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Tishala Balewa | Origins & Heritage

The Hottentot Venus

The Hottentot Venus was a woman from an African tribe who displayed very different anatomy and ended up being noticed by a surgeon from one of the ships. She later went on to become one of the most studied African women of the time and spent a life being subject and curious till she was alive.

While studying here, various researchers came up with many theories and many names to denote her difference in appearance, especially her labia minora, which was a very hot topic of discussion. The Hottentot Apron, a drape of decency, and a curtain of shame were the same names that the researchers came up with to denote her mysterious stretched labia, which she never let anyone see while she was alive.

The Hottentot Venus was born before 1790 and was orphaned at a very early age during a commando raid. Her birth name and her actual date of birth are not known. Hailing from the area of the Gatmoos River (now known as the Eastern Cape of South Africa), she was named Sarah Baartman somewhere down the line and worked as a slave to a Dutch farmer near Cape Town. Sarah married and had a child who passed away at an early age and she became a very important part of history the moment a military surgeon suggested to her that she should move to Britain for a better future. He asked her to be employed by him and do domestic chores while also being exhibited in front of people. Little did she know that the surgeon was sidelined with supplying showmen with animal species. The idea was for her to go to England and work while exhibiting herself sometimes and the then-governor gave her permission to go however, he stated later that he was not fully aware of the surgeon’s true intentions.

The first exhibition that Sarah was a part of was in London and involved entertaining people. She definitely was a popular entertainment as people had never seen her kind before. She had very different body features; her buttocks were unusually large due to the extensive fat accumulation. This condition is called Seatopygia where the buttocks do not just get large, they extend to the thighs to the front and towards the outside, in some women, these are seen to extend to the knees. This condition is mostly seen in African tribes and among the Khoisan (the tribe to which Sarah belonged), it is considered as a sign of beauty. In this condition, the buttocks align to a 90-degree angle to the back and at the time, it was quite extraordinary to watch a form like that.

The labia minora were also very elongated as is the case in the Khoisan women however Sarah never exhibited that feature till the time she was alive. Even though she was painted in the nude several times, she knew the art of folding her labia minora in a way that it would not be visible to people. It was also seen that she would sometimes, cover her genitals with a very small cloth to avoid that detection.

It was the presence of this extended labia minora that made the world relate the race with more primitive, sexual, and animal drives. These features were studied and everyone from a researcher, to a doctor, to a scientist, to a layman, wanted to see what this particular trait was. People would come from all over to see this woman and to be surprised at the differences. Being from a non-understood and considered lesser than the ‘normal’ humans, Hottentot Venus was mostly criticized for this possible difference and was considered unnatural, in fact, the entire tribe was considered unnatural with everyone considering the extended labia minora to be more of a deformity.

Sarah was also very well endowed, owing to her heritage, and had small nipples with a very large dark area that extended to most of her breasts.

Though Sarah initially thought that she was making a better life for herself, it was later that she realized that she was being put up on stage as a freak show due to the way she looked and that slowly took a toll on her.

There are many pictures of Sarah being depicted as an object of curiosity as the world at the time couldn’t identify this difference as a racial difference truly.

During her life as a “freak show” performer, the slave abolition law came into existence and an exhibition held in London that Sarah was a part of, created quite an unrest. The showman insisted that Sarah had the right to earn her living by this means as there were many performers who earned their living in the same manner. Sarah was given the opportunity to express her thoughts on the same in court and she decided to stay loyal to the showman by stating that she was aware that she received half of the earnings and would like to make her living in the same manner going forth.

The case was put to rest however, it added to Sarah’s already growing popularity. She began traveling for exhibitions and visited various parts of Britain.

Around 1814, Sarah was sold to a Frenchman and was exhibited by an animal trainer in France from then. Various French naturalists like Georges Cuvier, Frederic Cuvier, Saint-Hilaire, etc. frequently visited her to examine her. Various paintings were made and detailed examinations were conducted. It was noticed during the painting sessions that though Sarah was accommodating enough to let them paint her in the nude, she always wore a garment to hide her genitalia. She had refused on various accounts, to remove the cloth even when offered money to do so.

As time passed, Sarah became depressed and drowned her sadness by drinking heavily and is also known to support herself with prostitution for a time. Sarah passed away in 1815 due to an unexplained inflammatory illness and that is when the scientists could truly answer the question that had become a mystery…did these women really have their labia minora enlarged to such extents that they could be used as a second skin to hide their genitals?

The answer was yes. After her passing, an autopsy was conducted on Sarah and it was noted that she had her labia minora elongated and could shape it in a way to cover her genitals.

The lack of exposure and resistance to accepting the difference in bodily structure as a possibility led the world to believe that the tribes in Africa had different body parts, for a long time. Sarah’s death gave them the answers and opened the doors to a new possibility, a possibility the advanced civilization had not yet thought of.

There were many other African tribes who practiced the same and many of them still indulge in the art of stretching their labia to add to their intimate lives and to be more appealing to their partners. The practice is now being adopted by various women from different races and cultures as well and has gained a lot of momentum and popularity.

After the conclusions from the autopsy were published, there was much research conducted on women in Africa. Various tribes were studied to find out the other possible differences and to understand this peculiar practice that had been with them for a very long time. Researchers either visited Africa to examine the women or conducted studies on the women who had been brought to civilization. It was found that the ‘strange’ structure was very common amongst the Khoisanids. In fact, it was found that the labial enlargement found on Sarah’s genitals was quite normal as quite a few women seemed to be supporting even larger labia minora in the regions.

It was this understanding that helped many researchers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was the ground for many scientists to come up with various theories. Even the racial theorists came up with their own arguments and linked the moral and cultural statuses with biology. They indicated that intelligence and sensibility were connected to the differences in physiology. This was a time when the crania would be an indicator of intelligence and since the Hottentot Venus was regarded as a strong sample of her kind, she was believed to be an example of lasciviousness and bestiality and so was her entire tribe. This also gave rise to another theory that the more these ‘lower’ races were from the Europeans, the less human they were since they had their sexual parts more enhanced than their ‘thinking’ parts which put them closer to the animals.

The enlarged genitalia did not help in these conclusions to being any pride to this race, the fact that these were longer than the world had known only put the further into that category of people who had a retarded biology and filthy habits. They were considered abnormal as compared to normal European women, and many times the sexuality of an African woman was compared with that of an ape. The feature, the Hottentot Apron, that the world had so eagerly sought out and studied, led them to condemn this race as a primitive and lower race and itself became a symbol of bestial sexuality.

However, since there is no real scientific evidence of any connection between enlarged external private parts to intelligence or being lower than humans, the research continued though even by the twentieth century researchers could not determine whether the Hottentot apron should be considered a cultural or a racial trait.

The studies conducted today and the practices followed to stretch the labia minora, have benefitted a lot from these studies, most of the researchers stated that they did not find any artificial elongation in play here and that the elongation was passed from mother to daughter naturally. However, it has been noted that based on the region, the size and shape of the enlarged labia change distinctly.

In one part of Africa, it was noted that the labia are elongated and flattened out so when spread out flat, they resemble a butterfly with each side playing the role of each wing. The butterfly elongation was noted to be anywhere between 1.5 to 2 inches long on either side. In another part of Africa, it is noted that the width gets reduced and the thickness increases to look similar to the wattle of a turkey cock, and this elongation was noted to be about 3 to 4 inches long on average. The connection to these elongations being a way to enhance beauty is that these elongations could be shaped in different ways to create different forms and the most common of them was the penis where the two sides overlapped each other to form the figure.

It was also noted that exposing their labia minora to the men during dances was a common practice for these women and this was one of the ways to entice a partner. The elongated labia minora or more commonly known as the Hottentot apron became a subject of discussion amongst the researchers of the twentieth century. For the originating races, this was a way for a girl’s passage to womanhood, and not just the mother but the entire family sometimes would help the girl elongate her labia so she could be more appealing to the prospective partner.

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