Beauty Standards

It is revealing that the prestigious CBS news program “60 Minutes” recently published an article highlighting actress Aishwarya Rai as, perhaps, the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman.” Not surprising, Miss Rai is a very light-skinned woman from India with sharp Caucasian-like features. The article also makes reference to White women of the past who were (and are) projected as the epitome of beauty and refinement. Women like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Elizabeth Taylor.

The problem with this perspective is that it reeks with racism in that it assumes that White women (or those that look White) are the standard bearers for beauty and attractiveness and it makes these assumptions at the expense, neglect and denigration of the multitudes of Black women (in particular) and women of color(in general) through out the world. It is also disturbing because it is done without even a hint of the offensiveness and utter absurdity of it all.

It is as if the White media has become so enamored with the truth of its propaganda and so confident of its effectiveness on the psyches of other races and ethnic groups that it does not hesitate to make these ridiculous and arrogant declarations. And it does so over and over again.

Periodically, magazines and periodicals will announce in bold headlines that some White woman is the “World’s Most Beautiful” or that some White man is “The Sexiest Man Alive” thereby insinuating that Whites alone occupy the precipice of unrivaled beauty and desirability.

There is an old cliche’ which cuts to the heart of the matter. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or perhaps more accurately, it could be said that beauty is in the mind of the beholder for it is within the mind that all perception, whether the sense of sight, taste, touch, smell or hearing are registered and conceived. Thus while Aishwarya Rai or Grace Kelly or Britney Spears, etc. may be quite beautiful to some, they may also be quite homely, ugly or repulsive to others who possess different standards of beauty and physical attractiveness.

Moreover beauty standards are perceived according to the cultural norms that people are accustomed to and this has a great influence on how the attractiveness of a person is perceived. For example the cultural norms and beauty standards of the Masai in Africa are different from that of the Eskimos in Alaska. And a woman or man ( regardless of how comely their outward appearance) would be considered repulsive if they exhibited inappropriate behavior in the morally straight-laced culture of the Middle East or even within some devout religious communities within America itself.

Black Americans, perhaps more than anyone else, carry a heavier psychological burden. The mental damage of centuries of bombardment with Euro-American standards of beauty has had tremendous impact on how we view ourselves within what is essentially an alien White culture.

During chattel slavery (and afterwards) we were brainwashed into thinking of anything naturally Black or African as ugly, repulsive or inferior while considering everything White, European or Caucasion as appealing, attractive and desirable. This is probably most noticeable when it pertains to Black women and their hair. Author Earl Ofari Hutchinson writes:

“…few things generate more anger and passion among Black women than their hair. Some Black critics say that women are in a frenzied search to shed the ancient racist shame and stigma of “nappy hair=bad hair” by aping White beauty standards. Others say that, like many non-Black women, Black women are helpless captives of America’s fashion and beauty industry, which is geared to making them more attractive and pleasing to men. Many Black women counter this by saying that they merely seeking their own identity or trying to “look better.”[1]

Yet this desire to “look better” frequently manifests itself in strange ways. One of the more noticeable is the artificial straightening of the God-given texture of their hair so that it will resemble that of Whites, or any group or grade other than their own lamb-like quality of hair. A hair which ( contrary to most grades) is not weak and flaccid but beautifully spirals upwards toward the sun.

The desire of Black women (and to a lesser extent Black men) to straighten their hair was prompted by a mental bombardment that caused a change in the most sacred and fundamental regions of the Black psyche. This warping of the Black perspective was successful only after the most terrible and tortuous process of brainwashing over a duration of centuries.

Black people were whitewashed into believing that everything African or Black was inferior, backward and ugly, while everything White or Caucasion was superior, beautiful and desirable. Yet this perceptual distortion could not be effective without a kind of mental slight-of-hand regarding the historical and cultural validity of Africa and African “Black” beauty standards. Black people were ingrained with a sense of inferiority. They were persuaded in hundreds of ways, by beatings, whippings and by the most vicious verbal, and physical castigations that they were ugly. Thus those African traits and characteristics which had been naturally beautiful and adorable among them for hundreds of thousands of years began to perceived as ugly, be it the color and curl of the hair, the shape of the nose, the fullness of the lips, the darkness of the skin or the fullness of the posterity. They all (instead of manifestations of strength, vigor and beauty) became transformed into badges of shame, rejection, ridicule and hatred. Brother Olomenji explains in the essay, Mentacide, Genocide, and National Vision:

“The Black slave in America views the world through his master’s eyes, which is why our belief system is not ‘ours’ but rather that of the slave master. How a race perceives the world will determine what that race will think and believe about the world, which will determine what the race will do about the world. One of major problems with this slave mentality is that it is made up of learned perceptions, learned belief systems, and learned behavior taught to us over 400 years of slavery.” [2]

The recipient of an insidious forced/ learned behavior, our minds were methodically crippled into a state of insanity. This insanity was activated when we merged our perceptions with the perceptions of our White oppressors and exploiters at the expense of our own Black empowerment, liberation and salvation. We were force-fed the poison of White racism into our minds and we began to look at the world (and ourselves) through strange, inverted glasses. And our world, the marvelous world of Blackness, the African world of strength and beauty; was effectively turned upside down and we began to believe the lies and to accept them as facts and (even more devastating) we began to assault the minds and the spirits of our children with the bitterness of our self-hatred. We threatened in our fits of anger, to “beat all the Black” off of them. We told our daughters and our sons to do something with their “ugly nappy head” or we threatened to “slap all the naps off” their heads. And in doing this to our children to our men and to our women, we adopted the mind-set of our enslavers and our enemies and we passed this sickness down from one generation to the next and it is still with us now. It weighs down our steps, divides us and blinds us to the immeasurable power that is still inherent (even after centuries of chattel slavery, genocide and mentacide) within us. Power which manifest itself in people like Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, George Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Dr. Ben Carson, Louis Farrakhan, Dr. Claude Anderson, and Harriet Tubman, Cynthia McKinney, Maxine Waters, JoAnn Watson, and countless others.

The antidote for the venom of delusional self-hatred is knowledge of self which will inculcate within us a vision of who we were, who we are, and where we need to go. This vision is jump-started with a understanding of our history. For our history is not something that is to be discarded as usleless, worthless or obsolete, but is vital to our very survival as a people. Amos N Wilson writes in his book, The Falsification of Afrikan Consciousness:

“When we get into social amnesia – into forgetting our history – we also forget or misinterpret the history and motives of others as well as our motives. The way to learn of our own creation, how we came to be what we are, is getting to know ourselves. It is through getting to know the self intimately that we get to know the forces that shaped us as a self. Therefore knowing the self becomes a knowledge of the world. A deep study of Black History is the most profound way to learn about the psychology of Europeans and to understand the psychology that flows from their history.

If we don’t know ourselves, not only are we a puzzle to ourselves; other people are also a puzzle to us as well. We assume the wrong identity and identify ourselves with our enemies. If we don’t know who we are then we are whomever somebody tells us we are.”[3]

Thus a process of love and appreciation for self (especially our women) and group identity must be rejuvenated and maintained in every aspect of our lives. We must once again see the world through African eyes and rejoice in our Blackness and be in harmony with the Creator that fashioned us with our unique physical, mental and spiritual abilities and perceptions. Brother Akil writes:

“So my dear sisters, please be your Black self and keep your natural Black beauty, because God didn’t make a mistake. God didn’t make a mistake when making your strong, bold, and beautiful naps as opposed to weak, limp, and lifeless strands of hair. Your Creator made your beauty naturally unique! Your Creator wanted your Black natural beauty to stand out amongst the peoples of the world.” [4]

Notes and References:

[1] “Why African Americans Are Splitting Hairs Over Hair,” by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, accessible online at: hair.html

[2] Olemenje, “Mentacide, Genocide, and National Vision,” Africa World Press, Inc. (1996) p. 74

[3] Amos N Wilson, “The Falsification of Afrikan Consciousness,” Afrikan World InfoSystems, New York (1993) p. 38

[4] Akil, Nia Communications/Press (1993) p.p. 35,36