidence that she is nothing short of a marvel.

Who this woman is and why she dresses the way she does is explored in an essay titled "Ho Gear," which is part of the anthology "Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts." It is a small, unassuming little book edited by Akiba Solomon and Ayana Byrd. (It's in stores next week.) In it, black women talk about body image in ways that are purely personal and sometimes vexing, divorced from politics -- and sometimes logic. Often the speakers contradict themselves. They aren't expressing a polished philosophy about body image; they're just talking.

In one essay, a hip-hop video dancer talks about the realities of living inside the body of a pin-up. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross offers an ode to her "tush," which refused to get any less pronounced no matter how much she dieted. And a host of professional writers speak of their encounters with catcalls, family putdowns, social biases and the insecurities they themselves have nurtured. They talk about their hair, skin color, eating disorders, weight gain and rear ends.

Much has been written about the distress black women have over their hair. (Indeed, Byrd co-wrote a book on that very topic.) But both editors felt little had been written -- from either a feminist, political point of view or a friend-to-friend perspective -- about how black women relate to their bodies.

The broad cultural presumption, Solomon says, is that black women are particularly secure about their bodies, less inclined to punish themselves for not living up to images of reed-thin, white models who dominate fashion magazines.

"The idea was to get beneath the bravado," says Solomon, health editor at Essence magazine. "Culturally it's not acceptable to sit around and talk about how we don't like our body. Saying 'I'm fat' is associated with white women." (Even if weight gain is a nagging, demoralizing worry.)

The editors included "Ho Gear" because they wanted to explore the experiences and the aggressive confidence of a "full-figured woman who wore tight clothes. We wanted to hear from her perspective," Solomon says.

Beverly Smith, who has a background in fashion advertising and acting, tells her story with a mix of signature bravado, surprising vulnerability and matter-of-fact dismissiveness: "You know how some women say that they're wearing something but they don't want attention? I definitely dressed to get attention. Oh, I'm super shy, I don't want anyone to notice me, but I'm wearing lace pants. Come on, you're killin' me. But believe it or not, even though I dressed like this, it was really tough for me to deal with catcalls and men thinking they could say whatever they wanted to me. I would get really upset and curse men out.

"Just because I'll be the first to say 'ho gear' doesn't mean I was a ho."

Smith's attire is inspired by her 1980s Harlem childhood, watching flamboyant street criminals work her neighborhood and seeing her older female relatives relish their bodies and show them off explicitly. As a teenager, she was an exhibitionist whose showmanship was applauded by her family. Ultimately, her style emerged from a complicated environmental mix that validated "ho gear" as feminine, powerful, acceptable and dynamic. It is not so much about sex but about self-actualization. It fends off invisibility. It is a celebration of the body as it is, not as one might wish it to be. "I didn't go through a stage where I was insecure about it or ashamed. I never felt that way about being brown skinned or having short hair, none of it. I would look at myself and think, Things could be better, but things could be worse and I'm a cute girl. I kept it moving."

Yet why dress in "ho gear" and risk being treated like a hooker? If clothes function as semiotics, where does the power lie -- with the sender or the receiver? And what happens when the sender is purposefully offering up misinformation? The essay does not address the ways in which such misdirection can play out politically and socially. And perhaps Smith has not fully considered them.

But the essay provides this comfort to those who find themselves mesmerized by a flamboyant rear view. The woman in the tight, rubber dress with the generous figure and the confident strut doesn't really care what folks think; she's just pleased that they're all looking.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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