The era of the ass is on its way out, or so we have been told. Over a decade after BBC News announced in 2011 that a growing “obsession” with big booties had sprung from the increased popularity of American hip-hop culture, and the corresponding prominence of well-endowed artists such as Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, social media, journalists, critics, and more have begun to join the bandwagon by openly wishing that the wagon would go away. “The bbl era is over,” Twitter users have declared for months, referring to the cosmetic surgery known as the Brazilian Butt Lift, or BBL. They retweet and thread together images of celebrities whose alleged and confirmed BBL reversals have been regarded as the death knell for the donk in American popular culture. Many have noted, before its contemporary death sentence discourse, that the “global pursuit” of ass-enhancement and edification has had unique impacts on pronunciations of Black women’s “realness,” the theorization of a “new black body,” the development of recovery houses, and ongoing political analysis of what it means to characterize cosmetic surgeries as “excessive” or “elective” within a capitalist society committed to austerity. What remains to be said of the public’s eagerness to announce the demotion of the ass is what it reveals about the anti-Blackness of our beauty culture — namely, that it is shaped not only by a “logic of depreciation,” but also, in the words of Afro-Brazilian scholar Denise Ferreira da Silva, a condition “beyond the equation of value” in which the subject of calculation is “destined to obliteration.”
With the donk’s destiny of decimation in mind, we are left to ask what death-dealing will endure beyond the BBL grave, particularly for those Black people who have been financially exploited, medically harmed, and/or socially derided by the very anti-Black economy of desire that is now allegedly adjusting for (ass) inflation. For starters, as high-profile women known for being “thicker than a bowl of oatmeal” begin reversing their enhancements, only a select few have made an effort to name the role that race, class, and gender play in determining one’s access to safe life-sustaining surgery. K. Michelle, the R&B singer most known for her stint on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, famously removed her implants after a botched procedure and is now hosting a show called My Killer Body with K. Michelle on Lifetime. Airing earlier this year, the TV series primarily centers on the experiences of working-class Black women (and a few Black men and non-Black women of color) who made investments in body modifications, such as BBLs, that have resulted in life-threatening health issues caused by botched or poorly executed surgeries. Despite the insatiable appetite for body horror and celebrity scandal that the show’s name and the host might respectively court, My Killer Body is overwhelmingly compassionate and confessional. Seeing as though Michelle has herself spoken out about the traumatic post-surgery complication she suffered, her purpose on the show is primarily one of comradery and financial support. In each episode, Michelle gives her respective guests a platform to speak on the suffering caused by their ordeal while also providing them with the resources to begin getting medical care for their health complications. As these women find themselves struggling with chronic and debilitating pain, severe infections, and in some cases, emergency amputations, their stories present a picture of an emerging class of people whose futures will be determined by our fights for disability justice and a universal medical care that includes elective cosmetic surgeries.
While contemporary discourses on beauty and body modification often fixate on questions of empowerment vs. disempowerment, My Killer Body does not strive to berate or embarrass its cast, an otherwise popular trope in media representations of Black women’s efforts at attaining beauty enhancements (see: the ass explosion in the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, the TikTok “BBL effect,” or the numerous jokes about the processions of primarily Black women in airports who were wheelchair-bound following international travel for cosmetic surgeries). Instead, by centering those who have had these procedures, and focusing on the social and economic conditions that lead to their deteriorating health, the show re-situates this matter of the ass-as-asset. and reveals how BBLs, regarded by some as a mutable body modification, are for many others a material asset sought out to mediate the social death wrought by desirability and racial capitalism — the results of which can not be so easily reversed. For those who were targeted and courted by unlicensed surgeons who offer low-income clients cheaper prices, the gap between social and “real” death shrinks. The body bears the brunt.
Each story on My Killer Body calls out the very structures of desirability and inequality that court these women’s arrivals to the operating table only to condemn them with uneven consequences and casualty. For Taliyah, a Black trans woman featured on the show, access to cosmetic surgery and injections is life-giving (in that it is gender-affirming) and death-dealing all at once. After losing a friend and mentor to the fatal effects of silicone injections, Taliyah anxiously sets out to have her injections removed whilst grieving. In an essay for Nylon, Rachel Rabbit White asserts that “to celebrate the supposed ‘end of the BBL’ is synonymous with the desire to kill the ways in which Black women, especially Black trans women, and especially Black trans sex workers, have shaped the culture and were co-opted by the mainstream.” But, given the social, political, and economic forces which limit women like Taliyah’s ability to safely exit the aesthetic era, the kind of death implied by the trend’s end is far beyond the metaphorical.
Still, White’s concern about cultural influence is not moot. Certainly, credit must go to Black artists and content creators, particularly rappers, pop musicians, video vixens, and IG influencers, for facilitating the mainstream understanding of the ass-as-asset. One need not look far to discover how Black popular culture gave a term like “money-maker” its embodied coherence. Nelly’s 2003 “Tip Drill” video — in which the St. Louis rapper swipes a credit card between the butt cheeks of a Black woman — remains infamous and controversial due to its indelible imagery and the artist’s refusal to be accountable for it (he even went as far as to blame the model for not refusing the scene). Despite the blowback the video received, its narrative logic endures as an emblem of the social, financial, and erotic capital that is now implied by the popular preservation, procurement, and presentation of a big butt. In response to this visual culture, some Black feminist readings of the ass have attempted to reclaim the rear for resistance. Academic Janelle Hobson in her book Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture positions Black women dancers in the hip-hop, reggae, soca, and calypso genres as performers using their bodies to assert their sensual and social capital in industries run by men.
Consider also, American pop star Lizzo, who in her 2021 TED Talk about Black dance and musical innovation, says she “discovered [her] ass is [her] greatest asset.” In her words, we are reminded that finding value in one’s ass hinges in part on a social valuation of its worth. Charting her ass anthem in her 2019 single, “Ass Like That,” Victoria Monet croons, “It’s an asset just to see the way my ass sit like this. In all my fits, had to send a video, I don’t edit my pics. I work for it. I’m on my shit.” The artist’s exaltation of “work[ing] for it” — a trope that values targeted exercise and diet culture as a virtuous contrast to the supposedly passive act of pursuing surgical or medical assistance in shaping one’s body — disavows how we each “pay” for desirability in one way or another, but what Monet gets right is her articulation of beauty as best when the labor is invisible; in short, a fantasy. “When I’m walking by yeah I know the truth is, he wanna know how she get that ass like that,” she sings. The songstress enhances her glutes through exercise in the interest of inspiring wonder and curiosity in those for whom her work is delightfully unknowable. Sexy is as sexy does, but beauty is a magician who never reveals her tricks.
Still, these Black women’s efforts at rewriting and reclaiming their bottoms through bops do not change the politics of desirability. Beauty cannot hide from history. As Sander L. Gilman articulates in Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery, this is why “buttocks have meaning” in the first place. Long before the late 20th-century technological development of the BBL, the scientific interest in the backside was preoccupied with measuring human maturation and the marks of so-called “primitivity” as they were indicated by the posterior. Pointing to Charles Darwin’s 1871 The Descent of Man, in which the English naturalist asserted that the butt was a “visible sign” of the “human female pelvis” and thus, a locus of eroticization, Gilman notes how in its ubiquity “the buttocks became both the site of the primitive but also (and often simultaneously) replace the breasts as the site of the erotic — in men and women.” In this way, posterior protrusion became a powerful signifier for colonial musings and knowledge production about the nature of sex and sexuality in “normal” Europeans and their decidedly non-normative African foils. The ass soon emerged as a highly racialized property. For this reason, when the science behind the butt lift was standardized in the late 20th century, the decision to have one’s behind raised carried with it a weighty set of concerns. “What do you change when you have your buttocks lifted?” Gilman asks. “Do you change your soul? Do you now ‘pass’ as someone who is not ‘primitive’ but rather erotic?” For those of us who are Black, the answers emerge through our bodies which, regardless of their endowments, remain the threshold across which others might pass to access erotic capital.
This is, of course, why it has also become commonplace to assert that the “BBL body” is an essential approximation of a “Black female body.” Foundational for many mainstream critiques of cultural appropriation and “black-fishing” as indexed by the proliferation of non-Black BBL bodies, this narrative of a particular body type as the essentialBlack form holds. In our failure to trouble this theorization of a “Black feminine form,” we have assumed the colonial calculus once more. Hannah Giorgis points out in her essay “What Makes A Black Woman Real?” how these essentialist ideas have made us ill-equipped to attend to the experiences of Black women whose bodies, on account of genetics, fatphobia, and/or transmisogynoir, are violated by these projections. As My Killer Body shows us, the damage caused by making the Black ass notorious and essential to Black femininity is a cost that some bear more than others, and some pay for with their lives. The distance between one’s clinical death and one’s physical and economic recovery is paved by social forces. In their 2020 essay on race and the Kardashians, Ren Ellis Neyra asks of Kanye West’s mother Donda’s death during plastic surgery in 2008, “How does [Donda] die in the city that is the dropped backdrop of the Kardashian domestic empire?” This question is one of many that must be asked as contemporary enthusiasm to build a new monument to beauty obscures desirability’s body count. Where Black women in particular are concerned, we’ve yet to ask how we will care for those whose bodies will be subject to depreciation and decomposition long after the aesthetic value placed on their embodiment is reallocated elsewhere. Social death ensures that until the matter of the Black body is laid to rest, the age of the ass will endure, protruding into our conscious and subconscious desires even as social trends change shape. All ends are not evident. Blackness always has its ass out, perched, and on display.
Jordan Taliha McDonald is an essayist, critic, cultural worker, and (sometimes) poet from Seat Pleasant, Maryland. Her writing has appeared in Vulture, New York Magazine, The Believer, Artsy, Africa is a Country, and more. She is currently a graduate student at Harvard University studying Black literature(s), political rhetoric, and theory in the Americas (among other things).