Every so often, it’s important to re-evaluate the “standard” for beauty when it comes to women of color and how it affects us every day. Are our standards healthy? Are they beneficial to young women? Let’s talk!
Self-esteem is defined as a confidence and satisfaction in oneself. A person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. If you were a stock on wall street, it’d literally be how much you think you should sell for.
If you listen to the national conversation about weight, one would presume that being overweight is a sin. It’s unsightly. It’s “offensive to the nation’s visual sensibilities.” The media regularly perpetuates this notion that if you don’t look anything like “X”, then there is something wrong with you. Never mind the fact that you may not look like “X” because you are simply a beautiful shade of “different.” All that matters is that you do not resemble “X,” and that this is a serious matter.
And we – innocent, unknowing, gullible, naive little us – we simply buy into it. Perhaps its too easy to go with the flow for many of us. Perhaps it takes too much time to challenge these ideas that tell us that we are “less than” because we don’t fit with an American cultural ideal. Perhaps this notion of being “less than” already fits in with perceptions we had of ourselves long before we recognized that the media agrees with us. The bottom line is.. “we” are told that we suck… and “we” agree.
As a woman who came of age around women who didn’t look much like me, I see how this affects everyone. I already wrote about how the young girls who didn’t need diet-anything were sucking down diet sodas for lunch. (Perhaps the corn syrup in the drink counted as a serving of vegetables? Just playing… maybe?) I remember my non-Black girlfriends getting relaxers to tame their curls so that it’d be easier to straighten their hair. I also remember those who refused to participate in the “race to be what they want us to be” being ostracized and mocked and shunned for their choice.
As a woman of color, I see how this affects women like me. We don’t see leading ladies with curly hair. Hell, we don’t even see leading ladies with their own hair anymore. (And please don’t take this as an insult toward individual choice.. it’s a direct critique of the images we see in the media.. not the people we see every day.) Black radio shows are full of advertisements selling weight loss pills, smoothies, shakes, and [insert random quick fix here]. We, as women of color, are often told everything is wrong with us.
It’s rare that you hear a conversation about why, though. Why are we told by the media that something is wrong with us? Why are we always told that we need to lose “that last five pounds?” Why is it so unappealing for people with heritage that doesn’t look like the mainstream image of “ideal” to be different?
If self esteem is the perceived level of satisfaction in oneself, and you have imagery around you every day telling you exactly how “less than” you truly are… how hard is it going to be to develop a healthy sense of self? A healthy understanding of your worth?
The question I truly have, is why is so much of our self-esteem – essentially, our estimation of our worth – wrapped up in our appearance? Are we as a nation so superficial that we estimate a person’s worth by their appearance? Are we knowingly accepting a mentality that causes us to think less of ourselves and value ourselves even less? Because, let’s keep it real: if two thirds of this country is overweight, we don’t look like the girls who’ve got the magazine covers selling like hotcakes, do we? The value we place on them, inadvertently causes us to change the value we place on ourselves. How often do we look at an Us Weekly cover and say “Man, if only I could lose another 10lbs,” only to see a Women’s World magazine right next to it that says “Lose 10lbs in 10 days!” and thank our lucky stars?
Plain and simple, because if you didn’t believe something was wrong with you, no one could make money off of fixing you. As women of color, the message is often that everything is wrong with us because we are so different. We can’t get right for going left. We look differently. Our hair is different. Our facial features are different. We created magazines that would highlight what we were doing because we were shown our lives weren’t worth space in contemporary pop magazines. And as we scrambled to be like everyone else… we lost ourselves and lost sight of the things that truly matter.
Normally, I wouldn’t care about any of this. It’s capitalist principle – if you allow yourself open to be taken advantage of, then please believe there’s someone out there willing to do it. However, the conversation that tells people that they are less than and that they “must be skinny” has created an attitude that completely ignores health. In a country full of “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “low-carb” everything… in a country so obsessed with food bearing health labels, we are still two-thirds overweight. The irony of it all? No one’s doing any of this to be healthy. People do it to chase that “skinny dragon.” The perceived “healthy benefits” are just a “plus.”
When I was well over 300lbs, I didn’t gauge my worth by how “pretty” I was or by how much I looked like the current cover girl. Like I said before, “I didn’t need to be skinny to be a person of value to my community, my country, or my world. I mean, for crying out loud – skinniness isn’t what makes a person phenomenal! I don’t need to be skinny to be dynamic! I don’t need skinny to rock your world! Being skinny isn’t what makes a chick bangin’! I can do ALL of that without being a single-digit size.” I had the first part of self-esteem down pat – I understood what it did not consist of, but I failed to fully understand what I did include.
Now that I’ve lost most of that weight, my definition of self-esteem is a little more honed in. It sounds more like the stocks and bonds version. (What can I say? I’m a businesswoman.) I treat myself like a business that I want to see flourish. I invest heavily in me – without guilt – because I know the return on my investment is a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life. When I invest in my body, I know that only good can come of my investment, and it makes my stock more valuable. Why? Because when I invest in taking care of me, I am that much more capable of properly caring for those who depend on me. It’s as simple as that.
This may seem like a thinly veiled attempt to tell you to begin giving the media the middle finger (it is), but it’s not (it is.) It’s a simple suggestion to truly think about how we allow the outside world to influence our inside emotions, and how we allow the media to truly influence how we see ourselves. Especially as a woman of color, I’m beyond aware of the fact that the media hardly ever sees me, so why on Earth would I allow them to make me feel less than? I’m cool on that. I base my self-esteem on what I contribute to the people around me, and my investment in myself as a person worthy of love and care, and that’s all right with me.