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.