On Black Beauty and NonCompliance

When I was around 14, my mom took me on a cruise around the Caribbean. We made friends with a family who had a girl around my age, Mandy. Mandy was adorable with shiny white blonde hair, enormous deep blue eyes and some stomach chub that she’d probably lose after puberty.

I had just come out on the other side of puberty myself, magically shooting up a few inches and effortlessly dropping some weight. I started getting more intense compliments than just “you’re cute!” and I got them way more frequently than I had since I was around 10 and barged headlong into my awkward stage. So when I was on this cruise with Mandy, I was in for a little shock. Everyone fawned over her to the point where she was embarrassed over being so noticed, and I was embarrassed over the opposite. They obsessed over her hair, exclaimed over her eyes, and generally couldn’t help themselves from constantly talking about how striking she was. I, on the other hand, seemed to fade into the background. People would look at me after effusively losing their shit over Mandy, and throw me a bone like, “Oh, you’re pretty too!” But then when I was alone, I would start raking in the compliments. And that’s when I first realized that black beauty is always less.

It comes down to the concept of compliant beauty. I read about it in this article on xoJane. Basically, whether supermodel or normal human being, being pretty involves work. All that waxing and contouring and flat ironing doesn’t just happen sans some exertion of effort. We do it, in part, because looking hot feels really good. But it’s naïve to ignore that a lot of us are also attempting to achieve what we’ve been told is the beauty ideal. We’re being obedient. Consequently, if you decide to reserve your time and energy for pursuits other than looking as good as possible, you’re being noncompliant. You can also be branded noncompliant because of irreversible traits, even if you primp within an inch of your life. This is the reality of being a black woman.

Just by nature of being black, we’re uncooperative. Our largest organ signals that we’re automatically opting out of this mainstream beauty contest. Otherwise, I’m pretty compliant. I straighten my hair frequently. I get my eyebrows done, shave my legs, wear makeup and tight dresses sometimes. When I try to play into this beauty game, am I fooling myself?

This is not at all to say black women (and other women of color) aren’t jaw-droppingly gorgeous on a regular basis. It’s more about society’s large-scale opinion of who is beautiful.

As an example, in the new class of supermodels, the black girls generally have less followers on Instagram than white ones. Is it because they’re less famous? Because they book less work? Sure, probably. But that’s entirely it, they are less famous and book less work because society as a whole cannot buy into a blackness as the ultimate beauty fantasy. On its own, this could be marked as a one-off. But given that beauty doesn’t exist in a vacuum, given the context of the society we live in, it is absolutely a symptom of black beauty being less desirable.

It’s one thing to feel like I can never live up to a certain type of beauty, and another to worry about being overlooked or bypassed entirely. I remember being confused when people would ask me and my friends, who, in my eyes, looked totally different from me, if we were twins. Or when teachers would repeatedly call me by the name of another black girl that, again, I thought looked totally different from me. I started to think people saw black women as indistinguishable, and that’s a hard attitude to shake.

The quasi-perverse way I think about it is: if I get X amount of compliments or people thinking I’m beautiful as a black woman, what if I were the same level of pretty, but white? How many more doors would magically open to me? How many more guys would approach me? How much more attention would be called to my looks? I don’t want to be anyone but me, even if it were someone like Candice Swanepoel (I’ve actually puzzled over the fact that I really don’t think I’d trade bodies with her if I could—maybe it’s just because of the inconvenience factor of learning how to exist in a different form). I still hate that there is a realm, by a lot of society’s standards, I will never reach.

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