One of the best gifts I was given as a kid was permission not to care about how I looked.
You could find me on any warm day: sweaty, afro puffs lopsided, edges everywhere but laid, ashy elbows, chapped lips, grass stains on my knees, running around — free. I’m grateful for that time the people closest to me allowed because the world shortens it well enough on its own.
Speaking of the world: it’s funny how the world behaves, believing the way a little girl looks, a little Black girl especially — is free material for them to comment on.
For me, the effect of being granted this uncharacteristic freedom is that I took it. I believed (and understood) the way I looked was the least interesting thing about me. It helped shield me.
Even now when I think about myself and who I am — I don’t think about my face or my body. I see what I see in the mirror and I have my own opinions — mostly positive but not particularly strong. I know being in this body, looking how I look, somehow, means something to other people — more than it means to me.
But, I live in the world and have always been very observant. Therefore, even as I kid I was able to figure out that beauty, in particular, was something women and girls were supposed to aspire to, to covet. I also saw that beauty standards were subjective, messy, contradictory. Before I understood the wisdom of the decision, I decided I would define beauty on my own terms. I wasn’t particularly attached to the label. I wasn’t particularly invested in performing my gender— to which beauty was inexplicably attached as a duty.
I remember when I began to specifically understand being a dark-skinned Black girl with African facial features evoked strong reactions. One side was that I was undisputedly ugly. This was based on having zero European features. My face was (is) all lips and eyes — both too big. Nappy hair. Dark skin. All the supposed bad things. But when I looked in the mirror I did not see this ugly person. At the exact same time, there were people who thought I was beautiful for the same exact features. And of course, there were the people (hordes!) who presumably didn’t think about how I looked at all.
As a pre-teen kid in terms of my appearance, I felt mostly invisible to boys, but I would get comments from adult men. One memory is my 5th-grade gym teacher calling me aside (I thought I was in trouble) to ask me where I was from “originally” and tell me I was beautiful. My ancestry was the explanation of my perceived beauty — it was a common thread that adult men would pull on. Adult men told me I was beautiful as though they were giving me new, valuable information. I didn’t understand the use, why did it even matter? Sometimes they said that I would be beautiful when I grew up. This felt especially useless. If I didn’t care about how I looked now, why would I care about what I would look like as a grown-up? I did not take the compliment well (whatever that means) — I would just sort of shrug. I felt like that would show them I was just a kid and probably didn’t really get it, so they’d stop.
Simultaneously, I began to understand that if I was lighter-skinned I would be considered pretty in a more broad, conventional way. The idea that light-skinned girls were the pretty ones was well established. I never wanted to be light-skinned per se — I actually wanted to look like the girls on the “Just For Me” relaxer boxes. Why? They were brown (not too dark or light), had shiny, long, straightened hair — they were cute but didn’t stand out too much. That to me was perfect. If looking a certain way could do anything for me, blending in would be the most useful.
Then something unexpected happened. When I was a teenager in the late 90s dark-skinned African models began gaining some prominence and visibility (like my personal favorite Oluchi). Their faces became a compass to mine. I started to be regarded as one of those pretty, African, (read: dark-skinned) skinny girls like those models. My perceived beauty and thinness at the time became connected. Suddenly becoming “fuckable” became my new armor. As detached I was from the notion of beauty did not free me from the power of it. Attractiveness, in itself can be a shield.
Speaking of which, in my early twenties, people would sometimes ask if I modeled. This was laughable to me for a number of reasons but mostly because I am short. “Aren’t models tall?” I would say — another attempt at diversion. I was uncomfortable with the attention. I also thought: was this the adult “beauty” that had been foreshadowed? Were those men not just creeps but in fact able to see into the future?
At the same time, it was clear I was considered not quite as beautiful or not beautiful at all (or my look much less aspirational) because of my dark skin and African features. Or as it was put to me plainly once — unsolicited (of course) I was not the universal type. This was the early 2000s racially ambiguous peak music video vixen era. Those women were the universal types. I was more specific. I existed for a specific type of man: one that liked to call women “Nubian Queens”.
When I entered my career I heard a new message: look “professional”. I once lost a job opportunity because my braids were seen as unkempt. At the same time, I was told I had the right “look” for the early jobs I was pursuing in the beauty and fashion industries. I remember being told I had the right look during an interview once at a well-known fashion startup and the funny thing was I didn’t get the job — so what was that even for exactly? I also remember a male coworker asking or maybe telling me once (after some drinks) about how I “downplayed” my beauty. From his view, I didn’t carry myself like a woman who knew she was beautiful. Confused I asked: do I seem to lack confidence? No, it wasn’t confidence — it was clear to him I was confident in my abilities. He couldn’t articulate what he meant but I think what he was picking up on is my ambiguous relationship to others' perceptions of how I look. I guess I didn’t play the part of the beautiful woman well. To me, that’s your deal (however you think I look) it’s not something I need to own because it’s doesn’t matter. That’s a little subversive in its own right. You’re supposed to not only care about being perceived as beautiful but your supposed to tout it as your most important quality.
Fast-forward to now in the pandemic, living in Zoom. In some ways, it’s the perfect reflection of how disembodied I wanted to be in real life. You can only see what I allow in the frame. My whole body is not in view. And I can be invisible if I want to (camera off). Then in public, I’m masked. Hiding the parts of my face that make it most what it is. There’s a lot less material for bystanders to work with (not that they still won’t have something to say). And when I add sunglasses? I’m in full disguise. We’re in this shared trauma and there is less obligation to “look good.” If I can like any part of that’s happening now it would be that.
Pandemic aside, as I’ve gotten older I’ve been subverting beauty ideals more on purpose. My little rebellions maybe how I cut my hair or what I wear. It makes me feel more in control of something that tries to define me without my permission: “beauty”. I can turn those perceptions on and off like a switch.
Can I end on something trite like real beauty is on the inside? Because it is. As someone who has been seen as beautiful to some — it’s probably too easy for me to dismiss the power and privilege of that and to make it all seem cheap and silly. I know that many people really want to be seen a beautiful by other people. They really want to feel beautiful and have all the societal rewards of beauty (both real and imaginary). “Beauty” has real-life currency — I wish it didn’t. But I also know there are just as many people (if not more who knows!) who think I am unrefutably ugly (or maybe just unattractive) which reminds me how flimsy the whole thing is.
It’s a concept too flimsy to rest your self-esteem on. To rest your personhood on. There are so many things I love being called other than beautiful. There are so many compliments you can give little girls rather than how good they look.
The one thing I still know for sure is the way I look is the least interesting thing about me.