I have spent my entire lunch break watching noughties hip hop and rap videos. Sitting in a meeting room at Cosmo HQ, while stuffing my face with Chipotle, I typed all my fave songs into YouTube and became 13-year-old Keeks again, pitched up in front of MTV Base. Across dozens of videos, the same scenario is replayed. Whether a luxury-label dripping male rapper or a full basketball team, one thing remains consistent – they’re adorned with women, mostly Black, who are scantily clad while either draped over them or dancing sensually to the beat. It’s her, the ‘video vixen’.

I remember watching these videos and thinking ‘Wow they’re so cool’. I took in their shapes: hourglass, with bums that see-sawed when they walked. They looked like my mum, cousins and sisters. Their lips: full and glossed with a vinyl-like shine. They looked like mine.

Maybe I was actually pretty and destined to be desirable, if these women that looked like me were handpicked to be ogled in these flashy videos.

Video vixens – or video girls, video models, hip-hop honeys – were central in the 90s male gaze, and accounts by the likes of well-known vixen Karinne Steffans show a far less glamorous side to the industry in her book Confessions of a Video Vixen. But maybe unexpectedly, they gave me as a young Black woman living in the UK a special kind of confidence.

“These women were initially seen as eye candy; there to make the video appealing and the rapper/s look as though they had it all; the money, the cars, the girls,” says Charisse Kenion, a beauty writer, photographer and host of the BeautyMe Podcast. “Over time, these women changed the narrative of what was beautiful – they were often much more curvy – thick – and we also began to see more dark-skinned women in videos too. This was in complete contrast to the influence of the nineties waif culture and made a lot of women of colour feel seen.”

Think back to the mainstream media landscape of the late 90s and early 00s, and the women that were at the centre of it all. Kate Moss’s infamous line, ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ reigned supreme, and slim, white, blonde women dominated magazine covers. There were beautiful Black women in the public eye, but were they ‘sexy’? Naomi Campbell and Iman were seen as striking, but sexy? No. There was a Black member of the Spice Girls, but was she sensual? No, actually she was scary. Before Beyoncé stomped her way onto my TV screen in 2003 in those tiny hotpants and waist-length hair, Black female artists were seen as talented, but not with the same veneer of hot or as desirable as their white counterparts. Video vixens, were, for me, the first times I remember seeing Black women as a celebrated representation of the ‘hot’ kind of beauty.

As a young teenager, I wasn’t able to unpack what it meant to be ingesting these provocative videos

At the height of the 00s video vixen era, editor Keysha Davis was working in PR in New York, the epicentre of hip hop. “You have to remember, this was a time before body positivity and the sex positivity movement as well,” she says. “So a lot of women that appeared in these videos were criticised by older women, who would have more conservative backgrounds or viewpoints. And women were seen as belittling themselves and setting the feminist movement back, appealing to the male gaze”.

The rise of video girls parallels hip hop’s golden age: American hip hop magazines such as XXL magazine and King appeared and featured voluptuous, attractive Black women on their covers (no equivalent popped up in the UK). They aesthetically defined an era with their looks. “A lot of these women actually felt empowered at the time,” says Davis. “They felt they had the fly haircuts, the makeup, the fashion labels and were earning thousands a day, gaining access to these artists that they otherwise wouldn’t have met.” On the surface, the girls were ripe and ready to shape the beauty standard.

Now, Black features are so desired people are changing their natural looks to fit the aesthetic

As a young teenager, I wasn’t able to unpack what it meant to be ingesting these provocative videos, or how it would shape my views of Black beauty. Like, seeing Nelly’s Tip Drill video for the first time with dozens of near-naked Black women lining a winding staircase and throwing it back – what’s that doing to a 9-year-old? I didn’t understand how skewed to the male gaze these videos were. I genuinely just saw beautiful Black women in all their glory, having fun, and the fullness of their features being worshipped. I thought about how rich and glistening their Black skin was and how good their hair looked – yes, mostly straight, but also with full curls, fros, braids and pixie cuts. I remember how brown and plump their lips looked. To this day my go-to lip look is brown liner and gloss – so video vixen-coded.

The objectification of Black women in these videos added to, and in some instances, created the hypersexualisation of us without any doubt. It also empowered Black women to seize what ‘sexy’ could be, when it seriously lacked in popular media. “I think it’s layered,” says Kenion. “I believe many video vixens helped Black women feel that their beauty was beautiful. I feel that as well as being for the male gaze, these women were also looked at by other women who saw them as beautiful and also saw themselves.”

“But of course, as time went on this also meant that other women felt that they didn’t have enough curves or boobs to be seen as sexy,” she adds. “Hip-hop videos objectified curvy bodies, and if you didn’t have that you might feel overlooked/less than. It’s impossible to keep up with the changing beauty standards.”

And nowadays, the switch has flipped. Now, Black features are so desired people are changing their natural looks to fit the aesthetic, they’re being consumed by mass media. Video vixens aren’t just characters in artists’ videos, they’re the artists themselves. Female rappers like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Latto have taken the video vixen narrative and made it their own, brought them centre stage.

“But much of that credit should be given to the likes of 90s rappers such as Lil Kim and Trina,” notes Kenion. “While the term video vixen isn’t really used now, we of course still see women in music videos – not just hip hop but also R&B – and we are seeing men being surrounded by shapely women and now you can add to that the female rappers who are influencing the beauty standard by modifying their bodies.”

We’re now in an age where we see so many different types of beauty spread across the media – social and traditional – thanks to the continued globalisation of our culture. I’m glad that my nieces and nephews won’t rely on seeing Black women in videos to feel seen as beautiful or desired, but I don’t feel like having grown up consuming said content negatively affected me. In fact, it reinforced what I was told and shown by my family; Black women can be beautiful, attractive and incredibly sexy, and that’s on that.

Follow Keeks on Instagram