Imagine waking up every day and not looking like anyone around you, including your immediate family. Day after day watching a sea of faces at school, at church, in stores, on TV, and at home that looks nothing like you. You are the only one like you.
Sounds like an episode of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, where the storyline goes something like, the protagonist wakes up in an alternate reality, and everything is distorted or doesn’t make sense, and they are isolated and alone as they try to make sense of the world around them.
Well, this wasn’t a movie or a television show. This was my life for most of my formative years.
I am mixed—biracial—and more Halle Berry mixed than Halsey mixed. I identify and navigate the world as a Black woman, in part because that is how society views me and processes my existence. Growing up, my biological father, who isn’t American and is a parent of color, wasn’t involved at all in my life. In fact, I never even met him in person until, on my mother’s dime, I flew during one of my breaks home from college to his country and met him for the first time in my life. I’ve only seen him twice in person.
Without my biological father in my life, I grew up with my mother’s side of the family—my mother’s completely white side of the family. My mother’s family hails from small-town, homogenously white America, and this is where I grew up.
“A white aesthetic has historically been the standard that non-white women are held to when it comes to assessing their beauty, which is automatically a losing proposition for us.”
We live in a society that is ruled by how one looks. As much as we laud the importance of inner beauty, personality, accomplishment, and the like, too often what we are first judged by are our looks. In the United States, a white aesthetic has historically been the standard that non-white women are held to when it comes to assessing their beauty, which is automatically a losing proposition for us. For women of color, watching our hairstyles, fashion choices, and aesthetic be appropriated and glorified in mainstream society when worn by white women and demonized when women of color rock the same hairstyles, fashions, and aesthetic is a bitter pill to swallow.
Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that as a young girl of color, I struggled to find and understand beauty in myself.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I always felt accepted and loved by my family and my community. But I always stuck out like a sore thumb. School and family photos felt like a “Where’s Waldo” story where, to find me, you only had to pick out the one speck of pepper in the salt, which was pretty easy to do.
When I was young, being pretty didn’t matter much to me, as I was more engrossed in a mini-existential crisis wherein I found myself too often having to explain my existence to people. It felt at times as if I needed to justify my presence in white spaces—like the time when I was about 12 and rode my bike to a nearby ice cream stand, and while waiting in line, the man in front of me started giving me the third degree about where I was from, asking if I was a foster child, or if my mother was cleaning the house for someone around there and brought me along. When he didn’t like my responses (that I lived nearby) because I “couldn’t possibly be from his neighborhood,” it took standing my ground and explaining that indeed I was from his neighborhood while blinking back tears—and his wife, finally noticing this, admonishing him to “leave the poor child alone.”
Statements like “no, I am not adopted” or “no, I am not a foster child; this is my mother” were regular refrains when I was young. A few times I even told friends that my skin color was essentially a “permanent tan” so they would stop asking me about why I was brown when my parents were white. (When I was a baby, my mother married another man—a white man—who adopted me and raised me as his own.)
As a child, I would often closely examine my family members; my grandparents, my mother, my sisters, my cousins, recognizing the similarities between them but never really seeing myself reflected back in their faces. Looking at photos of my biological father did not spark any recognition of self either; it was like looking at a stranger because he was.
I listened to all types of music back then and ravenously consumed pop culture like all good tweens and teens do. I was exposed to images and representations of beautiful and famous Black women—Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Jada Pinkett, Nia Long, and others. But their aesthetic and beauty were foreign to me because the most influential women in my life were those closest to me, which made them all automatically beautiful in my eyes.
The challenge for me than was knowing that I could never look like them. My hair wasn’t straight and long but rather curly and deceptively short. Their eyes were blue or green; mine were honey brown. Their skin was white, and mine was bronze. At one point, I did try straightening my hair by relaxing it and was horribly burnt by the chemicals. That was in 10th grade and the last time I ever tried relaxing my hair.
At the time, I never thought of myself as attractive or unattractive. I was just me, and I worked with what I had. My friends and family did their best to build me up, telling me how cute I was or how nice I looked in the different ensembles I put together; apparently, I had my own special fashion and styling flair. I always appreciated the compliments but took the praise as them loving on me and didn’t take their words too seriously.
As I got older and boys started coming into the picture, I remember being told on countless occasions that I was “pretty for a Black girl.” I was and am always incredulous as to how those boys could truly believe that was a compliment. In my head, I always thought, what does that mean—am I pretty or not? Was I not supposed to be pretty because I was Black?
One boy told me to my face that even though he found me beautiful, he could never “bring me home” because his parents wouldn’t accept me. He said I would have to be on the level of the women in TLC (the popular ’90s to early ’00s R&B group) for him to “bring me home.” When he said that, I literally snorted and thought, “you wish” (because he never had a chance with me to begin with and presumed that I thought going home to meet his parents was some sort of privilege…it wasn’t), promptly exited the conversation, and never spoke to him again because I was so put off.
So, what ultimately helped me turn the corner and begin to recognize my beauty? I think it was a combination of things, the primary one being the intentional self-education I was undergoing.
As I matured, I recognized that my friends and family were pretty in their own right and that their type of beauty was simply the preferred societal aesthetic archetype. I also knew at a deep gut level that this aesthetic wasn’t meant for me. In some ways, this realization took the pressure to conform off of me during high school and allowed me to focus on other things. I understood early on that conformity in this sense was futile, and I made peace with it.
Because I had let go of the need to conform and didn’t spend as much time on how I looked, I dove headfirst into my passions, hobbies, and the activities that made me happiest—activities like student government, sports, marching and concert band, teen community improvisational theater, and many others. These activities helped me find my voice and enabled me to carve out my own little niche in the world.
One of the best parts of these activities was that they also exposed me to many people beyond the ethnically monolithic community I was being raised in. The people I met through these activities came from more diverse backgrounds and had different worldviews. They generously imparted some of those experiences and perspectives to me. This is when my perspective of the world began to expand. With this expanded worldview, I became able to look at myself with better eyes, which helped me contextualize and remove the lens of racism, which for too long tainted how I perceived myself.
As I began to learn about and explore other cultures and different standards of beauty, it led to an appreciation that beauty comes in many forms—including my own. Finding elements of myself in those other non-mainstream places helped me normalize that beauty didn’t have to be confined to the very narrow box society dictated.
“I knew at a deep gut level that this aesthetic wasn’t meant for me. In some ways, this realization took the pressure to conform off of me.”
I remember a specific day when I realized the shift had happened: I was performing a monologue at a group home for teen girls, my contemporaries at the time. The group was a mix of all races and backgrounds, as the home was based in the much larger capital city of my home state. That day, I put a little more time into how I looked because I wanted to look my best for my peers and because I was going to perform. As I was getting ready, I remember fully embracing my own unique style and liking what I saw when I caught reflections of myself in storefront windows.
The positive feelings I had about my appearance were confirmed when talking to the girls from the audience after the show. They were complimenting my hair, clothes—the best of what secondhand thrift stores could offer and a modest allowance could buy—earrings, and other accessories that I had put together. Even though I was talking incessantly with the girls, part of me was able to step back enough to realize in that moment that I was being “seen.” These girls were seeing me, the real me, the me that I saw when I looked at myself in the mirror. And I felt beautiful.
Thankfully, over the last several decades, women of color have been reclaiming their look, fashion, aesthetic, and style, and defining beauty standards for themselves. As a result, though slowly, the definition of who and what is considered beautiful in mainstream American society is changing.
Now when I reflect on those early years, I realize that being called “pretty for a Black girl” was an insult folded into a backhanded compliment and, more importantly, that I wasn’t pretty for a Black girl. I was pretty, period.
The greatest lesson from this period of my life that I carry with me to this day was the realization that I do not need to conform to unrealistic societal standards of beauty or the assessment of strangers to feel good about my looks. I am my own beauty standard, and if I feel pretty, then I am pretty.
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