Exploring the True Beauty of Blackness Beyond Desirability

Beauty

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I learned my first beauty lessons at the school of yearning and longing.

There, I learned that beauty was “aspirational,” and I was only ever aware of how much I wanted to be beautiful, or perhaps worthy of love and celebration, when I felt empty. Beauty, as I knew it, wielded significant influence; an Achilles heel for the powerful, a thorn in the flesh for noblemen— its allure could drive the most sensible humans into the depths of desire. It dictated the social pecking order. In the early aughts, Beyoncé, America’s Next Top Model, and vixens from the Hype Williams video shoots served as formidable influencers, ultimately shaping my perception of what was desirable and what was not. The hallmarks of their beauty were marked by shimmering adornments, Juicy Couture velour suits and starter necklaces, Coach bags, and Louis Vuitton Damier sets. They ate hibachi and sushi, dated rappers, and were the people I looked to for where to shop and what to eat. I wanted to be like them and exist in a seemingly carefree world that ate from the palm of my hand.

In Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, the longing for beauty is not only a prominent theme in girlhood, but an identity intertwined with racism that affects society’s most vulnerable: Black girls. Morrison’s protagonist, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove, is taunted for her dark complexion and perceived “ugliness.” She prays for blue eyes and pale skin with the belief that if she were “beautiful,” it could circumvent the unimaginable abuse inflicted by her father and the community at large. More than anything, Pecola yearns to be loved wholly. This seminal novel, set in the 1940s in Lorain, Ohio, is often used as a social commentary for the world’s treatment of unambiguously Black girls and women, and invites further dialogue on how often beauty is associated with whiteness.

“The concept of beauty has been wielded by colonialism to make you dive further into the notion that one group of people is superior to another,” says Dr. Sarah L Webb, a scholar on desirability politics and colorism. “If you want to convince people that white folks are superior to everyone on the planet, part of that project is convincing people that they’re also more beautiful than everyone on the planet. It’s a direct correlation with groups of people who have been deemed ugly or undesirable, those people whose lives are most expendable and are forced to labor in service to the ruling classes.”

When beauty is conflated with virtue, “ugly” becomes more than a jarring adjective but a moral failure that invites dehumanization. Picannies and minstrels, notably caricatures of Black people, were often portrayed in humiliating circumstances for the bewilderment of white crowds and, of course, absent of empathy. In propagandist art, antagonists are intentionally depicted as caricatures with exaggerated features or likened to insects and rodents. This dehumanization latches into the psyche of both marginalized and majority groups.

During the 1960s, Kwame Braithewaithe selected women for shoots and fashion shows in Harlem to counteract Eurocentric beauty standards in mainstream media and represent the vastness of beauty often limited to light-skinned models in Black publications. Rendering his Hasselblad, he photographed full-figured, wide-nosed, dark-skinned women with vivacious fros and braids set forth to the black-and-white portrait style he envisioned as jazz. This work, with the aforementioned Grandassa Models, helped popularize the slogan “Black is beautiful.”

Yet in 1974, Morrison, who had written “The Bluest Eye” partially in response to the slogan, asserted that the slogan “Black is beautiful” was an “accurate but wholly irrelevant observation,” She wrote, “The phrase was nevertheless a full confession that white definitions were important to us (having to counteract them meant they were significant) and that the quest for physical beauty was both a good and worthwhile pursuit.” Morrison asked, “Once we had convinced everybody, including ourselves, of our beauty, then, ..what? Things would change? We could assert ourselves? Make demands? White people presumably had no objection to killing beautiful people.”

Sixty years have passed since the Black Is Beautiful movement, and its influence remains prevalent in pop culture today. Models like Anok Yai, Adut Akech, and Precious Lee are impacted by not only the ethos of “Black is beautiful” but also the work of advocate Bethann Hardison, who coexisted as a model during the era. At a macro level, Black-owned brands challenge the status quo and create new cultural resets in the beauty industry, while individually curated photos online of grillz, freestyle braids, and gold jewelry invoke emotional inspiration for our stylistic palettes. Despite how we praise what we see as beautiful, “beauty” and “desirability” remain a source of weaponization that infiltrates every facet of life, and with it comes its alibis: colorism, featurism, fatphobia, and queerphobia.

Beauty is not enough to contend with pervasive systems of oppression. Yet, considering how marginalized communities have been deemed undesirable, can celebrating beauty be a healing balm of self and community love? ELLE.com spoke with experts and cultural workers to explore the pursuit of Black beauty and how it can be celebrated without social conditioning. Ahead, colorism scholar Dr. Sarah L. Webb, facilitator and author Vanessa Rochelle Lewis (Reclaim Ugly, Penguin Random House), and TK Saccoh, the founder of The Darkest Hue, share their thoughts.

Is the pursuit of beauty worthwhile?

Vanessa Rochelle Lewis: The pursuit of beauty is worthwhile when we can engage with it intentionally and from a place of self-love and expression, but too often, we treat beauty like it is both objective and mandatory—like we all have the same understanding of what beauty is and it’s our responsibility to pursue it if we want to be treated well by others. There are universal standards of what is not beautiful, of what is perceived as ugly, and we’re expected to want nothing to do with it and to strive to modify the parts of our body or identity that others might uglify. Too many of us treat beauty as if its moralistic, like someone is failing social agreements if they aren’t overtly aspiring towards beauty and away from ugly, and I think thats harmful, inherently violent, and exclusive. Especially since what we define as ugly is often rooted in racist, anti-Black ableist, fatphobic, ageist, and classist ideals. When we begin to recognize beauty as subjective, as an experience and expression with which we can build an intimate and personal relationship—one that doesn’t expect or require external validation and isn’t a social expectation—then I think the pursuit of beauty becomes worthwhile.

Dr. Sarah L. Webb: It’s kind of human nature to seek inspiration or to seek that sort of feeling that we get when we look at a beautiful painting, Its still worth being able to say, I had this experience, but I think in order to have that be a healing practice, we have to be vigilant and cognizant of the ways that beauty has been weaponized against us, with a critical awareness of the dangers of how beauty has been tainted for political purposes. Our ideas and assumptions about beauty are culturally influenced, and we see this across different cultures and regions of the world. In the African Diaspora, there were indigenous tribes where before a woman got married, they would try to fatten her up to make her body larger and more robust. Whereas, in Western society, to prepare for marriage, we [people] try to lose weight. Ideas of whats beautiful can vary, and that awareness, for me and my work around colorism healing, can be a form of empowerment. If beauty can be altered or evolve across society, we, as individuals, can have some agency and can recondition our minds to see something else or have a more expansive view of beauty. The healing is not always “let me replace one idea of beauty with another,” but [rather] broadening what I see as beautiful.

a collage of a person

courtesy of subjects

Beauty is typically discussed as an abstract concept that no one has control over. How can someone begin the process of unlearning what they’ve been taught subconsciously about themselves and the people around them?

VRL: Attraction is not inherent. We see the same kind of bodies over and over again on TV, in the music industry, in magazines, and on book covers, or even if you read romance novels, the same kind of bodies are described over and over again. So were constantly fed standards of beauty, and in our eyes, we become accustomed to a certain gaze, but when we pause and look around ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our communities. We will see people in loving relationships who have all kinds of bodies. We see old people who dont fit into these standards of beauty at all being utterly devoted, taken care of, protected, and nurtured. So I think people need the opportunity to just first recognize that we are taught a lot about beauty and desirability, be okay with acknowledging that, and then be willing to start taking in alternative media.

How do we celebrate Black beauty outside of conditioning?

VRL: There are some people, bodies, aesthetics, and behaviors that we have been conditioned to perceive as more valuable. Take, for instance, somebody who has a college degree or has the resources to get their hair, nails, and eyelashes done or wear certain kinds of clothes; these standards came from a place of survival and navigating white supremacy. [I think] compassionately recognizing where they came from, and then thinking, does this really engage with my own joyful liberation or pleasure my own freedom? Think about the Black people around you, many of us love our parents, grandparents, favorite teacher or neighbor and we are not looking at them to assess their beauty. These people that we dont sexualize—what does it mean to sit with the glory of their body? Because they couldnt exist without a body. If we love Big Mamas warm, cushy hugs, what does it mean to appreciate the fluffiness of Big Mamas body that allows them?

SLW: I love the word celebration because its one thing to change the narrative and see something as beautiful. But the idea of celebration, to me, again, automatically takes me to a space that goes beyond the visual sense. Part of my healing process is beyond what I look like, [and more about] how I can feel beautiful; thinking I love my skin tone and my hair, not just because they look good and are acceptable to other people but in loving my skin, I actually feel good in my skin. Tying our beauty acts to what feels good helps us discern when our beauty acts feel like an obligation, like considering whether Im straightening my hair because I feel obligated to in order to avoid stigma and ostracization versus Im straightening my hair because I feel joy in doing that, or I feel right. This could be a subtle shift because beauty mandates come with this sense of fear and obligation. Allowing ourselves to discern when beautification makes us feel freer, more joyful, and happier versus when beautification feels like a job or something that is protecting us from being ostracized, judged, or criticized.

How would you define desirability and how it affects the community at large?

TK Saccoh: My understanding of desirability politics is borrowed from Dashuan L. Harrison. Theyre a trans author, and they wrote the book, Belly of the Beast. The politics of anti-fatness as anti-Blackness where desirability is social and economic capital, which is more tangible than pretty privilege. It’s a system of oppression that rewards you tangibly based on certain features you were born with. Whether you’re thin, able-bodied, or light, all these -isms and systems of oppression work together to create desirability and health outcomes, employment prospects, social circles, and even marriage prospects. If you live somewhere outside of the features that are rewarded, the world is going to punish you in a variety of ways for not conforming. Through the lens of colorism, we see women and girls who get the most opportunities, often looking a certain way than people who are darker skinned or not thin or do not have a palatable aesthetic to them.

I notice that the most desirable people are given opportunities to represent the community, especially when we talk about women and girls. This warps our understanding of representation and leaves a lot of people behind who want to be represented but have to settle for the crumbs of representation. It’s like I can see myself in that person because they’re Black, but there are so many other things I experience that that person doesnt.

What are some methods for deconstructing internalized biases?

TK: In a world that is rife with colorism, ableism, and fatphobia, I think the first step is recognizing that you weren’t born discriminating against people who are darker skinned or who have larger bodies. You can understand that whatever biases you have, it’s not as personal as you might think it is. Then, you need to educate and ground yourself in more scholarly work; maybe checking whatever instinct you have to silence people whom you might have biases against. As someone who does a lot of colorism work, people will voice their frustrations about colorism, [with family, etc] and are vulnerable about their experiences, and instead of [people] listening to them, they’re automatically accused of being bitter or divisive. I think that, on par with educating yourself, you really have to interrogate how you interact with people you’re biased against and be self-critical and introspective about those interactions.

Is there a way that Black Beauty can be celebrated in a way that doesn’t lean into desirability?

TK: It is becoming harder to imagine a world where there isnt a hierarchy of beauty. Its a difficult balancing act because, ideally, we want to celebrate Black beauty and value everyones beauty, but in the society, we find ourselves in today, its a proclivity to place people into hierarchies to attribute value to certain features and different types of appearances. I dont see how the celebration of beauty would not inevitably lead and evolve into a hierarchy. But I do think we can be more intentional if we dont want it to happen as quickly. We can see people who have been historically marginalized because of how they look and celebrate and love on them more because they would need corrective representation. It cant just be like an all Black is a beautiful thing because although I think that we need to be more intentional about that celebration, we need to recognize the people who are categorically put in the box of ugly, whether it be because of their skin complexion, their features, or their body.

Do you think society has progressed or regressed since the Black Is Beautiful movement?

SLW: I think from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, the pendulum started to swing unequivocally, without question, toward Black is Beautiful. A couple of decades after that, it started to swing back to where its like press and curls and color contacts. I think were starting to see it now swing back towards people having the opportunity to not only say that Black is Beautiful, but what I hope changes with this generation is that we start to question how many variations of Black fit into that term. We are coming into wider discourse. Social media has allowed people to speak and be heard, seen, and critique these movements. What would give us staying power to continue moving the pendulum toward understanding the beauty of Blackness is recognizing and seeing Black as beauty in and of itself as it is, not how closely we match the white aesthetic. Regardless of how Blackness manifests, its vastness should be represented across body type, in terms of abilities or disability, height, features, hairstyles, and hair textures. How are we defining that for ourselves, and are we critiquing our own critique of the system?

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