BLACK BEAUTY STANDARDS

Art by: Adele

Growing up, I can pinpoint a few times when my mom, a black woman, was complimented on her skin tone by other black women. “Were you born this way?” they asked. “Did you bleach it?” they asked. “What bleach do you use?” they asked. As a kid, I hadn’t always been aware of the seemingly invisible beauty standards the black community had specifically the standards for black women. It wasn’t as if people asked her every single day about how light her skin was, but I heard it more times than I’d like. Oddly, my mother never seemed fazed by this because that was how it was. Black women had to look and act a certain way based on standards that had been enforced by the majority of the black community and the media, influenced by internalized racism and misogynoir and I just had to deal with it. But, as I grew, the annoyance I felt over that question grew into anger—why was being lighter so important? Why couldn’t women just accept and love themselves? Why couldn’t black people accept and love them too?
Rarely have I heard anyone speaking about the obsession a big part of the black community has with bleaching their skin. Bleaching, I feel, stems from internalized racism that has been rooted into black communities. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? While white and fair skinned men and tan their skin and hoped the sun would help them attain that perfect sun-kissed color, many black men and women hide away from the sun, terrified of getting any darker than they already are, hating their skin and what it could become if they spend too much time outside. 
As I grew up, insecurities started creeping in. Was I too dark? I can remember hearing women older than me judging others for being so dark as if they had control over the shade of melanin they were born with, and I desperately didn’t want to be talked about that way. I wanted to have light skin, like the mixed girls everyone I knew praised and envied. Instead of teaching girls to accept and love their skin, we were taught to hate it and to wish for lighter skin. We were taught that the lighter you were, the more attractive you were. We were taught not to notice how wrong it was that black men and women chased after white partners for children with lighter skin. We were taught that beauty was determined by your shade of black, when it shouldn’t be. Black is and will always be beautiful, but why were we taught the opposite?
My early teens is when I got obsessed with my physical appearance. I barely had boobs, my stomach was a little rounder than other girls, and I just wasn’t skinny. Black girls were usually curvy in all the right places. They weren’t stick thin or had muffin tops hiding beneath their shirts, either. They weren’t under 5’3 or over 5’7. They didn’t have such big noses, and their lips were the perfect size—not too big, just right. My parents didn’t help with how I perceived myself as they pushed me to also fit these standards. Negative comments about other black women floated around the black communitysome comments coming from my own motheras they whispered things like “her butt is just too big” or “wow, she’s so thin!” or “her lips are SO huge”. I had all these conflicting images of what a woman should be—small, but not too small. Curvy, but not too curvy. Big, but not too big. This was what how black girls were supposed to look like. These were the type of black girls boys liked and pined for, and this resulted in me not only hating the skin I was in, but the size of my body too.
My youth was spent mostly in front of the TV—from Disney shows like That’s So Raven to The Proud Family to shows my mom watched religiously, like The Cosby Show to The Bernie Mac Show, I noticed a pattern. Black girls didn’t have kinky hair like me—they had straight hair like Camille Winbush or long curly hair like Madison Pettis. When I looked at black girls on the side of the products I used for my hair, that’s all they had. None of them looked like me, and I felt isolated. Why did I have to hair like I did? My black friends and family all raved about black women with either curly or straightened hair, claiming they wanted to exchange their hair for theirs. I’d wish for anything but this kinky hair that didn’t pass my shoulders, for long flowing curls that went to my waist that I wouldn’t need to braid or straighten because they’d be beautiful on their own. I’d beg my mother to buy relaxing products to make my hair as straight as possible, then I’d get upset when my hair didn’t resemble the ones of girls I’d seen on TV. No matter what I did, my hair was always going to be puffy. It wouldn’t be as stick straight as Camille Winbush's in The Bernie Mac Show and it would never attain the curls of Madison Pettis from Cory In The House, so what was the point?
At thirteen, I had it. I wasn’t beautiful, and wasn’t ever going to be. I didn’t have the body shape or hair or skin tone for it, so why bother? I didn’t like my appearance, boys didn’t like my appearance, the black community didn’t like my appearance—so I gave up. It wasn’t until a few year later that I realized the multiple standards that surrounded me. I didn’t have to be anything, but they had somehow convinced me that I did. I didn’t need a big butt or big lips or light skin or curly hair to be beautiful. I didn’t need the approval of men to be beautiful. I didn’t need the approval of the black community to be beautiful. The only person I needed approval from was myself. Accepting myself as being beautiful was (or is) not as easy as shouting it to my reflection (though, it doesn’t hurt)it takes time, and it's a day to day process. I am still unlearning all of the standards that have been pushed onto me from a young age, but there are things that help me—things that help me feel less lonely. Movements like Carefree Black Girls and The Art Hoe Collective, and people like Amandla Stenberg and Solange (who have also spoken out about the standards we black women face today) help me accept who I am—a black girl with black skin and kinky hair. I no longer pine after straight hair, lighter skin, or a better body because I don't need it. I'm learning to love myself because I am "black gold", as Esperanza Spalding once said, and all black girls everywhere should learn to too.
- Adele

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