Finding Freedom: Beauty in Other Spaces (Part 2)

Often I think the battleground of beauty is a black woman’s fight.

We’ve suffered the most. We’ve had the difficult task of discovering and possessing our own beauty in a world where it is rarely celebrated. Most often it is despised.

But recently, I spoke to Iris, an 18 year old South Korean exchange high-school student, about her own journey to appreciating and possessing her beauty.

I discovered that in the battleground of beauty, all women experience similar oppressions from living under the beauty standards of their respective cultures.


I can’t remember the conversation exactly. Maybe we were talking about some recent Hollywood star’s plastic surgery. But Iris flipped open her laptop and played a PowerPoint presentation of before and after pictures of South Korean women who have undergone surgery to change their appearance.

“It’s like self-care.” Iris shrugged.

In South Korea, plastic surgery is not a big deal. It is not uncommon to see Korean women walking down the street with surgical masks that barely hide their bruises.

South Korean beauty standards demand pointy noses, v-line chins and double eye-lids. And if you aren’t born with it, then you buy it.

But it is evident from the PowerPoint presentation that these women are trying to possess a beauty that is not their own. They look like wannabe-white women.

“I was so relieved when I got my double eyelid,” Iris chattered on, “I felt so ugly.”

Luckily, Iris has avoided plastic surgery. Her double eyelids popped out in her early teens. But she admits to feeling pressure from relatives about her appearance before her eyelids showed up. There were rumors of surgery.

I’m slightly confused by this obsession with double eyelids and the supposed ugliness of monolids. Aren’t monolids a phenotype that is most common in Asians?

“Your eyes are more open,” Iris argued, affirming the superior beauty of double eyelids.

More open like Caucasian women?

In Korea, there is an elevation of Caucasian beauty which stands in stark contrast to Korea’s pride in its homogeneity.

I want to scream racial self-loathing. Hypocrisy. But I can’t  judge South Korean women.  I’m reminded of my own personal struggle to see and possess beauty where I had been told there was none or very little.

For a long time I  thought my hair was only beautiful when straight.  And I know other black people who sincerely believe that lighter skin is better.

However,  I’m saddened by a commonality that I see in my black community and in South Korea.

We pursue a beauty that will never be ours. And in pursuit of another’s beauty we erase our own. We cover it up. We bleach it away. Carve it out or chip it off.

Lauren Nicole Love eloquently describes this as a perversion of beauty:

the perversion of beauty, when it happens, is that our eyes have been closed and we do not see it. the lie of beauty, when it is told, is that you do not posses it….

How do we open our eyes to our own beauty?

Maybe we finally see it in foreign spaces. Maybe we discover our beauty in the beauty standards of another culture.

“I like how I look better.” Iris confessed. She admitted that before moving to the US she wanted to get a plastic surgery procedure done.

Now, she feels more free concerning her appearance.

I want to know what she has done with the freedom she believes she has in the US.

“I went tanning,” she laughs.

In South Korea,white skin is essential to attractiveness. Women lather themselves with sunscreen, use makeup so their faces appear whiter and stay out of the sun.

Iris recognizes her disadvantage in South Korea, “ I have darker skin.” But here she loves her skin color. When she gets dressed up, she wears makeup that matches her skin.

Listening to Iris, I get the impression that here she has the freedom to choose the type of body she wants. She doesn’t want to be fat but she enjoys not having to starve herself to achieve the emaciated look preferred in Korea. And she loves the muscles she has developed since she began to play soccer. Iris is passionate about developing a stronger more toned body.

Iris’ message to other young Korean women is to look like themselves,”You’ll look the same with the plastic surgery.”

I concur: possess your own beauty.



Stuffing the Beauty Box

Nigerian model Adaora Akubilo

Nigerian model Adaora Akubilo

Why do we stuff the beauty box?

We put all sorts of things in it: stretch marks, scars, cellulite, droopy skin, fat, wrinkles etc.

Maybe we’re rebelling against the unrealistic images of female bodies that our monthly subscriptions of Glamour and Allure tell us we should look like.

But in our attempt for a more realistic portrayal of our bodies are we still buying into the message that our bodies’ primary function is to convey beauty? Maybe we believe that beauty equals worth. So no matter how unpretty, everything goes into the beauty box.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe that we should recognize and celebrate physical beauty.

But how much of our worth should come from beauty? And if we are flawed or God forbid not pretty what then?

Post-pregnancy belly

Post-pregnancy belly

Sometimes, I think that maybe we are delusional about our bodies.

We are not frozen pictures in a magazine or paintings hanging on the walls of the Chicago Art Institute.

Our bodies are for living.  We cook, clean, write, hug, fix, create, run, leap,  think, lead,  and love with our bodies.

Our bodies tell our stories.

Maybe we get stretch marks because we ate too much and gained weight. Or because we made love and are pregnant. Or because we just entered puberty and our bodies grew too fast.

Our bodies tell our stoires

Our bodies tell our stories

Or sometimes in our living we accumulate scars that tell a story of bodies that have overcome cancer, self-mutilation, rape and other forms of violence.

Is our worth diminished because we are no longer pretty or certain  body parts are deformed, scared, wrinkled, missing etc?


Labonya Siddiqui

A couple of weeks ago I came across Labonya Siddiqui, a model and burn survivor who is ‘determined to show the world that scars can be beautiful.

I think Labonya has beautiful eyes, hair and smile. And I am thrilled that she is challenging what is an acceptable body type in the fashion industry.

But I want to tell Labonya that she doesn’t have to convince the world that her scars are beautiful. That she doesn’t have to stuff them into the beauty box.

Her scars tell a story of bravery, suffering, resilience, and hope. And that’s more than I can say for a photoshopped picture of a Victoria Secret model.

I want to celebrate bodies like Labonya. Bodies that convey vulnerability, strength, dignity, hope, joy, suffering and beauty. I want us to celebrate our own bodies: they carry the marks of our lives and of our living. They are more than just beautiful.  I want to celebrate our bodies telling our stories.

Rape is Rape

Steubenville Ohio Rapist:  Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmon,

Steubenville Ohio Rapists: Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmon,

When it comes to sex, no means no, and stop means stop.  I promise you that there is no hidden meaning. And if a woman is passed out drunk, then she is in no condition to consent to sex.  But who would want to have sex with an unconscious woman? Unfortunately for the sixteen year old victim involved in the Steubenville Ohio rape case, this is exactly what happened. She was unconscious while two males “penetrated her vaginally with their fingers, and then distributed pictures of her and one of the perpetrators masturbated on her. I can feel the vomit rise in the back of my throat while reading how these monsters violated and exploited this young girl.

Victim Blaming

Another aspect of this case that is disgusting is the victim blaming. People are blaming the victim  for being drunk, blame her parents, and believe that it was her lack of morals that caused this situation. Some even believe that she wanted it, or that she gave consent before she passed out. This is utterly disturbing. But what is even more disturbing is that the perpetrators in question, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmon, don’t have any remorse for the crimes they committed against this young woman.

No is no. And no consent given still means no. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. I don’t care how short your skirt is, if you’re walking down the street naked, or if you’re drunk and high all at once and passed out on the corner, no man has the right to penetrate you in any way. As a society we need to stop blaming the victims.  The fault lies with the rapists.


As women we should stand behind this young girl, not pick her apart. We need to set the standard that what happened to this girl and what happens to millions of women around the world on a daily basis is not okay. I cringed when I read tweets from other women bashing this girl. What if you were drunk and unconscious, would you want random men sticking their fingers up your crotch? What if she was your sister, your best friend or daughter? . When a fellow woman is raped we need to support her.

Rape does not discriminate       

Rape does not discriminate against race, age, or social status. It is a monster that knows no boundaries. Single women are raped, women are raped by their boyfriends or friends, and yes some women are raped by their husbands. It happens to the prostitute on the corner, or the student innocently walking home. I call on women who have sons to teach them to respect women. Teach your sons that sex is not a right, that a woman is not a toy, and that they should not act out their sick porn-influenced fantasies on a woman who has not given her consent.

My Plea

This hatred against women needs to stop. No one deserves to get raped.

The Sacred Space of Detangling Hair

sisterscombingeachothershairI was shocked, pissed off when my sister pushed open the bathroom door and walked in with a friend.

Conditioner and a mix of olive oil and coconut oil covered my hands. On the side of the sink sat a ball of shed hair I had combed out.

And my hair, wet, shrunken, drenched in oil and conditioner was combed haphazardly into fat twists. Not pretty.

I didn’t mind that my sister was in the bathroom. She had seen me dishevelled. Naked. Ugly.

But she, our friend who I will call Kim, was a stranger.

And I had recently learnt that her ethnically homogeneous culture preferred Caucasian features.

Could she appreciate, see beauty in other ethnicities?

“Look. Look.” Both Kim and my sister squealed.

‘What?” I asked, tugging on a section of hair. My mind still reeled from this invasion of privacy.

She had copied my sister’s hairstyle. They both stood in front of the mirror with their heads slightly bent in my direction.

‘Cute,” I complimented.  I thought Kim would leave and I would have the opportunity to tongue-lash my sister for breaking an unwritten code.

Instead Kim planted herself on the Jacuzzi step and watched as I combed out a section of hair and twisted.

What was she thinking? Would she go back to her family and friends  and tell them that afro-textured hair is ugly, short, and weird?

I felt uncomfortable. Ashamed. And a little bit curious.

My hair care practices don’t look like the 30 second Garnier commercials. And most non-black ethnicities just don’t get the hair. They don’t understand how tiny cornrows can blossom into a big ‘fro. Or how shrunken tufts of hair can suddenly jump from shoulder length to waist length. They think it is strange that black women change their hairstyles so often.

At school, church, work, in airports, hair salons, and on street corners I am bombarded with questions about my hair.

So washing my hair is sacred. Free from curious stares, questions, judgement and sneaky hands coping a feel.

Kim stood in a sacred space. A space in which my non-black friends were not allowed.

But her invasion made me curious about this space that I am unwilling share. There is a bond/intimacy that is created when you can talk to a friend about your hair care practices and experiences,  and she gets it. This friend knows and accepts the hair.   She won’t be shocked when she sees your hair in the before, during and after stages of washing, braiding, twisting, weaving or straightening.  She is even willing to help take out your nasty braids. To have her hands covered in the oil, build-up and dandruff of your two-month-old style. Not every black girlfriend is willing to do this, but I wonder if a non-black girlfriend would ever want to become that intimate with your hair?

Blogger, Yagazie Emezi wrote a post about hair intimacy. She describes it  as“getting to the roots of your hair; touching your scalp (yay head rubs!), knowing the way the hair works and accepting the hair in whatever form.”

Yagazie is in an interracial relationship. In the blog post she talks about refusing to allow her boyfriend to see her hair when it was halfway done in braids. But as their relationship deepened she allowed him into that sacred space of hair grooming: “At a certain point of our relationship, he watched me take out my braids. He saw the nasty nature of the way hair gets after two months in braids. Clumps and all. He helped me put in braids. He washed my hair. And I insisted on head rubs just about every day.”

Hair intimacy is not limited to romantic relationships.  But what does it look like between friends of different ethnic backgrounds?

“We need your help.” my sister asked. Kim’s hairstyle had fallen apart.

My fingers touched her scalp as they intertwined the black, silky strands to form a flat twist. Gently, I pinned the twist back. Her hair is beautiful: thick and shiny.

She and my sister clapped their hands and giggled. They were pleased.

Would I let her touch my hair? Finger these delicate coily strands? Pull it back in a puff? Would she like the soft, pillowy feel of the hair?

Rare, Maybe Exotic, But Ethnic: A reflection on GQ’s hottest list


I am so tired of being the other woman. And I am especially fed up with being the other beautiful woman. Why can’t I just be a beautiful woman?  As a Caribbean woman I have been placed into the rare, maybe exotic, ethnic beauty box time and time again. In high school, people always told me that I was beautiful for a black girl. I could not say thank you to such a back handed compliment or could I? I always felt awkward when people made these compliments because it seemed like black and beautiful were a paradox. And I was beautiful because of my Caribbean heritage.

Reading about GQ’s offensive hottest women’s list barely caused me to bat an eye lid because GQ clearly did not label these women in its magazine as ethnic others. The author of Shine questions why Beyonce, who was on the cover of GQ, was named Miss Millennium instead of Miss African-American Millennium.  And why wasn’t Mila Kunis’s Ukrainian roots or Kim Kardashian’s Armenian heritage mentioned. But Beyonce, Mila and Kim are all American, why does their ancestry matter? I don’t support men’s magazines but GQ did the correct thing by not pointing out their heritage, because they are American. Isn’t GQ an American magazine?

GQ also goes on to mention hottest women from countries around the world. Describing a woman, for example  as a “hot Indian chick,” and “hot for an Indian chick” are two different things. One implies it is rare for Indian chicks to be hot like the example I gave from when I was in high school, and one is a compliment using the woman’s ethnicity as a description.  I don’t think the GQ list is racially offensive because it is highlighting beautiful women from around the world and stating their respective countries of origin.

The point is that women of color have been placed in a beauty box.  Their beauty is confined to their ethnicity either as something exotic or a rarity and I find that insulting. Whereas white women, or white- looking women can break through racial beauty barriers and are seen as just beautiful.

It would be interesting if the media, and everyone else saw ethnic women the way I see myself; before I am a black woman, a Caribbean woman, I am a woman.

Did Snow White Damage your Self-Image?

B(l)ack to fairy tales

B(l)ack to fairy tales

Researchers have indicated that as one of the longest existing genres of children’s literature, fairy tales play an important role in shaping the self-image and belief system of children.

Dorothy L. Hurley, an American researcher, argues that Western fairy tales like the Brothers Grimm stories and their visual Disney film versions, can negatively impact the self-image of children of color. These fairy tales continue to reinforce a perspective that white equals goodness and beauty, and black is evil and ugly.

Fairy tales are powerful.

But what happens when these fairy tales travel to non-Western cultures? Do they lose their power to influence beliefs about beauty and goodness?

Lebohang Kganye is a young South African photographer living in Johannesburg. In her most recent work,  B(l)ack to fairy tales, she photographically deconstructs fairy tales that played a defining role during her childhood.

I was intrigued by the images in Lebohang’s collection: her face, painted black, a decapitated doll with a blackened face and other images of herself as a clown and a flower. Throughout her collection, she places herself in the role of the fairy tale princess. I wanted to understand the motivation behind her work.

As a child, one of Lebohang’s favourite fairy tales was the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White. She believes that this fairy tale shaped her understanding of beauty, goodness and happiness, “She[Snow White] represented what I understood to be ‘beauty’, she was fair skinned with long, flowy hair…As girl children , we place ourselves in the fairy tale by identifying with the lead ‘good’ character, often the princess, and wish for a Prince Charming that is going to save us so that we live ‘happily ever after”

Lebohang yearned to possess these characteristics of beauty and in Grade 6, she auditioned for the part of Snow White, “I wanted the white skin, long hair, perfect figure and maybe the blue eyes.” But Lebohang not only wanted to possess beauty but goodness as well by embodying the character of Snow White in her school’s annual play. She writes, “As a child, fairy tales had convinced me that those represented beauty and beauty equated to being good and of right moral standing.”

This is disturbing. If Lebohang equated white with goodness, did she perceive herself and her black community as bad?

Also,I am puzzled: How is it possible for Western fairy tales to have such a damaging impact on a black girl growing up in a country with a black majority population?

Like Lebohang, I grew up in a country with a majority black population that had a history of colonialism–the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. I enjoyed watching Disney versions of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. I never longed for white skin or blue eyes. And the princess I remembered role-playing was Pocahontas, a woman of color.

However, I recognize that the South African context is different. Unlike the Caribbean, South Africa suffered under the oppression of apartheid until 1994.

Is it possible that apartheid created fertile ground for the fairy tale to acquire power?

A recent BBC article, Africa: Where Black is not beautiful, in which a famous singer lightened her skin through bleaching suggest that a colonial past has contributed to a general preference in South Africa for lighter skin.

But Lebohang does not mention apartheid. She believes that attending a multiracial school with very few black children and the school’s annual plays about fairy tales damaged her self-image.

“As a child in a multiracial school, with very few black children,that held annual plays about fairy tales, re-instilled my dislocation in this space and I started wanting the long, straight hair and I wished my skin was lighter…”

She speaks about being taught to hate herself.

I would like to know a little bit more about Lehohang’s school experience. What was she taught? How did her classmates and teachers treat her?

Perhaps,  the fairy tale became powerful because it functioned in an environment that stressed Western values and ideals of beauty.

But what happened when Lebohang arrived home? Weren’t images of black beauty reinforced? Weren’t African folk tales told?

Lebohang describes a reality where she arrived home from school and played with a white Barbie. And her mother, would arrive home from work too tired  to tell her stories.

Yet, Lebohang believes that the power of the fairy tale can be curtailed if it is countered by a culturally specific narrative.

“…fairy tales become dangerous when they aren’t balanced by an equivalent effort by your family to teach you your own stories.”

I agree.

Growing up in the Caribbean, not only did I watch Western fairy tales but I also read American and European novels like Famous Five, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys.  However, unlike Lebohang, I attended a predominantly black school and the stories we read were written by Caribbean authors. When I arrived home, I played with my Barbies, they were black and white. Also, my mother, a high school teacher, exposed me to the works of Derek Walcott and other black Caribbean writers.

Western fairy tales weren’t the dominant narrative during my childhood. And therefore they weren’t influential in shaping my beliefs about beauty and goodness.

What do you think:

Does the fairy tale retain its power when it migrates to a non-Western context?

Is the power of the fairy tale neutralized by ensuring that our own stories are the dominant narrative?

Desired or despised? Do females carry the marks of their culture more than the male?

Adult Female Sexual Organs~ Wangechi Mutu

Adult Female Sexual Organs~ Wangechi Mutu

“Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”

Do you agree with the above statement by artist Wangechi Mutu

Do men also carry marks that are also despised and desired by society?