By: Beverley Dias
As a child, my idea of beauty was formed and tainted by the West. Like a sponge, I soaked up the idea that pale skin and long hair were the markings of beauty and understood that any aesthete worth their salt, rated sharp noses and aqua – hued eyes as the ideal. The concept of beauty being in the eye of the beholder didn’t resonate in a world where the lines were so clearly marked. I was reared on flawless beauties like Snow White, Goldilocks and Rapunzel, fair maidens with long, flowing tresses, rose red cheeks and cherry lips. Even mythical creatures like mermaids, fairies and centaurs were Caucasian, nothing an ebony girl with kinky hair could relate to. Images on TV, in newspapers and magazines echoed this and even lived in my toy box, in the form of the ever- popular Barbie and my newborn baby doll. I remember someone asking a group of us children what we wanted to be when we grew up and a girl a few years my junior brazenly declared that she wanted to be a mlungu (White). I laughed at the silliness of her statement, because being older, I knew that her destiny didn’t hold this for her, but later in life, I realised that she had vocalised what many were too ashamed to. It didn’t leave their lips, but showed up externally in many ways.
At the time, we didn’t know about coloured contact lenses and weaves were but a dream, but women in our families were already “prettying” themselves with hydroquinone-based face creams. All hail the pioneers of colour blocking!! Our mothers, aunts and grannies had pale faces and necks, but alas, their original hues showed up on their arms, legs and hands like peeling paint on neglected houses. I used to be scared stiff by a neighbour who went from being a beautiful mahogany mama to having a peachy complexion. Her deception never stopped there, because she morphed from peach to crimson, and when I thought she didn’t have another trick to pull out of her bag, her cheeks started turning green, then her entire face went coal black. One day she just disappeared (Ok, I embellish! She became a hermit or a vampire, shying away from people and the sun). All in all, the desire to be White has plagued my people through the ages.
An era of light was ushered in by dark-skinned supermodels who proved that black really is beautiful, with the sultry Beverly Johnson and Iman. Not long after that, Naomi, Tyra, Alek and Oluchi were sashaying the world’s catwalks. Pam Grier owned the big screen as the no-nonsense-taking, ‘whole lot of woman’ Foxy Brown. Soon, Black women became a force and we saw their faces everywhere: in magazines, on TV, on the sports field, in boardrooms and in pageants, where they were were being acknowledged as real contenders. I think of the Jacqui Mofokengs and Basetsana Makgalemeles in South Africa and the amount of flak they took from the public. People were not ready to see that crown perched on nappy hair and they were unashamedly vocal about it. The first Black Miss USA, Vanessa Williams, was as close to White as possible and in my eyes, that wasn’t a step forward. I felt for her when the porn scandal broke and suspected she had been set up for failure before she even let the judges in on her strategy for world peace or what she would change if she were President for a day. The crown was stripped from her the same way she had stripped down for that centrefold feature. It landed firmly on the head of her runner up.
Flawlessness was a pipe dream for many Black women, as beauty houses didn’t cater for our earthy tones. This soon changed and beauty counters were laden with magic, the colour of Africa’s backdrop, to enhance the beauty of the daughters of the soil. Even though Black don’t crack, this was a giant leap for womankind and we rejoiced. In recent years, brands catering specifically to African skin have emerged, giving us the options we so desperately needed. MAC, Black Opal and Black Up gave women like myself options. We also saw beauty and fashion empires give respect to Black women and it felt like a giant step for (Black) womankind. Lerato Modise became the Elizabeth Arden goddess, Beyoncé was Tommy Hilfiger’s muse, Connie Ferguson became the face of Garnier and Bonang is the gorgeous face on Revlon billboards.
The beauty standard according to the West is thin with sharp edges, but Nubian godesses are thick and curvy. Hip hop culture has played a huge role in making us understand that ‘junk in your trunk’ bootylicious-ness is where it’s at. These wordsmiths pay homage to every curve on an African goddess’s anatomy. Figure like a trigger, bum like a drum, Coke bottle body and other juicy phrases were coined by saggy-jeaned geniuses who appreciated the hills and valleys of the Black woman. If only Sarah Baartman had lived in these times. Sigh!
Sadly, we are a ten-steps-forward-five-steps-back society and when terms like ‘yellow bone’ are thrown around, I recede into my shell. We’ve come so far, yet we keep looking back. The African Renaissance taught us that beauty comes in all colours, shapes and sizes, yet we are willingly being drawn back. Skin lighteners are making their appearance on shelves and my sister’s are becoming chameleons, camouflaging their true beauty and taking on the colour of the images which oppress them.