Black like Beyoncé

2012-02-13 00:00

BEAUTY is a contentious issue and like an age-old saying goes, it is really in the eyes of the beholder. Back in my high school days, a friend set me up on a blind date with her brother. We all had to go and watch the film Scream on a Saturday night. She had a boyfriend, and her brother and I were both single, and wanted to see the movie. So she figured why not double date it: dinner and a movie, what could be more perfect than that?

Before the brother went along with the plan, he asked my friend one very important question, after the obvious: “Is she pretty or not?” inquiry.

My friend told him that I am black. He then asked: “How black is she? Is she Mariah Carey black or Whitney Houston black?” My friend replied: “She’s Whitney Houston black.”

He said yes.

I passed the test and got myself a date. You should have seen the giant sense of relief when my friend told me he had agreed. I felt as though I could exhale a breath I had not realised I had been holding.

My friend could not hide her excitement, and when she delivered the good news that I had made it, pretty enough to get a date and at the same time brown enough to be considered pretty, likeable, and datable.

If I had been any darker, I would have been sitting all alone in my room that Saturday night. Talk about dodging a bullet.

I think of this every time Halle Berry is voted one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, or whenever Zoe Saldana nabs another role in a blockbuster, or when I see Beyoncé grace the cover of another white fashion magazine.

Truth be told, there is a subliminal pop-culture message that yes, black is beautiful, just so long as the blackness in question is not darker than a brown paper bag.

The phrase “a white girl dipped in chocolate” comes to mind. That kind of message goes deeper than skin deep, it sinks into one’s bones. It pricks holes into the idea of self-love and self-worth.

This is not news. It has in fact, been happening since slavery. Since the house slave versus the field slave, since “passing” and since it was understood that white is the only standard anyone could or should reach for, and the closer the better. This explains why some women of colour have gone on to bleach their skins.

As a race, black people are still recovering from the trauma of slavery. The wounds are deep in our psyche. Yet, one could argue that things are changing. There are different shades of black women who are now represented in pop culture.

The quality and nature of their representation comes into question. Whenever a darker-skinned black woman is represented, she is usually the ghettoised evil or bad character in a film. She is “Africanised” in a fashion magazine, or she is a one- dimensional cartoon cutout.

White people do not need to search as hard for accurate representations of people who look like them in popular culture because they see various versions of themselves all the time. It is the emotional equivalent of never being short of breath because, arguably, white people have the privilege of air all around them at all times.

Black women are always out of breath, and can only live in hope for that opportunity when they can exhale that deep breath that they are holding. However, black women have to refuse the lie that they are told about themselves. The narrow and limiting definitions of what is beautiful is stifling and damaging to how we see ourselves and, moreso, in how we love ourselves.

Dialogue to re-educate against our own internalised concepts of beauty and rejecting the white pop culture is taking place in society. Through production of such ­documentaries as Shadeism by ­Nayani Vathsaladevi-Thiyagararjah and blogs, women are now able to redefine what beauty is, and not necessarily by the parameters set by the media and society.

Black women and women of colour must love themselves whole-heartedly and accept the beautiful shades of our skins. Not any more should we have young women who need other people to affirm and define their beauty like that woman in me back in high school.

• Dainty Smith is a Jamaican-Canadian freelance writer. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday issues.

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