Black Skin, Light Eyes, Straight Hair

Who set the standards for physical beauty? I know that physical beauty seems to be a superficial topic, but it is a topic that has real import in the lives of so many people all over the world. Our perception of the physical beauty of others impacts our treatment of them and it even causes us to judge what they have the potential to do, become, or to be in loving and affirming relationships with during their lives. In much of the Western world, the beauty standard for women has long been light skin, slender bodies, light eyes, and straight hair. Of course, there are permitted variations on that standard, but most women who society calls beautiful meet at least two of the requirements most of the time. The standard is hard, nearly impossible for black women—especially darker black women to meet, and although we have no control over the bodies or skin we’re in, society looks down on women who cannot or choose not to meet the standard.

This past week, I read this article by Catherine Imani where she argues that “white supremacist beauty standards affect relationships.” Imani’s article is a response to the rumors surrounding the divorce of Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams and his wife, Aryn Drake-Lee. The rumors claim that the two dissolved their union because he is involved with a white woman he met in Hollywood. I am not interested in examining the truth or fiction of that rumor, but I do have something to say about the conversation about the standards for black beauty that the divorce rumors have inspired. Throughout his acting career, Jesse Williams has been called attractive because of his light skin, light eyes, and athletic physique while his wife Drake-Lee has been called “not Hollywood pretty.” Regardless of her attractiveness or lack thereof in the black community, much is being made of the idea that perhaps he is leaving his wife for a white woman, who, presumably, is considered more attractive because of her whiteness and Hollywood status. The conversation implies that black women no matter how beautiful or faithful they are will ultimately lose out to white women as soon as the black men they are with feel socially and financially sure-footed enough to date or marry outside their race.

This week, also saw popular hair care brand, Shea Moisture make a serious miscalculation in their advertisement which centered two non-black women and one mixed race woman although many of their customers are black women. Watch the commercial:

Many black women were confused by the commercial that was created by a brand that primarily serves black and brown women. Sure, every company must expand its reach, but at whose expense? As many black models as there are today, it would not have been too challenging for the brand to find multiple black models to feature in a national commercial. The brand later apologized for the ad and pulled it saying that, after receiving feedback from their demographic, the piece does not represent what they “intended to communicate.” They went on to explain that the ad was meant to represent the “breadth and depth of each individual’s hair journey.” Yet, the question, at least for me, remains. I celebrate a brand for reaching people regardless of race, but I fail to understand why the ad featured a mixed- race woman and two white women. Where were the black, Latina, and Asian women if the ad represented the diversity of our hair journeys? When will black women be beautiful and influential enough to be at the center of the ads for the products we support?  

               The topic of physical beauty is a complicated and controversial one that I will continue to unpack it over the next few weeks. Suffice it to say, although the topic of physical beauty is complicated and controversial, it is essential that we discuss and challenge it, but not be defined by it. My favorite interrogation of physical black beauty is the 1970 novel by Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, I will discuss different aspects of the book in my next few posts, but it is about a dark-skinned black girl named Pecola Breedlove who has been called ugly both within and outside her community, and her quest for beauty, her quest to have the bluest of blue eyes drives her to the point of mental and emotional instability.

               And, how could this quest or what Catherine Imani called “white supremacist beauty” not drive us to the point of mental and emotional instability? Even for the most “beautiful” of white women and girls, it is an unattainable beauty. Even Norma Jeane Mortenson, “Marilyn Monroe,” who was considered in her time to be the epitome of white beauty was a natural brunette who changed her name, spoke in a tone just above a whisper, and played dumb before the world called her beautiful. We know this standard of beauty is an impossibility, yet, we hold ourselves and others to it.

               Because we, at least in the United States, rarely see representation of black women as beautiful, black women learn to detest our skin (especially those of us who are darker skinned), we learn to straighten our hair or to wear extensions or weaves, and we learn that light eyes are beautiful and wear makeup or contact lenses to try to achieve the desired effect. Beyond skin and hair, women are also taught that we must make ourselves smaller, take up less space, speak more quietly, be slimmer, to achieve beauty. Black women learn through these standards that our very bodies are posing a problem to the rest of the world. I remember, and I think other black women and girls raised in predominantly white environments might have similar memories, being in third grade and feeling ostracized by other children in my class. As I looked on, I understood that girls with lighter skin (or better yet, white skin) were treated best. One day on the playground, I knelt next to a stump to pray that when I opened my eyes, God would make me white. I finished my prayer, opened my eyes, and looked around. Nothing had changed. A few minutes later, a white girl with blonde hair approached me and asked me to come play. I smiled and said yes and thought to myself that God had answered my prayer in God’s own way. By the end of the next school year when I had endured months of physical and verbal bullying, I understood that there is no way of getting past my black skin. The best I could do was learn to have some appreciation for the skin I’m in, and come to radically new understanding within myself of beauty. I would never have white skin, light eyes, or easily tame-able hair, so what?

               So, to the responses to the Jesse Williams divorce rumors that talk about his wife’s beauty, I say, who set the standard and why do we care? Why have we allowed our lives to become overcome by standards of physical attractiveness? Why have we decided that the worth of a woman (or man) is decided by some beauty standard that no one lives up to naturally? And, more importantly than that, why do we think we can decide for other people what is beautiful to them? Why does my opinion of the beauty of another person’s partner matter? And, Shea Moisture, like many other brands and Hollywood itself, needs to open its eyes. I see no problem with an ad that recognizes the diversity among women and our hair, all I would ask it that I see ads (from all brands) that are first, true to their primary customer base, and second, embracing of a variety of looks and cultural backgrounds. Now, more than ever before, the United States is filled with people of all religions, cultures, ethnicities, and colors, and if an advertising team has trouble responding to that diversity, maybe it’s time to diversify the advertising team! Keep creatively resisting, Free Agents. See you next week.