The Black Beauty Paradox

I think that beauty is subjective. I’ve heard that statement my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman, you heard it from the womb. And “classically not beautiful” is a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you.

– Viola Davis

Greetings everyone!

Today I want to share my thoughts on beauty and all that comes along with it. It’s a topic and aspect of my life I have been thinking a lot about for the past year.

Beauty and feeling beautiful. In my case the inability to attain this state of mind and being. I am trying to be comfortable in my skin in a world and that tells me either directly or in more insidious ways that I am not up to standard. As a dark-skinned black woman it has been a difficult journey to reach self-acceptance. I do not look at myself and think I am beautiful.

I try my best to quell my emotional responses. On an intellectual level I am aware there are societal pressures which lead me to feel dissatissfied with myself. I often question where the need for validating my worth through how I look comes from. So here I go deconstructing the root of this inadequacy.

The most obvious cause is social media. Social media is a source of quite a conundrum for me: I love looking at beautiful and stylish women online, but there is always a little voice in my head whispering ‘I wish I looked like that’. Much has been made of the (potentially) negative effects that social media consumption has on body image and self-esteem. Despite my efforts to curate who and what I follow negative feelings remain long after I log off.

It would be remiss and lazy of me to ignore the positives social media has brought in terms of representation of black women in the beauty industry. As I slowly morphed out of my awkward teen phase during university, youtube and blogs were the primary source for learning about makeup, skin care, natural hair. Black beauty bloggers and vloggers like LizLizLive, Dimma Umeh, Natalie (Discoveries of Self), Shirley B Eniang, and countless others remain an important part of my journey. I do not always have the skill or bank balance to pull off the looks but I feel uplifted watching these women nonetheless.

#RepresentationMatters Magazine rack feauturing Kerry Washington, Beyonce, and Rihanna on the covers of major publications.

My hair is a another source of frustration and joy. After getting the big chop done in 2011 its been quite a journey. Most of the time it is Black people, particularly hairdressers passing desparaging comments about my hair. A hairdresser being in Gaborone told me ‘Your hair is too natural!’. What does that mean? That how my hair grows naturally is somehow too much? As much as I know these comments come from a place of ignorance, much like when people have said things about my complexion making me less pretty, it sticks.

Paradoxically, once non-Black women copy hairstyles or beauty trends created by women of African descent such as box braids, it is repackaged and becomes a ‘trend’ and thus beautiful. Where it was previously ‘ghetto’ or ‘too natural’, it is beautiful once worn by women who do not look like me.

It often feels like I am getting hit from all sides. I hardly ever get matched correctly by “professional makeup artists” at counters. Including experiencing micro-aggressions when you point out the shade match is wrong. Going to hair salon is often emotionally exhausting.

Perhaps worst of all is the backlash that comes along with discussing beauty related issues as a Black woman. I can’t have a conversation about colourism without people who can and/or never experienced it interjecting with their unwarranted and wrong opinions. Black women are dismissed or labelled as ‘bitter’ simply for talking about issues which operate on both personal and societal levels. Imagine how suffocating and isolating that feels.

I feel that Black men are usually not in our corner. Personally, almost all of the disparaging comments I have received about my appearance, looks, and natural hair have come from Black men. Most of the abuse I see online against Black women’s looks, particularly dark-skinned women is from within our community. When women in Ghana are taking Glutathione pills whilst pregnant to bleach the skin of their babies, we have to recognise the problem is more than just skin deep.

It hurts. It helps perpetuate a sytem whereby Black women are under-valued, disrespected, and expected to keep quite about it. Or if we and when we do speak, it’s supposed to be in hushed tones, that go along the lines of what others deem to be an appropriate way of speaking up.

Maybe things are slowly changing? Films like Black Panther (2018) with a female cast of predominantly dark-skinned Black women are slowly changing the narrative in the mainstream media. The reality is this film is the exception – a positive representation of decolonised African women. While I hope the trickle-down effect spreads as far as possible, there is still so much work to be done. I continue working on myself each day. Reminding myself of Lupita Nyong’os words:

“You cannot eat beauty. It doesn’t sustain you.”

Tonderai xx


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