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.



Finding Freedom: Beauty in Other Spaces (Part 1)

blog picture 1This task of defining beauty is cumbersome.

Throw in our biological preference for youth and symmetry, the global status that white skin is given; and the social construct of beauty that varies across cultures and time periods.

It’s messy. Complex. Oppressive.

But I’m not as interested in defining beauty as I am in women possessing their beauty.

What is possessing one’s beauty? Is it figuring out the right makeup and hairstyle for your features?

I appeal to a blog post recently written by a friend to offer insight. Possessing your beauty is “to see beauty in yourself.” It is a release from shame.  From oppressive beauty standards. And yes, from the belief that physical beauty is worthless.

It is the freedom to “delight in beauty. Yes, even your own.”

Possession of our beauty doesn’t happen all at once.

You might catch glimpses of it. Underneath a blasting shower, a ringlet of hair bounces with the steady stream of water.

Maybe we find freedom to delight in our beauty in a quote by Kola Boof:

My look, mind you, is not chocolate like Lauryn Hill, Whoopi Goldberg, or Naomi Campbell–it is pitch black and shimmering like the purple outer space of the universe. I am the charcoal that creates diamonds. I am the blackest black woman.for blog 2

And sometimes we possess our beauty outside of our own culture. Away from our own ethnic group and a culture that upholds a certain beauty ideal.

We possess it in a space where we are the exotic.

In our laughter as a stranger stands in the street,  grips his chest and sings out:  “Morena de mi corazon.”

We see our beauty in the eyes of others as they take delight in our presence.

I possessed my beauty during my eight month stay in Lima, Peru:

I came home to myself. I took out the braids and I was left with a kinky, coily, curly ball of hair.  And I fell in love all over again.

I think of the shame that we as black women sometimes live with. For generations society has repeatedly told us that our hair is ugly. It needs to be hidden. It needs to be changed. It needs to look less African (whatever that means) and more European. But as I walked down a street in Lima with my big fluffy hair I felt glorious. I felt feminine. Womanly. There was a rush of power, defiance and self-acceptance.

…in this culture I am the Other.  But I  I’m going to enjoy  being the Other. I’m going to enjoy the GLORY of my hair. I’m going to enjoy its BOLD, BIGNESS DEFIANCE.

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.

Is White (Female) Privilege a Blessing?


A few weeks ago I came across Caryn Rivadeneira’s article Preach On, Victoria’s Secret Model, An unexpected realization about privilege.  The article referenced model Cameron Russell’s TED Talks,  in which she speaks candidly about her privilege as a beautiful white woman. I felt she was honest and insightful.

However, I can’t say the same for Ms. Rivadeneira’s article. She tries to develop a message for the Christian community based on Cameron’s speech: we should acknowledge our privilege and thank God for it because it is a blessing. Therefore, I am not surprised that Ms. Rivadeneira believes that her privilege as a tall, blonde, affluent white woman is from God.

But Ms. Rivadeneira glosses over some of the major points from Cameron’s speech about white female privilege.The reason is that socially constructed privilege i.e. white female privilege may be a lot harder for the Christian community to digest. Below are some more of my thoughts about Ms. Rivadeneira’s article and privilege:

1. Being a tall, blonde, white woman is not a privilege from God. The white female privilege that the author possesses is based on a social construction of beauty that lives off the vestiges of a legacy fraught with white supremacy and prejudice. It’s a man-made privilege.  White female privilege extends beyond the sphere of beauty.  If Ms. Rivadeneira and anyone else is confused about what is white female privilege, Andrea Plaid from Racialicious does a good job of providing examples in this post.

2. Privilege is complex.  Underpinning privilege are legacies that are not altogether just, fair or reflective of Christian values.  For example, I inherit  a million dollars from my grandfather. Am I privileged? Yes. Am I blessed? Not necessarily so. If my grandfather earned the million dollars through theft, murder and nepotism, am I still blessed? I don’t t believe ill-gotten gains are a blessing from God. And sometimes the privilege that you possess is a tangled mess of good, bad and ugly. How do you pick out which parts are  blessings and which aren’t?

3. Someone pays a cost for our privilege. As a model, Cameron recognizes the costs associated with her white female privilege. In her speech she references a study by a Phd student who in 2007 counted the number of models and out of the 677 that appeared on the runway only 27 (4%) were non-white. Non-white models bear the costs of a beauty standard that prefers “whiteness” although they make up over 30% of the US population and the majority in terms of world population.

4.Ms. Rivadeneira had the perfect platform to challenge Christians (not only white women) to  reflect on the privileges that they possess and critically understand how these privileges are built. Do these privileges impact the church community?  How? And what is our responsibility? Ms. Rivadeneira believes that we should share our privilege and help others see theirs. But what about challenging the attitudes, beliefs, social, political and economic structures that create those privileges? What about addressing the injustices that privilege creates?

Black Women Can…


Click image for a larger view

This collage highlights the beauty and versatility of black women. We can be models, beauty queens, princesses, doctors, race car drivers, ballerinas, pilots, actors, Olympic swimmers, gymnasts, politicians, presidents, authors, astronauts and bloggers. Being black and a woman does not put us in a box.  Let us celebrate the great things that we as black women can do.

The Cage of Beauty

Recently, we attended the Chicago Artists Interpret Shakespeare As They Like It  exhibition at a local college. We were  intrigued by this interpretation of women and beauty in the play Hamlet.

Bird Cage by Marzena Ziejka

Bird Cage (Hamlet) by Marzena Ziejka

Symptomatic of an unhealthy culture, many young women live in the illusion of false expectations, preconceptions and assumptions about beauty and female role in society. The attainment of an unattainable ideal is the trap. The culture of beauty can assemble itself in their young lives, like a cage preventing them from living their lives to the fullest. ~Marzena Ziejka

Can beauty become a cage?  Has it prevented you from living a full life? Thoughts? 

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?