Erasure and assertion in body aesthetics: Respectability politics to anti-assimilationist aesthetics

British Journal of Aesthetics (forthcoming)
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Marginalized people have used body aesthetic practices, such as clothing and hairstyles, to communicate their worth to the mainstream. One such example is respectability politics, a set of practices developed in post-Reconstruction black communities to prevent sexual assault and convey moral standing to the white mainstream. Respectability politics is an ambivalent strategy. It requires assimilation to white bourgeois aesthetic and ethical standards, and so guides practitioners toward blandness and bodily erasure. Yet, it is an aesthetic practice that cultivates moral agency and helps communities avoid violence and meet social and economic goals. I contrast respectability politics with the anti-assimilationist body aesthetics of Chike Jeffers and Janell Hobson. Because these accounts do not seek to neutralize or erase the body, they fundamentally value black people. As such, they more effectively convey personhood than assimilationist strategies do and also demonstrate the positive role that body aesthetics can play in everyday ethical projects.

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Madeline Martin-Seaver
University of South Florida

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