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.

Links of the Week 04/19/2013

1. How Sketch are Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches? [Beauty will Save the World]

Yes! Society does need to delight in women’s minds and abilities but alongside women’s beauty- not instead of. And I would argue that it is the same for men. We should delight in men’s minds, abilities, and beauty. This is why I would have loved to see more than two short clips of a male subject. Hence, there are faults to this video no doubt. The presence of more men involved would have fought another lie that self-image is only a female problem. And when I say involved, I mean as subjects not merely as informers (like the male artist depicted as the male source of affirmation telling females that they are beautiful). Because a woman’s beauty needs to be celebrated not merely by men but by other women too! And a man’s beauty needs to be celebrated not merely by women but by other men! Just as we learn to identify and celebrate beauty in others, we cultivate the aptitude to recognize it in ourselves. This has been made a difficult task in our society and the Dove Real Beauty Sketches touched on it.

As long as this is a conversation on beauty, this cannot be about defining -but about recognizing. For beauty is not for us to define how we want; it is for us to appreciate what it is.

2. Not your erotic, Not your exotic [Suheir Hammad] 

don’t seduce yourself with
my otherness my hair
wasn’t put on top of my head to entice
you into some mysterious black voodoo
the beat of my lashes against each other
ain’t some dark desert beat
it’s just a blink
get over it

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

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.


Links of the Week 03/16/2013

1. Stop Following the Rules [Happy Black Woman]

Just because you go to college and get good grades doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll land your dream job. Ask all the unemployed college grads and they will tell you. Just because you go on to get a Master’s degree and your own condo and a nice car still does not guarantee you happiness in life. And we all know that even if you follow The Rules in any dating book or manual to the “T”, you are not guaranteed love for a lifetime.

That’s because The Rules were created for all the people who are satisfied with “good enough.”They are perfect for the people who are fine with someone else telling them what to do with their lives and how to do it. The Rules are for people who are willing to settle for a mediocre life because they aren’t willing to put in the time or effort to create an amazing one.

But for those of us who want more out of life, The Rules are useless. We see that they can only take us so far and then we have to figure out the rest ourselves. We realize that we’re actually sick and tired of playing by The Rules anyway.

And then we decide to create our own.

2. Swedish Mannequins! [Feminist Philosophers]

Swedish Manequins in H&M store

Swedish Manequins in H&M store

An H&M clothing store in Sweden is being hailed by women around the world after a photo of two surprisingly curvy mannequins there were photographed and posted online.

“Dressed in skimpy lingerie, the mannequins displayed softer stomachs, fuller thighs and generally more realistic proportions than the traditional department store models. For comparison, most mannequins in the U.S. are between a svelte size 4 or 6—a departure from the average American woman who is a size 14.”

3.Joan Morgan on Black Sex, Identity and the Politics of Pleasure [Parlour]

To me Beyoncé does work that isn’t discussed beyond ‘Why did she have to gyrate that way?’ or ‘Why is she wearing that kind of clothing?’

I want to get past that. I want to look at how people, and women, are getting pleasure from what Beyonce does and so is she, and why that’s important.

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? 

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

pretty-for-a-black-girl

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.