The Brown Girl’s Dilemma: Beauty Standards, Media, and Colorism

It is 2011. ¬†Colorism should be a relic of ¬†America’s ugly racist past. Yet one look at Twitter or a BET video countdown and you will see that Black America’s internal struggle with complexion is still alive ¬†and thriving today. ¬†Hash tags of #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin abound in online social networks and this is sad. ¬†Media conceptions of Black beauty all to often fail to show its remarkable and brilliant diversity; this should change.

We all know that divisions around complexion were created  during slavery to further manipulate and conquer a stolen people.   However, I wonder why we continue to internalize such divisions to collective our detriment.

Today, I ¬†can say without any¬†reluctance¬†or shred of dishonesty that I for one love the brown skin I’m in. ¬†Yet complexion has informed my conception of myself for as long as I can remember. ¬† Whether it was growing up and questioning if my brown skin was really beautiful, or wishing for long silky hair; the issue of colorism crystallized¬†for me well before I could intellectualize it in a useful way.

At five-years-old I did not know about America’s tradition of slavery and legalized discrimination. Then “Jim Crow” would have sounded like a ¬†funny name for a Sesame Street character. ¬†However, I could observe and it was¬†made clear to me through film, television, and even family dynamics that light-skin was¬†preferable.

My father’s family were very dark-skinned people, and in contrast my maternal grandfather could have passed for white. ¬†This led to an interesting color politic between the various households I moved through. ¬† I grew up hearing¬†pejoratives and stereotypes¬†associated with both light and dark skin that¬†definitely¬†colored my self-perception and how I¬†perceived¬†others. Some of the¬†malarkey I¬†heard growing¬†up included stereotypes like: “dark-skinned” women are naturally¬†mean and could not be trusted. ¬†In contrast, “light-skinned” or “yella” women‚ÄĒthough¬†beautiful‚ÄĒwere¬†highfalutin. ¬† Children were embraced and doted on for their beauty ¬†based on their complexion. Light eyes and soft hair were rewarded, and dark skin and kinky hair were resultantly¬†penalized.

My grandma checked my ears at birth to either confirm or deny what my complexion was going to be. ¬†However, to be fair she was born in 1916 and a lot of her ideas around race were a product of being raised in a segregated South. ¬†My father once told me he wished I had his soft curly hair instead of my mother’s less than soft and curly hair. ¬†As a little girl, I can even remember asking my mother why I was so much darker than her, and expressing that I wished I was her complexion. ¬†It is memories like these that formed the foundation for my ¬†self-conception as a dark skinned Black woman.

School reinforced this¬†original¬†conception. ¬†When I played pretend with my schoolmates, we would imagine we were light-skinned with long hair. ¬†¬†In the 80’s and I would argue even now, fair-skinned beauties were the dominant representation of ¬†which Black was beautiful. ¬†We wanted to look like Vanessa L. Williams, Tracey Spencer, Pebbles, or The Good Girls.¬†From where I stood, the girls in school who were considered the most beautiful and popular were those with fairer skin and long hair. ¬†I am positive that this experience was felt entirely differently from the girls who embodied these traits. ¬†In fact, since my adolescent travails around color, I have talked to my girlfriends who have the light skin, the green eyes, the soft hair. ¬†Guess what? ¬†They experienced just has much hurt and color confusion from being¬†ostracized, stereotyped, and otherwise¬†harassed.

Dating ¬†in the DMV is always an interesting experiment in color politics. ¬†This area is probably more¬†susceptible to this kind of nonsense because of the¬†transient nature of the residents and ¬†the area’s historic ties to Black Bourgeoisie¬†or African-American elite. ¬†¬†As a very brown girl, I have had the experience of being told I was¬†beautiful–with the caveat. ¬†Those who have this experience know exactly what I mean. ¬†You know the whole “your pretty for a brown-skinned girl” or “I don’t usually date dark girls”¬†spiel. ¬†I frankly cannot stomach this kind of talk and it is an immediate turn off. It is fine to have a preference around what you find attractive; however, I would challenge those with these kinds of ideas about complexion to look at their own experience. I’d ask you to consider how much of what you deem attractive has been informed by the media, hip-hop, the beauty industry? ¬†¬†Similarly, I say to the women who say they want their kids to be light-skinned or have good hair, you are simply fueling a¬†disgusting¬†cycle of self-hate. ¬†Please stop.

You may have seen the trailer for the soon¬†to be¬†released¬†documentary film “Dark Girls”. ¬†The film‚ÄĒproduced by Bill Duke for Duke Media and D.¬†Channsin¬†Berry for Urban Winter Entertainment‚ÄĒ documents¬†dark-skinned African-American women recounting their painful experiences around their color. The amount of sadness, self-loathing, pain, and denial in this brief preview is demoralizing. ¬†Yet the film has ignited ¬†a long overdue public conversation around¬†colorism and intra-racism.

Ultimately, we need get away from these toxic and misinformed conceptions born of a racist past. ¬†We should not let this ugly tradition fuel what and who we are today. ¬†¬†Beauty is socially constructed and hence¬†can be¬†deconstructed. ¬†Accordingly, we need to start embracing various representations of Black beauty. ¬† However, if we look critically at this issue, I think more than diverse representations we will find the need for a¬†catharsis. ¬†The hurt caused around this issue is what troubles me more than anything. ¬†I hope that “Dark Girls” ¬†will be a platform for this.

So where do you stand on this complexion thing?   How has colorism affected your self-conception?  How does it affect your dating choices and options? Where do you see historic remnants of colorism playing out in our modern time?  Do you subscribe to the Team Light Skin and Team Dark Skin parodies? Do such attempts to make light of this obviously complex issue help or hurt the matter?

Diamonds are A Girl’s Best Friend: Naomi Campbell’s Blissful, Beautiful Ignorance

Naomi Campbell is a world-famous supermodel with money, power, access, and influence.¬† Over the span of her career she has clearly¬†lived¬†a life of privilege based¬†on the commodification of her physical beauty and her ability to market that as an asset.¬†¬† Ms. Campbell has garnered and actually leveraged a reputation as a world-class diva or bitch, depending on your point of view‚ÄĒlargely steeming from¬†her tendency to lose her cool and¬†launch objects at “the help”.¬†¬† The most recent spate of¬†¬†controversy to hit the glamazon involves her alleged receipt of blood diamonds from ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who is charged¬†with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in Sierra Leone’s civil war.¬† Campbell was summoned by the¬† war crimes tribunal to give evidence on the alleged exchange.¬†¬† Despite her initial¬†refusal to attend, Campbell was subsequently subpoenaed and gave 90 minutes of testimony that bordered between reluctant and blithely stupid.

As a Campbell fan‚ÄĒalbeit now wavering one‚ÄĒI was very troubled by the portions of her testimony I saw online and read in the press.¬† Her appearance at the trial of¬† the alleged war lord¬†was certainly an odd pairing in the world of pop-culture and international politics.¬† Yet, to come to such an event on the world stage with such a¬† callous¬† and indifferent demeanor was simply irresponsible.¬†¬† After arriving at the proceeds fashionably late but fashionable in a cr√®me brulee¬†ensemble and perfectly coiffed main, Ms. Campbell stated “I didn‚Äôt really want to be¬†here.¬† I was made¬†to be¬†here. Obviously I just want to get this over with and get on with my life. This is a major inconvenience for me.”

Some are reporting¬† that there were obvious gasps from the public gallery in response to this statement, no doubt a reflection of her seeming lack of concern for the larger context of¬†the day’s events.¬† If you watch the video, she generally seemed annoyed and put off by the entire proceedings, and spoke in a tone that suggested¬†that given her beauty, fame, fortune, and status she was really “above” the entire situation.¬† I suppose strolling down catwalks¬†and jet setting at white parties with Diddy¬†is more appealing that testifying before the Hague, but Campbell should¬†have shown some more dignity and class, as a citizen of the world but also as a person of African decent.¬† Suffice it to say,¬† I am quite sure the victims and surviving families of the bloodshed and other indignities of war¬†were at times inconvenienced, as well.

Campbell was born in the UK and had a rather posh upbringing.¬† Discovered at 15, her quick rise and phenomenal success in the fashion world put her in a social strata that perhaps shielded her from the realities of those struggling with war, famine,¬†and poverty‚ÄĒthough she has done work with Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund and other charities.

Throughout¬†her career she has been known to behave like a petulant child, but Ms. Campbell showed a real lack of respect for the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and those concerned¬†with their plight, with this most recent episode.¬†¬† Whereas I once regarded her as an icon of Black beauty in an industry¬†that has historically rewarded¬†the more¬†western beauty¬†aesthetic, I now wonder if Ms. Campbell is simply all style and no substance.¬†¬† During¬†one baffling exchange in her ¬†testimony she stated that she had never heard of Charles Taylor before, never heard of the Country Liberia before, and had never heard the term ‘blood diamonds’.¬† I mean even Kanye West had a song about Blood Diamond, perhaps he might fill her in on what she has clearly missed; I mean they do move in the same circles.

Now granted my knowledge of world events¬†is¬†grounded¬†in what I can learn reading the Washington Post, listening to PRIs¬†The World, and the second hour of Diane Rehm Friday newsround¬†up, but honestly¬†I pray Campbell is feigning ignorance on these series of¬† general world news factoids.¬† While Campbell may have very well not known what the “dirty little stones” being offered to her were, I truly doubt this is the case. I think Ms. Campbell was fully aware of what she was receiving, despite¬†the best impression of an empty-headed ignoramus she gave during her testimony.¬† I argue pleading ignorance perhaps allows her to keep the attention on her physical person, her bread and butter and keep it off those contents of character, like intelligence, morality, courage in the face of your greatest fears, honesty, and personal accountability.¬†¬† Ironically¬†these traits so readily describe¬†Nelson Mandela, Campbell’s¬†adopted grandfather and mentor in her philanthropic¬†activities.¬† So accordingly,¬†I¬†accept that¬†Campbell is not a Rhodes Scholar, and her role in society is not to make insightful world political commentary, but as¬†the fashionista¬†jet sets around the world, she could really benefit by learning more about it.

Come Here Baby: You Sexy Motherf%#$@

Maybe it’s because growing my hair out makes me look like Frederick Douglass or because I have been feeling just a bit unpretty lately (need to get my eyebrows waxed), but I was all fired up today when I stumbled ¬†upon a post entitled “Let’s Wait a While” on Sister Toldja’s blog The Beautiful Struggler.

The ¬†talented and‚ÄĒplease note‚ÄĒextremely attractive blogger was addressing her dismay at being referred to as “sexy” by a man she just met. In the post, her basic premise was that the term‚ÄĒas an immediate moniker‚ÄĒwas too forward and a bit too tawdry for her taste. ¬†She suggests the brothas need to slow the sexual innuendo down until a real connection is made. ¬†To affirm her opinion, she asked her Twitter followers, “if they were cool with being called ¬†sexy by a man shortly after meeting him.” ¬† Many responded that they were in fact not comfortable with the term sexy after an initial meeting.

Guess I am an outlier here, but I love being called sexy. ¬†And the closer I get to thirty, I notice this becomes a less frequent occurrence. ¬†So now when it happens‚ÄĒcall me a trash-box hooker a la Ne Ne Leakes to Kim Zoliak‚ÄĒbut I am flattered. ¬†Many men in the professional circles in DC are either so politically correct,¬† taken, disinterested, or otherwise neutered that good old fashion cat calling has gone the way of the 8-track. Quite frankly, you have to go to the hood to hear the long forgotten “heeeey seeexxxy” or the somewhat refined alternative “aaaay shawwwwty”. ¬†I guess it’s just the DC in me, but I am not offended, insulted, or otherwise put off by the term sexy.

I’m the cutish funny girl in my group, so the late bloomer in me cannot tap the resolute feminist part of myself when it comes to this question.  Many of my far more gorgeous sister friends were really put off by the idea of a virtual stranger calling them sexy.  They suggested that it was too forward or made the guy seem like he was after one thing.  One friend suggested that a guy who called her sexy of the top could not get any play at all.  Yikes,  brothers I feel sorry for you because these girls are playing hardball, so chose your words carefully.

However, a few equally divalicious gal pals suggested they had absolutely no problem with the term ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ. ¬†They considered it a compliment. ¬†To them I say here, here.

The¬† informal poll among my friends based on Sister Toldja‚Äôs ¬†question on the acceptability of “sexy” was about an even split between the ayes and nays. Yet, my suspicion is that the real answers for both groups lies somewhere not in the black in white but in that ever-present gray area.

Now…..if this guy calls you sexy after the initial meet; your probably going to be a little put off:

But somehow I suspect your tune changes, if this guys text you ‚Äúhey sexy‚ÄĚ:

Sister Toldja argues ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ is inappropriate on the jump because as a potential suitor ¬†‚Äúsex is a space you should be invited into‚ÄĚ.¬† On its face, I agree with that point. ¬†Many of us have long grown weary of having are hands or worst yet behinds grabbed in the alcohol drenched atmosphere of a bar or club.

Nevertheless, part of me feels with the ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ bruhaha that we are being just a tad bit overly analytical ladies. I highly doubt most guys who refer to you as sexy are looking to bed you in side of a minute–albeit the exception for the nasty uncle types. ¬†I mean most of the guys are insecure and probably think they are being flattering, when the acknowledge your desirability. ¬†That is of course not to say that men are not carnal, sexually driven, visual creatures by nature; yet I‚Äôm not convinced at least for me slowing down is the answer.

Over here, as thirty is getting the reach on me and I get a little more sore and a little less sexy each day; I will take all the sexy I can get. ¬†Bring sexy back, as far as I am concerned fellas. ¬†We rock are ‚Äúvery sexy‚ÄĚ Victoria Secret under armor, stilettos, and any number of sexy enhancing accouterments to bring the guys to the yard. ¬†Yet, when they get there we have a lot of rules and hang-ups about what they say. In its everyday use, ¬†I‚Äôm not convinced sexy is not necessarily¬† synonymous with wanting to lay it down. ¬†In contrast, I would argue that the term has become increasingly innocuous over time.

So what do we think ladies? ¬†Is ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ off limits or does it matter who is saying it? ¬†If your boothang calls you sexy is that cool? ¬†What about the guy at the bar or bus stop? ¬†Please take the poll below.

Black Barbie Dressed in Bulgari: Cleavage Baring Doll Draws Ire

As a child, I was an avid Barbie collector. Apart from my collection, Barbie dominated my everyday play. My friends and I would create fantastical scenarios for Barbie and her gal pals to act out.¬† A sanitized, multi-racial¬†Sex in the City, the dolls became¬†the celluloid¬†extension of our imaginary¬†adult selves; they dated, partied, shopped, and kicked it with the girls.¬†¬†Perhaps this is¬†why a recent story on the evening news about a collector Barbie drawing criticism from parents caught my attention.¬† The¬†African-American Barbie is part of the Barbie Basic collection.¬† The doll is clad in a tight black sheath dress that features a plunging¬†V-neckline, displaying plenty-o-cleavage.¬† While according to the Mattel website, the doll is intended¬†for the adult collector, parents our outraged with the sexy figurine.¬†¬† For her part, the designer‚ÄĒStacy McBride‚ÄĒdefends the look and says the dolls she designs are intended¬†to be a positive influence on young African-American girls. ¬†Criticism of Barbie‚Äôs anatomically‚ÄĒif not proportionally‚ÄĒrealistic frame and oft sexy wardrobe is not new.¬† However, I would suggest this Black Barbie is uniquely problematic at this cultural moment and for that reason deserves critique.

Michelle Obama, our sophisticated, elegant and graceful First Lady, was recently criticized for displaying too much d√©colletage at the White House State Dinner for Mexico‚Äôs president Felipe Calderon.¬† The criticism‚ÄĒmounted by Glenn Beck and others‚ÄĒwas unwarranted.¬† Lady Obama was stylish, modern, and fashion forward. I suspect much of this criticism reflects a general distaste in certain circles for the Obama‚Äôs, but also reeks of an attempt to marginalize Black female sexual agency. ¬†

In the same way, I wonder does the uproar over the Black Barbie purport a general distaste for Black female beauty and sexuality.¬† Such a critique could be found within and outside the Black community.¬† The Black feminine in the American narrative either highly sexualized or rampantly sexually negated; she is often subjected and without power or agency over her body or prostituting herself for money, cars, and clothes‚ÄĒSee For the Love of Ray-J.¬† The lack of a realistic portrayal of Black female sexuality in the mainstream makes this Barbie issue more complex. For example, the modern black feminine is highly sexualized in hip-hop culture, as Black video vixens¬†are surgically manipulating their bodies¬†to become Black Barbies.¬† Nicki Minaj‚ÄĒself-proclaimed‚ÄĒ Harajuku Barbie is an immediate example of this ironic trend.¬†

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie represents the idealized standard of American beauty.  Her buxom proportions and cinched waist line have informed and reflected what America considers beautiful.  Yet, Barbie has evolved over the years to be more ethnically diverse and inclusive.  Vogue Black from Italian Vogue features a lovely online pictorial and printed a catalogue of Black Barbies, in celebration of Barbie’s 50th anniversary.  However, the incarnation of the first African-American Barbie is storied:

¬†“Colored Francie”, first issued in 1967, was the first doll in the Mattel line with a truly dark complexion. However, the doll did not have genuinely African American¬†features, since it was made¬†with the same head molds as the Caucasian Francie doll. Because of this, a doll named Christie, first issued in 1968, is often considered the first true African American doll in the Barbie line.[1]

-Wikepedia Francie (Barbie) –

Black Barbie was launched in 1980 but still had white features. In September 2009, Mattel introduced the So In Style range, which was intended to create a more realistic depiction of black people than previous dolls.[21]

-Wikepedia Barbie –

All of the dolls in the Basic Barbie Collection are sexy.  They look like a cast of America’s Next Top Model.  They are racially diverse with an Asian, Latina, and two dolls of African descent. 

One of the Black dolls even sports a textured short ‚Äėdo‚ÄĒvery uncharacteristic for Barbie who is known for long, flowing, straight locks. ¬†The same doll is very darked-skinned, a nod to Mattel‚Äôs¬†efforts to include more diverse skin tones for African-American dolls.¬† They are more expensive than a traditional Barbie, but remain¬†accessible at a retail price of about $20 each.¬† If the dolls are being sold in the toy section of the local Wal-Mart, I would argue that perhaps the cleavage is a bit extreme.¬† However, I have noticed that the press photo of the doll is far more exposed than the one on the Mattel website.

With the preference for white beauty standards still being illustrated in doll test today, some 60 years after Jim Crow, one can see the value of beautifully diverse Black dolls.  If the dolls can indeed help a little Black girl feel more beautiful about herself than they can be useful teaching tools.   For instance, the Barbie So in Style line features African-American dolls with broad noses and full lips, more characteristic of African-American phenotypes.

In March, a Walmart¬†store in Louisiana caused a stir for selling a Black Barbie at half the price of White Barbie. The Black Barbie was $3 and the White, $5.93. Walmart¬†representatives said the dolls weren’t selling well, thus the price cut.¬† This suggests to me a devaluating of Black beauty that has long been the tradition of this nation. It is the problem that lies at the heart of this Barbie cleavage debacle.¬† ‚ÄúBlack is Beautiful‚ÄĚ has been decidedly up for interrogation from within and outside the Black community.¬† Therefore, expressions of Black beauty are uniquely exposed to critique and bound by a tortured historic context.¬†

The cleavage baring Barbie is absolutely ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ, but is she a ‚Äújezebel‚Ä̬†because she is Black?¬† Or can a sexy, beautiful Black doll be a change agent for American beauty conceptions? ¬†¬†Is such a such a doll marketable to the mainstream or does it remain the doll of last resort.


Hair Today Gone Tommorow…The Boldness of Baldness

Chrisette Michelle '"For Freedom, Not Beauty"

I did not exactly shave all my hair off ¬†last year, but I came really close.¬† I was going through a period of transition and I hastily¬†decided everything needed to be simplified.¬†¬† So I rushed to the barbershop and asked the wonderful barber, who remains my guy¬†’till this very day, to just shave it all off.¬†¬† He is so cute; I think I keep it low just to see him sometimes, but I digress.¬†¬† Cutting my hair¬† was a harrowing experience, but very freeing.¬† I looked at my little boy bald head and thought wow,¬† no hair.¬† Sitting in the barber chair, staring at my now huge eyes and prominent nose, I began to¬†questioned myself:¬† is this the same me?¬†¬† Can I be¬†pretty without hair?¬† Will men find me attractive?¬† The latter¬†concern was of course reinforced after¬† my dad protested my decision, saying¬†” Why would you do that?…Men don’t like¬†¬†women without hair”.

I’ll have him know that much to the contrary, I’ve found¬†many do.

When I shaved my hair, I was not making a political statement or seeking to adopt any trend; it was more about a personal journey.¬† Taking off your hair, as a woman is like removing a security blanket.¬† Society is so hair obsessed that opting out can be viewed as revolutionary, even if one’s motivations are purely economical.

While I was not out to subscribe to a particular counterculture beauty aesthetic, I got to tell you not having hair is truly liberating.  There is real freedom in not having to go the hair salon and sit under the dryer  for hours, or fuel the cream crack economy.   Yet, I am now facing a real conundrum: to grow back or not to grow back that is the question.   My confidence journey is well-played out now having been hairless for close to a year and I want options, but at the same time options can be costly in time and treasure.  Plus I love the way a new shave feels on my scalp. However, I tired of men rubbing my head at public events.  I am short and I think they feel warranted to do so.  Yet I am stating unequivocally that it is not endearing, but instead, very jarring; so please stop it!

Chrisette Michelle,¬†who recently decided to go low, has a wonderful poem¬†entitled¬†“For Freedom Not Beauty”¬†on her website .¬† The poem is about her choice to shorn her locks.¬†¬†In the poem, she asked the question, “Since when is creativity subject to criticism?”¬† In response to Michelle, I¬†would argue since the invention of “the critic”.¬†However, I too¬† was floored¬†when Solange Knowles was berated in the¬†and blogosphere last year¬†for her choice to shave off ¬†all her hair.

I found it odd folks were not happy with her “personal” choice.¬† Magazines accused her of doing a “Britney” and blogs were even more cruel.¬† Perhaps the criticism was because the original cut was such a hack job,or because she was¬†seen¬†in a wig at a public shortly after the bold move was made, or simply¬†because there is just a¬†lot of Solange resistance out there¬†(methinks misdirected anti-beyonce sentiment?)¬†.¬† In response Knowles stated:

“I guess you just go through different phases in your life. I was pretty much at the point where I needed the change and I needed to focus my energy on more productive arenas. I was putting too much into my appearance and I needed to make this about growth and going to the next stage of my life. I felt like I was being distracted by something as simple as hair.”

Here, here Solange.¬† Ironically, Solange’s sister, Beyonce¬†is responsible for a lot of what is going on with hair culture now in my opinion.¬† As pop-stars and celebutantes¬†like the Kardashians, Ciara, and Ms. B get these larger than life weaves, it sets unrealistic beauty standards in the real-world.¬† Women are getting all kinds of lace fronts, wigs, weaves, extensions to replicate¬†this idealized hair aesthetic and even it isn’t real.¬† It is certainly not a realistic beauty standard for a lot of Black women, who are so often told to embrace and emulate¬†western standards of attractiveness, if they want to be accepted.

Last year, I saw Chris Rock’s “Good Hair”¬†shortly after getting my haircut off and it made me feel even more empowered.¬† Watching the film, I learned hair is a big business and it is a business whose revenues are seen largely outside of the Black community. I try to support “Carol’s Daughter” and other black vendors with that thought in mind.¬† However, I need hair to buy black hair products — it is a predicament indeed.¬† So what should I do?¬† While I make my decision, its comforting knowing I have at least one fan.¬†¬† On the blog Beautiful Black Woman – Thoughts of a White B’woy, a site dedicated to uplifting and honoring the beauty of Black women around the world,¬†blogger Andreas post:

Fact: The only women that looks good in shaved/bald hair/head are the black women. This fact is strictly subjective and reflect¬†only my view. But hey, black bald women can be really fine! ūüôā

Hair today or gone tomorrow? I need your help.


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