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.

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? 

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?

Beauty Questions

Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange

My heart ached when I read Trey Anthony’s piece on For Harriet encouraging black women and especially black fathers to praise little black girls about their beauty. She shares her own story:

I vividly remember when I was their age how I wanted someone to call me pretty, or beautiful. How I ached for someone to just see me. How I wanted someone, anyone, to just notice me.

In my own need to be desired, wanted and told that I was beautiful, I stayed in beds that were not safe spaces for me.

I cried for this young lady. But I also wondered how something that was considered unimportant in my family and vain in the Christian culture I grew up in could be so important to not only Trey Anthony but other women as well.

I think of my own story of beauty. My father never or if ever rarely told me I was beautiful but my mother and other maternal figures in my life always did. And I never felt the need for that recognition because I was living up to what I believed was most important–good grades and being a good person. But in my early twenties, a need to be seen and recognized as beautiful developed. Or awakened?? And I wonder if maybe the low-self esteem I suffered from during these years was because I never received that recognition of beauty from my father. Which I am puzzled by.

Why does male affirmation have the most power? It appears to be a must for fathers to tell their daughters that they are beautiful.

Recall the reaction to Alice Robb’s critique of Obama who publicly declared how proud he was that his daughters grew up to be as beautiful as their mom. Even I joined the bandwagon, declaring that black girls needed to hear that they were beautiful less they seek out that affirmation in the arms of losers.

Apparently it is an accepted truth that if a girl does not hear, specifically from her father that she is beautiful, we should expect her to grow up to be promiscuous, suffer from low-self-esteem, and / or be full of self-hatred.

And this desire for male affirmation continues into adulthood. Chine Mbubaegbu, in her blog post, The Admiration of Men declares:

Women care what men think about them. And men play an important part in how we feel about ourselves…I was struck by the fact that a large proportion of married women, or those in long-term relationships, felt good about themselves because their husbands often told them they were beautiful.

Is the reverse true for men? I asked a male figure in my life who believes that women bring/represent beauty and men strength, to whom he looked to for approval of his strength. His response was other men.

Is this a weakness that women have? To desire and need the affirmation of our beauty from men?

Some questions for women:

  1. For women who grew up being told that you were beautiful by your father did that positively impact your self-esteem? Did you avoid the pitfalls of promiscuity?
  2. For women who grew up in households that praised intelligence, hard work and a good character over beauty, did you ever hunger after recognition of your beauty?  Did your self-esteem suffer? Did you wish that your father told you that you were beautiful more often?

Image 1


I did  it again.  Blamed my womanity for the end of my on and off relationship of five years. Maybe I shouldn’t have demanded commitment?? Maybe I was too emotional at times? Or maybe it had something to do with my body?
Womanity is a word that I made up by combining the word humanity with the word woman. My womanity is inclusive of all of my emotions, wants and desires that are specific to a human being that is of the female gender. Womanity is a celebratory word.

I admit that sometimes I am ashamed of my womanity. Sometimes, I want to scrape away all the emotional aspects of being a woman, and just hold on to my feminine physical attributes. Deep down, in the very depth of my soul I ached for commitment. Commitment more than just boyfriend and girlfriend, more than lovers and friends. After five years I yearned for marriage. I got emotional when I tried to discuss this with him. Doubt always followed after the “marriage talk.” Did I really want marriage or was I being emotional?  Was he disrespecting me or was I emotional? Did I compromise too much or was I being emotional? Was he controlling or was I emotional?

I used my emotions as an excuse to avoid the truth about what I wanted from our relationship and what he was willing to give. I assumed that my emotions were bad.  If I made any decision because I felt a certain way that it was wrong. Often times, I tried to smother my womanity in an attempt to keep a relationship that never accepted my womanhood in all it’s entirety. My ex-boyfriend’s refusal to accept my desires for intimacy, connection, and commitment was a denial of my womanity.

Womanity embraces, praises and celebrates the idea that women have emotions and are capable of expressing them. There is no shame in wanting to be in a committed ,monogamous relationship. Yet women are afraid of expressing that particular desire.  Often, in society,if a woman expresses too much emotion, she is chastised as being “crazy”, or “you’re being emotional,” are phrases that are commonly tossed around as means of shutting her up, and sadly, it works.

Society wants the outer shell of the woman, the convenient, easy pieces, but not the woman in her entirety.  We must look like women but think like a man, and thus deny or suppress  natural and normal thinking and feelings for a woman.  If you suppress your womanity you are more  socially acceptable: you will keep the man, your co-workers will like you,  and there are countless other examples.

A female is preferred not a human who hurts, bleeds and cries. I always hate when I hear people refer to women as females because the word female relates to the sex that bears young or produces eggs, designed with a hollow groove into which a corresponding male part fits.  Animals can be female, the word female lacks humanity.

Emotions are part of being human. I am human. I am woman.  I  proudly celebrate my womanity.

Little Black Girl

Little black girl enjoy your youth. Enjoy the freedom of running around with big plaits in your hair. Take pride in the fact that your textured hair grows upwards like a crown. Dance in the sun and be proud of your black skin.

Little black girl you are more than what is between your thighs. More than your perfectly plump bottom and shapely legs. You are blessed with curves that go on for miles, but you are more than those too.

Little black girl you do not need to dye your hair blonde or bleach your skin. You do not have to look white washed like Beyonce’ or Keri Hilson. Your brown eyes do not need to be replaced by store bought blue ones.

Little black girl you are beautiful. You have almond shaped eyes the color of dark brown sugar and pouty soft lips. You do not need hair that hangs down to your bottom because your face was blessed with the intricacy and delicateness of your creator’s hands. Your skin is bronze like copper or black like rich coffee.

Little black girl you do not want to be like one of the girls that Drake, Kanye, or Lil Wayne rap about. You are better than dancing in rap videos and sliding down a stripper pole.  You do not want the life of the Draya Michele’s, and Brooke Bailey’s ( Basketball wives LA)of the world. Your aspiration in life should not be to become an urban model or a video vixen.

Little black girl either you are invisible and not seen, or you are put in a box and seen in a stereotypical light. I used to complain that black women were not represented in the media. I used to whine and fret about black women not having their own TV shows, or being on reality TV. I complained about the stereotypical magical Negro, mammy black women being used over and over again. I hated how the beauty of women like Viola Davis is continually down played in movies.  Now, I detest the way black women single-handedly objectify themselves in the media.

The image of the hyper sexual black woman is far worse than any of these other stereotypes. She is that woman in the music video scantily clad, legs spread eagle, shaking her shame to lyrics that degrade her. She exchanges her body for currency, for expensive cars, or clothes and she is not ashamed to say so. She is that woman who is proud to be a stripper, and is proud to let everyone know that she has a price. Unfortunately, her presentation is beautiful, which makes this life style appealing to little black girls with young malleable minds.  She sends the message to the world that she is her body, and that all she has to offer is sex. She embodies everything that is negative, and shameful about womanhood, yet she is packaged so nicely. This is not a life that any mother wants for her daughter. This is not a life that any woman, should choose.

I repeat, little black girl you are more than what is  between your thighs. More than your perfectly plump bottom and shapely legs. You are blessed with curves that go on for miles, but you are more than those too.

Images: Image 1, Image 2.