I do not think that I am beautiful.
Whether or not I actually am is irrelevant, but whether I think that I am has become a constant source of preoccupation for me in recent months. Not feeling beautiful worries me for one specific reason: it feels like a defeat.
All women are forced to deal with unrealistic and harmful beauty standards. All women are expected by society to base their self-worth on the way they look — or, rather, the way in which the way they look garners them attention and approval from men.
It’s a messed-up system, but what I’ve always struggled with is the thing we never really want to talk about: the hierarchy of the system. For black women, the harsh realities of beauty standards are twofold: we’re socialized to feel less than beautiful specifically because we are black. Why else did a black model’s naturally large lips receive so much hate in comments on Instagram last week, when big lips on white women like Kylie Jenner and Angelina Jolie are praised? The things that make us black women, our big lips or big butts or kinky hair, are singled out as the main factors that we must change about ourselves in order to be more attractive, in order to be more acceptable.
Skin-lightening creams and relaxers are marketed to us, and while of course there have been important movement towards accepting who we are naturally, thanks to events like BET’s Black Girls Rock! and hashtags like #flexinmycomplexion, the mainstream still doesn’t seem to fully get it.
Recently, a Latina friend of mine was lamenting being the darkest amongst her three sisters. I had to stretch myself to sympathize and empathize with her, understanding the cultural differences and nuances that could allow her to say “I hate being so dark” to me, despite the fact that she is five shades lighter than I am. Despite the fact that with her loose curls and much lighter skin, hers is a beauty that’s far more palatable than mine.
The journey to better self-esteem, to self-love and acceptance for the black woman, seems always to hinge on the journey of accepting those things that make us black. I struggle with this too. I’ve written before about the fact that in spite of having dark skin and kinky hair, I’ve never had a complex about those things. I’ve never looked at my dark skin in the mirror and wished that it was lighter. I’ve never prayed for straight blonde hair and blue eyes.
But black self-esteem, of course, does not hinge only on colorism. That’s the dominating narrative, but it isn’t the only one. It’s far more complex than just the “color of your skin.” Being black and a woman, society would have us all believe, means being at the very bottom of the totem pole, and we have that to grapple with as well. While dating and desirability shouldn’t be the main marker we use to define beauty, it’s still incredibly telling that, according to OKCupid data, black women are the least desired in the dating world compared to white women and other women of color.
The messaging is out there. It permeates pop culture, from movies to magazines, and trickles down into the real world. As a young girl, I had examples of black beauty all around me, in my mother and my aunts, my sister, my friends. That helped. But I was always hyper-aware of the kinds of black women who were praised universally for their beauty — women like Halle Berry and Beyonce, women with light features and button noses. And when dark women were praised in the mainstream, they were regarded largely as novelties, exotic anomalies — the fetishization of Lupita Nyong’o and Alex Wek’s dark skin is a perfect example of this.
I want to be uninterested in beauty; I want to be uninterested in the idea that self-esteem only has to do with the way one looks. But in a society where black beauty is so invisible, so little celebrated, it’s impossible not to be preoccupied with it. That’s the crux. Beauty isn’t and shouldn’t be the scale by which we measure our self-worth and validation. But for black women, the constant bombardment of negative messaging sometimes makes it so hard to separate those things from one another.
For me, the struggle of black beauty is not accepting that it exists in this world. I see black beauty everywhere — I see it in my family and friends; I see the complexity and the range of black beauty in women I don’t know but admire, women like First Lady Michelle Obama, or the French-Senegalese actress Aissa Maiga, or the singer SZA, or the model and activist Bethann Hardison. The struggle is very personal. I can see our collective beauty, I can celebrate it in others, but I can’t celebrate it in myself.
It feels contradictory and hypocritical, to celebrate the beauty of black women but be perpetually unable to recognize my own. To be black and to be beautiful and to recognize, appreciate, and accept your own beauty is in itself a kind of revolutionary act. I believe that. That’s why I feel defeated — thinking I’m not beautiful, that I’m in fact ugly, feels like I’m giving in to all the lies that have been subliminally broadcast to me and every young black woman out there. I haven’t quite figured out how to change the narrative, but maybe at least being aware of it, at least wanting to change, is a kind of tiny victory.