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My Purpose

Are you Beautiful?

According to croberts5:

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Do you feel beautiful today? Do you feel like you are beautiful at this very moment (even if you’re half sleep in the library dozing off to Pandora commercials)? Seriously though, do you feel beautiful today? As a young black man in America of African descent I often think about what makes something beautiful to me.  What is it that catches my eye and eviscerates a positive reaction? And conversely, what is it that my eye views as non-attractive and less appealing? And then I expand this question to the larger black community. In the early 1900’s when African Americans were moving to the Northern states in the Great Migration they were hearing about the new possibilities of the North from family, friends, and news publications that were already there. However, once they arrived the Southern blacks were met with a culture shock when their “backward and unkempt” ways were viewed as detrimental to the success that blacks already established in the North. It was for this reason, among others, that multiple black organizations began to train black women from the North on how to dress, present their hair, and their attitudes in a way that was “lady-like.” These magazines and newspaper ads often showed women with straight long hair, mostly with light-skin as beautiful and refined images, and darker women looking what some would call “dishoveled” with kinky hair as in need of reform to be successful in the New North. This message of one particular style of hair being a marker of respectability and success has continued in our society today.

During the heights of the minstrel show era in the United States white (and black) actors would apply soot and other forms of black makeup to their faces to temporarily darken their skin. While in this makeup they would act out what their audiences believed to be authentic blackness. Black actors often had to take on names of European white men to gain employment because their actual blackness did not qualify them to perform “authentic” blackness (ask yourself who is defining authenticity and who that definition benefits). Becoming black was an opportunity for these white actors to engage in “impure, unkempt, ugly, and uncivilized behavior” while maintaining the ideal of white as beautiful. For even thinking that one is qualified to accurately depict another group of people implies a certain level of arrogance. For white America, since its inception white has been beautiful, white has been pure, white has been the pinnacle that all should desire. This is not conjecture, but rather it is evident in the historical record of this nation.

Now that the background is out of the way (just had to give the context) let’s get to it. I recently came across a Mens Health Magazine story entitled “The Hottest Women of All-Time.” This article claims to have amassed an exhaustive list of the sexiest women ever (ever, ever, ever ever). This list (aside from objectifying and marginalizing the definition of what sexy for a woman is) is very troubling with regards to the women who are in it, or more importantly are not. The list crowns Jennifer Aniston number one. In fact, there are no women of color until Shakira at number 18, and no black women until Beyonce at number 33. These results speak to the continued valuing of white skin and white bodies over black ones, and the hegemonic nature of how deep this concept of “white is right” really is. Aniston is seen as the All-American girl, the embodiment and personafication of beauty. If that is to be true, black women are confronted with having to reconcile that they are not included in this definition, they are not valued as beautiful, wholesome, or “All-American.” Even when the article arrives to Beyonce (still going WTF about her being 33 btw) though they acknowledge her professional success they refer to her as being known for “most importantly, skin tight suits” (http://www.menshealth.com/sex-women/hottest-women-all-time). Aniston is embraced for her qualities beneath the surface, however the first black woman on this list is viewed as her physical allure being her most important quality and marker of beauty. And this is not making a claim about one year, maybe MensHealth doesn’t know but “All-Time” is a LONG time.

Three of the most prominent women of African descent who are contemporary representations of beauty in America are Beyonce, Paula Patton, and Rihanna. Let the record show, I think all of these wome are IMMENSELY talented and I am beyond happy for the success they have for them and their families. (This last album by Beyonce= BEAST). That said, it is tough for one to ignore that each of these women fall within the light-skin, straight hair standard that has stayed with black women for years. Beyonce and Rihanna specifically have dealth with controversy around ad-lightening, photoshop editing, etc with regards to their skin tone. And Paula Patton, though her hair is dark, still presents a long straight haired light-skin image that is acceptable in mainstream society. But what is more intriguing to me are the faces and bodies of women who are not here. Are there no darker, natural hairstyle, women of color talented enough to be on that stage? For example Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway, Chrisette Michelle, India Arie, and a host of other women immensely talented but not on this level. This is not an attack in anyway on any one person, nor a denial of the insane amount of hard work Paula, Rihanna, and Beyonce have and continue to put in. But rather the posing of a question about who comes to mind when young black women think of black beauty, and who does not.

I can’t help but feel that we black men also share in the blame for restricting the idea of what beauty can be. I’ve heard more than a few friends tell their significant others to “fix their hair” or get “something done to that, hell I’ll pay for it.” This tells our women that their natural state is something that needs to be “remedied and fixed” for us to value them. Fellas, we HAVE to do better. Guys may say that it doesn’t matter but if I asked you right now to list “the five baddest chicks in the game” how many would have natural hair and or have dark skin. Comments like “She looks good to be dark” or “I prefer red-bones” have harming effects that I think most of us black men are unaware of. Waking up daily thinking that you are constantly “not good enough” is a harmful and sobering thing. South African singer Mshoza spoke recently about skin bleaching and how much of a desire lighter skin was for her and how fulfilling that desire brought her happiness and joy. I am not in this woman’s shoes nor do I know her motivations and I can only offer an opinion. It is hard to think that she woke up day after day in her dark skin feeling unhappy, not good enough, not beautiful enough. This movement away from her natural self, and to a manufactured self represents “progress” for her. A common practice of colonialism was to force communities to reject all of their indigenous practices and accept the European norms as superior and ideal. Not only the land of people was colonized, but their minds were filled with new perceptions of who they were, and who they should strive to emulate.This is what comes to mind for me when I hear these things. I also feel that the silence of men about how women are beautiful as they are, and our uplifting of lighter people feeds in to this. More than anything I hope Mshoza finds inner peace and reconciles whatever issues and thoughts she has going on around her self worth.

When I’m back in Baltimore over the break I am going to attend a screening of the documentary Dark Girls. This film looks at how skin tone plays a major role in the black community and what the reality does to women. I will do an extensive post on the film after I see it but I have included the preview in this post.

I do not claim to be any sort of authority on beauty or women or anything for that matter. I merely have an opinion and perspective that I would like to use this platform to share. I just think it is important that we ask not only who is beautiful, but why is beautiful, beautiful? Who do we look to for acceptance, validation, and on what foundation are our own images of self built on. Why is beauty most commonly referred to as external? Why can a woman not have a beautiful opinion, or an attractive analysis of an issue? Not to say the exterior is not valuable, but just ask yourself why is it deemed “most important.” Do we think about the young girl who runs home crying after being dumped because she wasn’t “Beyonce bad.” Does she matter? The image of lighter skin as better is no accident, it is not some preference that has emerged completely in isolation from historical context. That’s not to say that people can’t have preferences, just ask yourself whose preferences may have informed your own preferences… We are all the architects and definers of our own beauty, I just ask you, with whose tools are you defining that beauty. So to all of you out there (channeling my Bruno Mars) girl you’re amazing… just the way you are.


s/o to Clutch Magazine and Carolyn Malachi for the link on Mshoza.




About croberts5

Love on accident. Live on purpose. I do some things people label revolutionary, to me they just feel like the truth.


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