I hate the phrase “black beauty”. I hate it even more when it is confused with the phrase “black is beautiful”. These two phrases do not mean the same things, do not have the same implications and where one strives to empower, the other makes needless concessions to a system of beauty that is all manner of –ists, including but not limited to ageist, sizeist and racist. All in the name of a universal standard of beauty that (un)surprisingly seems to want everyone to have the biggest eyes, the lithest of forms, the tallest of frames, the straightest hair, the slimmest of noses and the lightest of skintones. Beautiful. All other people either need to find a way to fit or else, seek comfort in the knowledge that whilst they cannot be beautiful they can be fetishized, and are the object of an admiration which is societally considered perverse. But, beauty is only a shallow perception that will not in any away affect your daily life, right? Wrong.
If there’s one thing that patriarchy makes clear, it’s that bodies matter. What we do with them, what we put in them, where we take them – women’s bodies have always been a site of much regulation and scrutiny. Feminist enquiry has often focused on unfair beauty standards imposed under patriarchy and impact that that these have on the lives of women. Particularly, the ridiculousness of prevailing beauty standards and the struggles that women face when they fail to live up to un-realistic expectations, as well as the lengths that some feel compelled to go to in order to have conforming bodies. There is now the need to investigate the impact of globalisation when it comes to beauty. Patriarchy and white-imperialism have yet again come together for a spot of oppression and it smacks of skin lightening creams and appalling weaves. Whilst we might be keen to brush off beauty standards we must understand that there is a certain privilege attached to being beautiful or considered capable of being beautiful. In comes the halo effect.
The halo effect is essentially our minds’ willingness to attribute positive character qualities to those that we consider beautiful or attractive. Those considered attractive are smarter, worthier, kinder, better workers, better company and on it goes. This is bad enough when it occurs on an individual basis but when it favours an entire racial grouping you have a situation where they’re constantly being given the benefit of the doubt. So whiteness is good, pure and perfect until proven otherwise. What is interesting is that black has never been considered sort of, you know, alright. It’s ugly.Remember those studies where kids had to pick which doll was attractive as between white and black dolls [The Clark Doll Experiment]? Or the modern variant that involved a scale that went from dark black on the one side, with the shade being increasingly lightened until you had pure as the driven snow on the other side. When asked which of the people presented were beautiful the children invariably chose the white figure/ doll and when asked about the darkest figure/ doll they used words such as “ugly”.
“Ugly” is not without connotation. Let us ponder a while the antagonists in many a fairy tale or children’s book. They are invariably not only bad but also deeply unattractive. You are quickly made to understand that the wicked witch is evil, and this is often physically manifested as well. For minds that are capable of perpetuating the halo effect, what is to prevent them attributing the negative connotations associated with things considered ugly to people called and labelled ugly?Ugly is suspicious, shady, untrustworthy, unkempt, dirty and of questionable character. Ugly is bad and terrifying until proven otherwise.So when blackness is said to be ugly, this goes to the core of the personhood of black people. It’s not just an opinion or a preference, it’s an ugly prejudice that disadvantages black [women]. A character is created in people’s minds on the basis of the perceived value or beauty of the colour of their skin.
There are several ways that aforementioned black women can choose to respond to this. For purposes of this article I’m going to go with two options: “black beauty” and “black is beautiful”. What I hate about the former phrase is that it offensively implies that black people can only be beautiful when they are their own subcategory. That is, with a little squinting, maybe some head tilting we too can be considered at least passably attractive…to each other. We are attractive…for black people. It also concedes the point that whilst black may not in and of itself be beautiful there are ways to work around that and become world contenders. We too can become presentable by minimising those imperfections that nature dealt us. Skin lightening creams will soon do away with that pesky pigmentation problem and with a little help no one will ever suspect that your head used to be adorned with the kinkiest of hair.
Once I stopped living in Europe I really didn’t think that my hair would be a source of much interest or scrutiny. Who would think that a woman with natural hair and dark skin could still cause murmurings? What I find worrying is that skin lightening is on the increase in Harare, and whilst there are many women who do not subscribe to “black beauty” it’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.
“Black is beautiful” is a stand alone statement. It requires no contextualisation, it makes no apologies and it certainly does not act as though a lack of Caucasian features is something to be ashamed of. Black is beautiful declares the dignity of black people, asserts our right to also be accorded due respect, to be given the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. It says that natural hair is gorgeous and does not in any way denote a lack of professionalism or presentableness. Black is beautiful asserts that skin lightening is a harmful and unnecessary practice as complexion has no bearing on character. Black is beautiful is a radical challenge to the racism that underlies patriarchy’s globalised beauty standard regime. It empowers and works towards erasing the scars of continual negative bombardment.
Why settle for “black beauty”?