Beauty, Beyond the Beholder

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At one of the most impressionable ages in a girl’s life, I charted down a road very few dared journey. At the stage of life where one’s highest aspiration was to be one of the “cool kids” or apart of the “popular crew,” which often meant looking, dressing, and acting like others, I decided to take the road less traveled.  It wasn’t an act of rebellion, it wasn’t a action for the sake of shock value; it was simply a coming of age realization that my beauty was not tied into society’s imagery of who I should be and what I should look like.

 As an African-American, I lived in a culture where westernized notions of beauty were the norm from body type, to skin color, to even hairstyle and texture. It is implanted into the psyche of every girl growing up that if it’s too curvy, too dark, or too nappy, it just ain’t right. So we adjust. We make ourselves less ourselves in order to fit in to whatever mold has been shaped for us. But something hit me at the tender age of 13 that I will always take with me, a new self-image.

 This new found self-image not only manifested itself inwardly, but I sought to express it outwardly as well. So in an act self confidence I made my way to the bathroom mirror with a pair of scissors, and though I walked out with only an inch of hair left on my head, what I had gained that day was a sense of pride in myself and in my blackness that has stayed with me ever since.

 But, although this change was a positive one, that didn’t mean I was not met with opposition from those who felt as though beauty had to be defined by social standards. Ironically, what started out as a rather personal self-affirming expression ended up actually becoming an unintended act of rebellion against the status quo.

 In all honesty, I wasn’t shocked by the oh-so-subtle sly remarks or the evident disapproval disguised as concern that bordered on ridicule from others. What shocked me is “who” I received these negative gestures from. They were friends, they were family, but the most upsetting part of it all was that they were black like me. Growing up in a society where blackness and black beauty is often debased, I expected these things from others, but not my own people.

 Yet gradually, as the years progressed, so did society’s ideologies of beauty. More and more black women in the States were expressing their beauty in the ways they wanted to. Movements known as “The Big Chop” and “Happy to be Nappy” took shape and ‘sistas’ were encouraging each other to love their natural beauty. Finally, I was not alone! Things were getting better and other black women who also saw themselves in a way they never had before were sharing the pride I felt.  Laws were even passed that made it illegal for employers to discriminate against someone based on the texture of their hair. Whether one had braids, locks, an afro or whatever you chose, you didn’t have to fear being victimized in the workplace.  Though not everyone and everything changed over night the fire was ignited and I no longer had to constantly face the inquisitive gazes of opposition that singled me out. 

 Years later, in search of my roots, I boarded a flight to the land of my ancestors. For years I had dreamed of that moment. I had always wondered how it would feel to be back ‘home’ and once I got there I felt like I had been there all my life. It was as if things there, though different, were also so familiar. Interestingly enough, one aspect of familiarity took me back to a place in my life that I had experienced many years ago in the States. Again, here came the inquisitive gazes. Often I wondered what those looks meant. Of course in some ways I looked differently so the gazes were expected, but I would later come to find out another unexpected reason I felt eyes following me. According to my friends, it was my hairstyle.

 I asked them why my hair was the cause of compliments, stares and questions alike. Yes, it was a natural style I created (locks in the front, low shave everywhere else), but it couldn’t have been that odd. The response I received was “because it’s different.” Frankly, I was shocked. Had I entered into the twilight zone? Surely I was in a place where I expected to see the most unique, most diverse, and most beautiful displays of black hairstyles.  So then why, among so many of the women I encountered, was the topic of natural hair such a big deal, I thought to myself.

 I will never forget the stories of women saying that they were afraid to wear their natural hair even if they wanted to because their family and friends would think they were crazy or that they wouldn’t even be considered for certain types  of employment. I was appalled, dismayed, and even hurt to hear such things, especially in the land of original black beauty. I was told “My dear, I must have my Malaysian or Brazilian hair or I don’t look right.” I was stunned. Of course these were not the sentiments of all the women I saw or interacted with. There were countless women with a range of diverse styles, but, ironically in many of the places I went, they were few and far between.

 So what is it? What created this social dynamic of beauty that must be reshaped into less African/black and more Eurocentric and why do we tell our daughters that it is the best possible way to display oneself? Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way ridiculing anyone for their personal choices to express themselves outwardly in any way they see fit. Personal freedom encompasses my life’s passion. But what I do question and have concern with is the perpetual derision we place on ourselves and other women in regards to our beauty, particularly our natural beauty.

 In matters related to self-image and social-norms, black beauty is often ridiculed, perverted, or reimagined, especially in relation to that of non-black/Eurocentric standards. The most formidable aspect of that is when it is at the hands of other black people.

  It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yet, it is my hope that we all learn to not become beholden to the standards of beauty set in place by society but by ourselves, fully embracing and embodying the true meaning of the phrase “Black is Beautiful” in every sense of the meaning.

By: Zakiya N. Muwwakkil