The occasion of Cuvier's statement quoted above was the dissection of a woman widely known as the Hottentot Venus. We do not know her original name, but she was called Saartjie Baartman in Dutch and christened Sarah Bartmann in English. In 1810 her Dutch master brought her to Europe for his, and allegedly her, profit. An anatomical curiosity, she was to display to scientific and popular audiences her ‘racial characteristics’. These were believed to be intimately and inseparably linked to her sexual characteristics and included not only the shape of her face, colour of her skin (which was described as yellowish, not black), and texture of her hair, but also her protruding buttocks and her genitalia. For centuries it had been reported that women from the southern tip of Africa had a special piece of skin which hung between their legs and covered their genitalia. The fact that Hottentot women reportedly also wore a ‘flap of skin’, i.e. a piece of animal hide, over their genitalia often made eyewitness accounts ambiguous, further confusing the question of whether the Hottentot apron existed at all. Thus, with the publication of his autopsy results in 1817, Cuvier was able to confirm that it did indeed exist and was not a unique anatomical structure, but rather an (over) development of the labia minora. It was, he claimed, ‘an extraordinary appendage which nature had made a special attribute of her race’.
During the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Hottentot apron played a role in theories about race, sexuality, and culture which were grounded in studies of comparative anatomy conducted by Cuvier, Henri de Blainville, and Geoffroy Saint–Hilaire, among others. Racial theorists linked moral and cultural status with biology, believing that signs of intelligence and sensibility were evidenced in physiology. At a time when crania were measured as an indication of intelligence, the Hottentot apron was analogously regarded as evidence of both bestiality and lasciviousness. Facilitating the dehumanization of native populations, theories of race in part justified nineteenth-century European imperial policies: the greater the physical differences between white Europeans and the ‘lower’ races, the less human they were. Enlarged genitalia could only be the product of a depraved culture with ‘filthy habits’, or, conversely, a retarded biology — each was indicative of the other: on the supposed Great Chain of Being, Hottentots were ranked below other Africans, occupying a liminal position between humankind and apes.
It is not coincidental that the Hottentot apron as a defining (and damning) racial trait was part of African female sexual anatomy. Recent scholarship has examined how, during the nineteenth century, the black female, and in particular the Hottentot, came to symbolize that which was primitive, animal, and sexual, the antithesis of ‘civilized’ Europe. The supposedly over-sexed African, and especially the female, was pathologized, functioning as the ‘abnormal’ against which to define (white European) ‘normal’ sexuality. The eminent French naturalist Georges Buffon, for instance, compared black female sexuality with that of the ape. The Hottentot apron became considered an ‘abnormality’ characteristic of bestial sexuality.
The origin of the Hottentot apron occupied European scholars into the twentieth century. According to Dutch ethnographer Sture Lagercrantz, as late as 1937 there was still no consensus as to whether the Hottentot apron should be regarded as a racial characteristic or cultural attribute. Labia stretching as part of a girl's passage into womanhood and sexual maturity is now known to be practised in various cultures throughout Africa.
Fausto–Sterling, A. (1995). Gender, race, and nation: the comparative anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ women in Europe, 1815–1817. Deviant bodies. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Gilman, S. (1985). Black bodies, white bodies: toward an iconography of female sexuality in late nineteenth-century art, medicine and literature. Critical Inquiry, 12, 204–42.
Schiebinger, L. (1993). Nature's body. Beacon Press, Boston.