Eurocentric ideas of beauty have historically warped the way non-white people evaluate their own physical features.
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This January, I was in Paris and took the opportunity to hop on the Metra to Versailles to visit the famous palace. I made sure I was outfitted appropriately for a jaunt through the shrine to opulence and beauty for beauty’s sake. I wore a fluffy coat that itself suggested luxury (though it was bought at a deeply discounted price in Le Marais), perched a black beret on top of my kinky curls, and had a mini Telfar purse slung across my shoulders. I looked good, and I was feeling myself—it was one of those days when confidence was practically brimming from my skin.
As I strolled through the gilded hallways and marvelous glittering chandeliers, I got the creeping sense that I was also an item of interest. Like many Black people who’ve traveled internationally can attest, it’s not unusual to be treated like a curiosity by locals whose exposure to people who look like me has been limited to film and television. But the vibe of the curious glances that I felt land on my skin in Versailles seemed different than the usual marveling at a Black person in the flesh. The piercing stares felt strangely like a mix of antipathy and awe, and I wondered why. The only thing markedly noticeable about me that I could think of, other than the aforementioned fabulous outfit, was that characteristic confidence many grown Black women wear like a second skin. The stares I felt that day seemed confused, hostile even, in response to it. As if they too were asking, “Why?”
I’m dark-skinned, and I bear other undeniable phenotypes of Black womanhood: thick lips matched by a similarly thick nose, hips and thighs that fit the same characterization. I don’t always feel confident, or pretty, or beautiful, but I have a pretty comfortable relationship with a sense of my own attractiveness. It would be hard not to, coming from Jamaica, where Blackness—and those features in particular—are as ubiquitous as the wood and water that the island is named for. Caribbean women generally walk in a self-assured, I-know-I’m-the-shit spirit similar to our most widely known global ambassador, Rihanna.
The global beauty ideal isn’t designed for all
But there are distinct differences between me and Rihanna, and not just in the contents of our bank accounts. She’s also a light-skinned Black woman. Historically and to this day, Eurocentric ideas of beauty warp how non-white people evaluate their own physical features. This is especially the case in regions marred by the legacies of European colonialism. In Jamaica, ideas of what is “good,” “bad,” or “ugly,” that were established by the white British enslavers who governed the island, continue to inform societal norms there even centuries after emancipation. The Jim Crow–era adage, “If you is white, you’s alright, if you’s brown, stick around … but if you’s Black, get back,” also applies to much in my homeland, in everything from beauty politics to actual politics. Jamaican beauty queens, representing an island where over 90 percent of the population is unambiguously Black, have historically been light-skinned and without even the suggestion of a kink in their hair. Much of our popular music reinforces this as the height concept of female beauty, with even Afrocentric artist Buju Banton famously crooning about his preference for brownings (Jamaican vernacular for light-skinned women).
“Growing up, beauty to me and what I observed around me was lighter colored skin,” Jacine Johnson, my longtime friend who lives on the island, told me in a recent conversation. “You wanted to look like your skin was paler.”
Jasmine Barnes, an African American friend of mine who spent most of her youth in Texas, experienced a similar phenomenon—though in a starker cultural context. “I went to predominantly white schools for most of my life,” she said of her journey to finding beauty in her Black womanhood. “Especially as a teenager in a white conservative Southern school, I really felt like being Black was such a deficit to my ability to be seen as a beautiful woman and to be seen as feminine or as desirable.”
Black women bear the brunt of the ramifications of our intersectional identities, wherever in the world we exist. But as a transplant to this country, my observation is that Black women’s beauty is far less celebrated in America than it is in the Caribbean. Even with the specter of colorism, the sublimeness of Black womanhood is treated there as a given. For example, Jacine, who says she also “saw beauty as being of a certain size, which was a challenge, since I’ve never been skinny in my entire life,” is also a beauty queen in her own right.
Meanwhile, my Black American friend who has literally spent her entire life in a land where she is a minority says, “A lot of my journey was self-hatred and self-loathing that was really rooted in my Blackness. My skin, my hair, things that couldn’t be assimilated or hidden or masked.”
I’ve felt shades of that here too, an unwelcome second-wave of adolescent insecurity in my adulthood. And the strange new fear I’ve developed in America, that perhaps my very identity is inherently unattractive, has felt the most depressing when it is triggered when I’m among other Black people. It was in Chicago that I first experienced the phenomenon of being in a bar full of other dark-skinned people and feeling literally invisible—like the combination of my dark skin and female identity made me a non-entity.
“There’s always this feeling of not feeling good enough,” Helen Gebregiorgis, another Black woman who grew up in the U.S., said to me. But when she traveled with me to Jamaica a few years back, I watched my countrymen on the streets literally double-take and double-back to vocally remark on her beauty. And swimming in the Caribbean sea, her skin under the blazing sun, she looked the most free and self-assured I’d ever seen her.
Ultimately, Black women—wherever they are in the world—define their own beauty. And every one of them who spoke to me about their individual journeys echoed the same thing to me: Their a-ha moment was that it isn’t rooted in the hue of their skin or the width of their waists.
“Beauty is just confidence. However you choose to wear it. And being unapologetic about who you are.”
So while some may find our confidence baffling, Black women of all shapes, sizes, and shades are justified in bearing it proudly. I’m sure Rihanna would agree.
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