I swear, I’m gonna have to start putting length warnings on new posts. Because… wow. Sorry, y’all.
Also: if you are triggered by frank discussion of body image, fat-shaming, eating disorders, colorism and discrimination, please consider this your warning.
A year or so ago, I had a really frustrating debate with an old friend.
It was a few days after the re-election of President Obama, and we’d both read an article that derided him for – gasp – calling his daughters beautiful. It read,
Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe Sasha and Malia Obama, “strong”, “smart”, and “beautiful” were the ones President Obama chose in his victory speech on Tuesday night.
It is difficult to imagine a president congratulating his sons for being handsome. So why was it appropriate for Obama to praise 11-year-old Sasha and 14-year-old Malia for their beauty?
“Sasha and Malia, before our very eyes, you’re growing up to become two strong, smart, beautiful young women, just like your mom,” said the newly re-elected President. “And I am so proud of you guys.”
Obama’s comments beg the question of why a girl’s beauty should be source of pride for her father— and why beauty should be a value lauded alongside strength and intelligence. [source]
and he was taking a hard line in agreement with the writer. “But isn’t the fact that we praise women for being beautiful negatively affecting their ability to advance in the corporate world? I mean, if you’re to be praised for being pretty, shouldn’t you be encouraged to stick to careers that praise beauty? And aren’t those the lowest paying jobs around?”
One of the most frustrating challenges of feminism is the, for some, confusing reality that challenges against women aren’t experienced the same way. The goal isn’t female superiority – the goal is equality, and we share a special core collection of grievances as women. When you chastise someone for using the word “beautiful” to describe a woman, and you fail to include context or look at the situation with any semblance of praxis, you’re bound to ignore a few things [quite possibly intentionally, but that’s another story].
Making beauty a prize has its challenges. As we define “having fair skin” as something worth praising, we inadvertently make “having dark skin” something worth being embarrassed by and something worth shaming and feeling shame for having. It results in women going to drastic measures to have that prized thing. It makes “fair skin” so prized that the chase for it turns into a multi-million dollar global industry.
When we define “straight hair” as something worth praising, we inadvertently make “curly hair” something worth being embarrassed by, something worth shaming and feeling shame for having. It can result in women feeling a sense of superiority over women who don’t have that same straight hair – can encourage them to look at others who dare to not chase or conform to the standard, and make them want to snark on them, deride them, demean them and even devalue them. That feeling of superiority can result in women believing that there’s nothing to “understand” or “accept” or “embrace” about it – it doesn’t meet the standard, after all – and since the societal standard is what’s used when defining “acceptable” in corporate circles, we’re left with standards of corporate acceptability that consider any presentation of non-straight hair as “unprofessional.”
As we define “thinness” as something beautiful, something worth praising, we inadvertently make “not-thinness” something worth being embarrassed by and something worth shaming and feeling shame for being. It results in women who are naturally born thin and may have never experienced the challenges of weight loss pointing and laughing at non-thin women for having to grunt and sweat to get “the prize.” It results in eating disorders being a “normalized thing,” because the “thing” helps you get the prize. It results in a billion-dollar diet industry, fueled by people’s fervent desires to benefit from the privileges bestowed upon those who aren’t chastised or made to be the butt of jokes or stared at or frowned upon for being fat. It affects your body image – of course your fat body couldn’t possibly be considered beautiful. It’s fat.
Making beauty a prize to only be enjoyed by a few creates people who are hell bent on playing the role of gate keeper. In a world where “beauty” can garner wealth, promotion (which can, depending on the industry, lead to wealth), favor, companionship and more; if you’re someone who benefits from “beautiful,” why the hell wouldn’t you fight to protect your privilege? People need to fit into that narrow definition of beautiful – like you – in order to feel privilege. And, if they circumvent these apparent steps to privilege somehow, then something must be wrong! They must be put in their place.
Being that beautiful gate keeper, at the same time, also creates a desire for people who will stop at nothing to be able to benefit from being “beautiful.” Spending hours daily or weekly to have that straight hair; buying skin creams for every part of their bodies in order to be an, ahem, “fairer maiden;” starving themselves to be thinner… cosmetic surgeries are as much of a thing as they are for a reason. And, once you’ve toiled and struggled to finally fit into that narrow ideal of beauty, guess what? Now, it’s your turn to be able to benefit from that pretty privilege! Yes! Men come flying out of the woodwork! Jobs! Opportunity! Now you, too, can snark on and shade the fat, the black, and the nappy heads for not conforming to the standard in the same way you have! How dare they not try to conform… you’ll show them!
With so much on the line for beauty’s sake, you’d think my friend would be right and I’d agree with him. You’d think that making beauty less of a high-stakes game would be the goal, and we’d do so by ceasing to call black women beautiful, right?
I’m not entirely convinced.
I don’t think beauty in and of itself is the problem – the way we use it, and perpetuate its use, is the challenge. Right now, it’s rooted in supremacy. The desire to privilege fair skin over non-fair skin doesn’t fade away by saying “hey, beauty isn’t important.” That demands praxis – in reality, only certain women would be left holding the bag of “beauty isn’t important,” and those women would be fully aware of how that affects themselves in comparison to others around them.
What made me think to write this story, is something my seven year old daughter said earlier this morning as we were heading home.
Now, if you know me, you know that I have huge – massive, even – hair. It’s enough to guarantee me space on a crowded subway car, enough to cause people to stop and stare as I pass them on the street. I’ve caught many a tourist pointing and laughing, or not-so-stealthily snapping photos of it to take back home to their friends in Kansatuckiana. (I can midwest-snark. I’m a born midwesterner.)
But one day, my daughter told me about how all of the girls in her class were wearing what she’d been calling “skinny hair,” which was how she defined “straight hair.” She expressed to me a desire to have her hair straightened, so that she could have the “pretty, skinny hair” her friends had, and not “poofy hair” like her Mom. I calmly – and whew, was that a challenge – told her that we could talk about it in a few years when she was older, because there’s no way we could give her skinny hair today when dinner still had to be done. She agreed, and we went on with the braiding and beading of her hair.
A narrow standard of beauty means exactly what it sounds like – it is one way to rule them all. Because it is so narrow, it makes beauty a unique thing, as opposed to a common thing, unexceptional, not really worth the effort necessary to grant favor. It affects equality – am I only worth common courtesies such as holding open a door, assisting me with a bag, offering me a freebie, spoken pleasantries, helpful resources and the like because I am “beautiful?” Am I only worthy of the promotion because I am “beautiful?” Should I, then, be punished with doors slamming in my face, literally and metaphorically, because I am not?
Beauty, as it currently stands, becomes a competition within beauty, itself – it encourages placing women on totem poles, one above the other. Otherwise beautiful girls find themselves bickering with one another because they both know that, in order to continue to curry favor, they need to feel like the queen of the roost. Women inadvertently find themselves picking one another apart – they need to know, and have it reinforced and validated by others, that they are higher on the totem pole than the others – and will slaughter your ego and self-esteem in the process while doing so.
Making beauty such a rarity also means, quite frankly, that all a man* has to do is call you beautiful in order to get your attention. We’re all clamoring to be considered beautiful, and who better to bestow that honor upon you, than a man? “Beautiful” becomes a bargaining chip, especially for women who’ve rarely heard it as youth and consider it such a prize, that immature, childish men wield in order to get you to give them what they want. It’s also the reason why men who shout out “Hey, beautiful,” also promptly shout out “Well, f— you, then, b—-!” when you continue walking. They paid you the utmost compliment – they called you beautiful. How dare you not promptly remove your panties?
Setting such a narrow standard, and then keeping it narrow by saying “beauty should be unimportant because the standard is so narrow” is ineffective – it only further validates the belief that beauty is rare. So rare, in fact that those who couldn’t fit in are now merely trying to convince themselves of its unimportance.
Instead, we should encourage people to embrace non-standard ideals of beauty. My kinky, coily, curly tresses are beautiful. Your funky red straight-haired bob is beautiful. Those frizzy honey blonde curls are stunning. My deep brown suntanned skin is beautiful. My winter caramel complexion is beautiful. My mother’s fair, almost passe blanc complexion is beautiful. When we diminish the rareness of beauty, it doesn’t become a marker of inferiority to speak of the beauty of someone who doesn’t look like you. Also, since my own beauty is not in question, that makes it easier for me to compliment my polar opposite, and likewise.
(Also worth noting, words and phrases like “my own beauty is not in question” don’t sound so narcissistic and arrogant, like I need to convince someone – or myself – of something.)
After that conversation with my daughter, I thought that I might’ve failed her somehow. Maybe I wasn’t pro-fro enough or something. Did I need to let her wear her own coils out more? Did I need to let her play in my hair more? Why hadn’t she warmed up to being more like Mommy? This taught me one of the most important things I’d learned as a parent: so much of what children learn about society is gathered by low-inference data, a collection of assumptions that all validate one another, and her understanding of “beauty” was being shaped the same way. It’s not enough for me to tell her something outright – the world delivers messages to her and she hears them loud and clear.
So, I devised a plan. Every time I took my daughter out, I pulled out all the stops. Fresh face, hipster glasses, and full-blown afro. Perfectly shaped, perfectly teased, perfectly huge. And I walked her through the most fro-friendly parts of the city – which, as I’m in the mecca of natural hair better known as Brooklyn, wasn’t hard.
Every corner we turned, someone was complimenting me on my hair. Some beautiful brown-skinned girls with teeny weeny afros (TWAs) would see my hair and their eyes would light up like it’s Christmas Day, and my eyes would light up too – I’m even, weirdly enough, tearing up when I write this. Developing the courage to fly in the face of almost every beauty standard by wearing that Caesar, or that fade, or that little kinky coily mound of curls is hard, especially in non-progressive circles. But you do it anyway, and that is beautiful. I didn’t have the guts to do it when I did, so I get extra emotional when I see theirs. We almost always have the same conversation – we talk maintenance, we talk products, we hug, we laugh, and we even shed a tear or two. It’s a beautiful moment, all because of Mommy’s Poofy Hair, and it all happens in front of my seven year old daughter.
This went on for weeks. Day after day after day, compliment after compliment after compliment, dropped jaws and raised eyebrows every time. Eventually, Mini-me was fed up.
“Why do people keep complimenting your hair and not mine?”
“Aww, honey. When people want to compliment you, they talk to me about it because I’m your parent.”
“But people compliment me on my pleases and thank yous! They could compliment me on my hair too!”
“I don’t know, baby. Maybe it’s just the poofy hair! People love the poof!”
More weeks passed, and she watched more people talk about how they loved my hair. Since I’d given up my position as PTA President at her school, she’d gotten to watch the school’s teachers joke about how they’d missed seeing my hair move throughout the halls. She eventually started getting a little slick about it – when someone would begin to compliment my hair, she’d immediately snatch off her hood and make her beads clank around. And, while people would compliment her “neat and pretty braids,” she’d say “Mommy, it seems like people really love your big hair.”
“Well, there’s more than one way to be beautiful, baby. You can be beautiful with ‘skinny hair’ or braided hair, but for me, it’s easiest for me to be beautiful with my big hair. Besides, it gives me time to do other things, like take you to the playground.”
And finally, one morning, something broke.
On our way from her class, she angrily stomped her foot.
“Mommy, I want to be beautiful and have poofy hair like you!”
“Aw, someday, baby.”
It eventually became a more-present thing in her life. Whenever it was time to wash her hair, she’d want to spend a little quality time in the mirror with her own wet afro before she’d sit down to have it combed. She now wanted to wash it herself, and spend some time getting her hands deep into her own hair. When we’d taken all of her braids out, she wanted to strut around the house, pretending she was being complimented on her coils and thanking herself… sounding just like her Mommy.
And this morning, after another compliment, she folded her arms. After I asked her what’s wrong, she looked up and said “I want poofy hair like yours!”
“I thought you wanted skinny hair!”
“Skinny hair is pretty, but I want to wear my poofy hair like you do!”
Creating an environment where any and everyone can be considered beautiful without snark or challenge is essential. She doesn’t need to feel superior to someone else to be able to see her own natural beauty. No one does. And when our President calls his daughters beautiful in front of a very attentive world, he strikes a blow to the myth that beauty can’t look like two beautiful brown-skinned girls from Chicago. Or like a poofy-haired-mother-daughter-pair in Brooklyn. Or a sultry lingerie model… who also happens to have belly rolls and a round, dimply booty. Whatever. We are all beautiful, and we should be so wise as to never forget that.
I like your analysis. But I simply took President Obama’s statement to be a compliment to the girls’ character, intellect, poise, and spirit. I believe pretty is outward, but beauty is WAY more than skin deep. And whenever I hear it used in such context, it is often an observation of an essence that shines from within, not a description limited to physical appearance.
I’m sure we can all say we know “pretty” people who have very ugly attitudes and spirits, and “average looking” people who have a beauty about them that just overflows from within.
So the aim to be “beautiful” is not about weight or hair or makeup…it is about development of character, attitude, faith, and spirit.
I still appreciated the sharing of your analysis. But in my opinion, EVERYONE was overthinking it.
Over-thinking his comments, DEFINITELY. Even with them being rare and remarkable, it just shouldn’t have warranted that response.
Yup–that’s EXACTLY what I thought of from the president’s comments. I don’t think he even sees his kids in an aesthetic way. Michelle, yes…but he’s probably not even seeing his kids as “lookers” to begin with, so I agree it’s even MORE than an over-think–it’s an outright misinterpretation of his words.
I am so glad that I read this post in its entirety. Had I not, I would have missed the following quote:
‘ since my own beauty is not in question, that makes it easier for me to compliment my polar opposite, and likewise.’ This struck a cord with me because what is says to me is that when you are secure with who you are you don’t see someone who looks different from you as a threat. You simply see them for who they are and can appreciate them for who they are.
Great article! Thank you.
I’m so verklempt over this post. Thank you for sharing.
I enjoyed reading this very much! I’ve seen your youtube videos and have taken notice of your big and beautiful hair!
I would have to also say that I agree wholeheartedly with you.
I am going to keep in mind this article for whenever my children approach me about having “skinny hair” or any moments of not liking their hair. Right now, I have a two year old boy with an curly-coily sandy brown hair. I tell him often that he has nice hair, or wonderful hair, or cool hair. Him and I will both get compliments on our hair. While out, people will tell me that it’s cute that we have matching afros. No intent to have “matching afros. However, it makes me proud and very happy that people of different races and nationalities compliment what is natural about us. People with non-kinky hair love OUR hair!(Our, meaning not only my son and I but people who share our kinks and coils) It makes me feel like slowly, very slowly, naturally kinky, coily, curly, etc hair is being embraced more and more.
As for your friend, I would have to tell him that doing the total opposite of noticing beauty doesn’t work in this universe. If we notice how beautiful flowers, animals, or even the stars are. Then why wouldn’t we notice and admire how beautiful our children, spouses, or ourselves are?
Sorry that this was long. Please forgive me for any possible typos.
Look, if I can write long posts, there’s no way I can deny long comments! <3
(And thanks for the kind words! *fluffs fro*)
I have an 11 month old daughter and this post spoke to me. You are so amazing and I have no more words to descibe the way I feel about this post. Thank you.
Thank you for writing this post! I have an almost 2 year old little girl and I find myself struggling with how to teach her to love herself – mind, body and soul. I have so many thoughts on this topic that I find myself unable to articulate them, but here goes:
I’m bi-racial (black and white) and I was constantly trying to find my place. I was never quite black enough and never quite white enough. I was constantly teased about my looks, intelligence, weight (back then I was too skinny, now it’s “you’re getting chubby”). I feel like a lot of the time we as women can’t win. We are constantly receiving messages about what we should be and they are often in conflict. Be smart, but not too smart that you intimidate your man (my personal favorite). Be pretty, but not so pretty that it outshines your intellect. Never snap back and someone who is rude to you because that’s not what ladies do. It’s caused me to have some sort of perfectionist/people pleasing complex. I try my best to be the best at everything and I end up burning out due to unrealistic expectations. It’s depressing and overwhelming. This is the last thing I want to pass on to my daughter. I want her to know that it is ok to bask in all your glory – your beauty, your intellect, your sassiness, and your faults. You don’t have to dim your light for others to shine and you don’t have to dim someone else’s light to be radiant yourself.
That being said, the picture of the little girl wearing the “Black Girls Rock” breaks my heart. Is this what we’ve been reduced to as a society? Making fun of little children? It makes me sad while also making me angry. I would hate for my daughter to be treated this way, but one day, she will be. Simply because she is different. And because some people are jerks. The girl who posted that picture is being dragged by her edges all up and down the internet after posing in a picture next to two dudes dressed as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for a Halloween party. So consider the source, I guess?
It’s time to do better as a society. Do we really need to keep dragging each other down like this? Wow…
“So consider the source, I guess?”
Oh, that was exactly my point. Sometimes, we truly need to consider the place (and people) this kind of language and ehavior comes from. Rarely, if ever, are their actions actually about US… it’s about them needing to protect their stations in life.
I agree with you 100%. If someone is tearing you down so viciously, it says a lot more about them than it does about you. LIke the my favorite proverb says, “If they hate on you, then you know you doing something.” LOL…:)
I would love to get to the point where the opinions of people like this have absolutely no effect on me. It’s a little difficult for me due to my perfectionist/people pleasing personality. But, as I start taking better care of myself and focus on achieving my goals, all that noise starts to slowly fade into the background. 🙂 Thanks again for another great post!
Beautiful! I’m so glad you like writing long posts 🙂 This one is a wonderful keeper. Thank you so much!
Ever since I have decided to pay less attention to my hair and more to being healthy and exercising I have heard how I “used to have such pretty hair” and “when are you going to go back to doing your hair?” and my personal fav, “you got skinny so now you cant straighten your hair anymore? You will never get a man”. This post made me smile about your “poofy hair” and made me feel pretty. Thank you!
Alexis that makes me mad on your behalf! I hope you continue to feel pretty as I have no doubt you are. Where do people get the gall to comment on your personal appearance? Who do they think they are and why do they think they get a say? Hang in there pretty lady.
As always, I love your articles/posts. This one is very special to me though. I love the way you approached the perception of beauty with your daughter. That was very special. Got me tearing up at work! lol
I did the “big chop” almost 2 months ago. It took me a long time to actually go through with it because I was worried about how I would be accepted. I was worried about what other people would think of me. I was also worried that people would treat me differently to the point where it was causing undue anxiety and stress. I was especially (even though I hate to admit this) worried that men would no longer find me attractive. All of this over hair.
Once I did it I knew I couldn’t go back, but I kept imaging the freedom it would give me and that helped me make the decision. As a girl or young lady I can appreciate the apprehension around wearing your natural hair. I just wish there wasn’t such a stigma on black hair because it can be as beautiful as you let it…
I think people underestimate how ‘revolutionary’ the big chop can actually be. It flies in the face of so much of what we’re inundated with every day – it’s not long, it’s not straight, it’s [rarely] blonde or brunette or whatever. It is distinctly black and women look downright stunning with it, and beauty rarely has any clue what the hell to do with that.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with worrying about the potential for partnership; I DO, however, think there’s something wrong with neglecting to make the best choices for yourself because of a fear of never being able to partner with someone. Don’t beat yourself up over that. I will tell you that I met my partner at a point in my life when I couldn’t have been the least bit concerned with dating. (Hint, hint. 🙂
Focus on you, being the woman you believe you were born to be, and someone will be attracted to the glow you’ll undoubtedly begin to give off. I promise.
I love this whole entire post. Seriously, it made me cry a little bit. My oldest daughter’s hair is locked and sometimes she comes home from school saying “Mommy, I want straight hair.” I usually tell her that even if we took down her locs, her hair wouldn’t be like the girl in her class. It would be big and curly.
Like you, I try to show her examples of beauty that look like her but I worry that it doesn’t sink in. Thanks for giving me hope that one day she’ll come around to knowing her hair is just as beautiful as “skinny” hair.
I think he called his young daughters “beautiful” just like a Mother would had called her sons “handsome”. Or a woman in his position, had she been the President.
This is one of the BEST posts of yours I’ve ever read! LOVE IT!!!! Thanks for sharing!
P.S. The irony of this starting from President Obama’s comments about Sasha and Malia are that, in my mind, I didn’t even think of “Beautiful” being about looks more so than the energy that exudes from all of them, that happens to also include physical attractiveness. Had he said “pretty”, I might’ve been more inclined to agree with the original post; however, beautiful takes an energetic turn that I just don’t think you find with the more shallow descriptions that author would assume are implied by beautiful. And, of course, I acknowledge I could be inaccurate in how I’m interpreting President Obama’s words…but it works for me. lol
I love this!! A+ on the heartwarming parenting anecdote. 🙂
Thank you so much for this article. You always offer such wonderful insight to situations. I wear my hair natural (dreads) and my daughter has stopped requesting perms over a year ago. She’s 14. I’m happy that she loves her natural hair because many young girls are brain-washed into thinking that only “skinny” hair is pretty hair.
This article was so timely. I am a recent college grad starting my first full-time position. Last week I attended a conference targeted at providing young African-American professionals with the tools they need to jump start their careers. I too have larger hair but for the first time I received direct feedback that my hair needed to be more “neat” and could be considered a “distraction.” Even now it really does hurt. The only thing I could say was that I understood it but I wasn’t sure if I could accept it. It’s not that I don’t think it’s the truth. I know it is. I’m an accountant and the reality is that in corporate America, even in 2013, there are people who will be made uncomfortable my appearance. And some of these people will have the ability to make huge impacts on my career.
One of the speakers made an interesting point. He said he brings the parts of himself to work that help him advance. More importantly, just because doesn’t bring something; it doesn’t make it any less a part of him. And yet… there is something so uncomfortable about it. Giving something up not because I am trying to grow in that area or because it represents a different part of me… but because it’s something that some person, some day may not be able to accept.
There are people who are really successful because they work within the system, they learn to play the game and they play it well. But there are also those people who are successful because they changed the game. I feel as though I’m at the point in my life where I really have to decide which one I will be.
Erika Nicole Kendall you nail it every time!!!! I need friends like you in my camp! Awesome article. I am printing this out for my 12 year old daughter to read!!
I have naturally curly hair, thanks to my German mother and African American father. When I was in high school I used to straighten my hair with all the flat irons, hot combs, I even got relaxers. I was trying to be like the other girls, who were all different races with extensions as well as naturally straight hair. It got to the point where my hair wouldn’t even curl anymore, it was so……processed. That goes to show that processed things you put in or on your body, are no good! Anywho, I finally cut it all off at the age of 16 and had a low cut for 10 years. I am currently growing it back and I am loving my curls. They allow me to see myself the way I was made, the way I was before my Ma let me destroy my hair. lol I am thankful that she let me experience what was necessary for me to realize that my natural hair is beautiful. So now in a world where most of my friends are getting their hair done, I am wetting mine, putting argon oil in, and rolling out. But despite my natural curls or their “skinny” sew in or the color of their skin, we are all beautiful.
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