I love this. Jesi Taylor, a proud Black woman who has the skin condition Vitiligo, speaks about coming to a place of self acceptance, and gaining an appreciation of true beauty. I don’t have Vitiligo but I relate so much to her early hatred for her body, and the arduous journey of learning to love hers in a world that constantly sent signals to her that her body was wrong, weird… unacceptable. Listen to her lived-experience-earned wisdom:
I’ve written a lot about representation of bodies (specifically Black bodies) recently so I wanted to share some words I heard from writer/actor/director Lena Dunham during her interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club. She was asked by co-host Charlamagne Tha God about her portrayal of her own body on the show – what inspires her in this regard. One of the things I love about Lena Dunham is her, shall I say, double consciousness regarding her (totally normal) form. She has an awareness of the way her particular body is viewed in a sexist and misogynistic visual culture; at the same time, she has the ability to not give a fuck (most of the time… she’s still a human being). Here’s part of her response:
“I think I had this feeling like, I need to expose a body that I know so many women have […] there was this part of me that was just like ‘see me, and don’t just see me, see all the women who look like me and understand that this is what a female body is. Because what we see is not real. And we all know that. And I think we’re moving more in a direction of people wanting to be more open about what the human form looks like … but especially when we started Girls five years ago, people had violent reactions to seeing me naked, repulsed reactions. And it’s so crazy because probably half the guys who are so horrified by this, ‘this is what your girlfriend looks like, this is what your mother looks like, this is… a body.”
It is still astonishing to me how regressive a-holes responded (and respond) to Lena’s body on film… and it says so much about them, who they are… their ugliness. Dunham’s ability to face all of that misogynistic, dehumanising vitriol (from men and women) though is magnificent to behold; truly. I cannot think of another pop cultural figure in the last decade who has challenged and subverted the gaze as much as Lena has; been regularly denigrated for doing so, but powers on anyway… and I continue to love her for that. There is a reason she gets letters from young girls (and grown women) who feel empowered by her ease with herself in the face of a visual culture that not only routinely affirms the body-loathing of girls and women, but that attacks her body specifically. The way she handles all of that is genuinely, truly, beautiful.
Some more beauty right here.
Looking forward to Season 6.
Continuing yet again on a theme! I’m still thinking about representation of Black women in various types of visual media, so was happy to come across this clip.
It is The Grapevine – “a fresh and innovative take on the panel style discussion. The show places the topics of today in the hands and minds of young game changers, artists, cultural innovators, and professionals to dissect what the impact is for this generation.” Created by Ashley Akunna.
This episode on colourism was published last year. There are new episodes (published in the last few weeks) HERE.
Loved everyone aside from the lady in the mustard sweater who thinks we should just see the light skin/dark skin thing as a “preference” (the light skin equivalent to white “colourblindness” that ignores systemic political reality and favours wishful thinking) and who wondered out loud when Black people will all get to a place of unity; the response to her query from the lady leading the discussion was good.
As someone who has experienced both light skinned privilege AND been told I was too dark, who has been bullied for being perceived as light skinned from understandably wounded dark skinned girls AND been compared by other “un-woke” Black people to lighter skinned girls, can I echo the sentiments of one of the panellists and say that the lady in the mustard sweater really needs to stop getting her back up and check her light-skin privilege. Everyone’s pain is real with regards to shade shade, but there is a bigger context here. Praise to the other light skin ladies on the panel who understand that.
My other favourite response is at the 15:35 mark; lady talks about the reality of colourism, about overt and pervasive light-skinned privilege in visual media, and how a shift is starting to occur with dark-skinned “identifiably Black” women creating shows and media that lovingly centre such women.
I really love the contribution of the men to the discussion too. But I’m really not doing it justice, so just watch it here:
“I just want you to think critically about what we do with the Black female body; why we imagine some things and not others.”
– bell hooks, during her introduction to ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.’
It seems appropriate to post this talk, to continue on a theme 😉 I recently re-watched this 2014 panel discussion hosted by The New School (NYU) titled ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body’, and featuring bell hooks, author Marci Blackman (Tradition), film director Shola Lynch (Free Angela and All Political Prisoners), and author and activist Janet Mock (Redefining Realness). bell’s knowledge and provocations are great as always.
- I understand Janet Mock’s perspective that there is power for her in using glamour to affirm herself in the world, particularly as a Black trans* woman. But I am completely skeptical about her assertion that this is not done for “the male gaze” (when so much about the aesthetics of heterosexual femininity is about that. If heterosexual men and women found some flamboyant body adornment truly off putting, for example, I am skeptical that Janet and other women into feminine glamour would embrace it; we should acknowledge this). It should also be noted that in the past before publicly coming out as trans*, Janet was rarely read as a trans* woman unless she disclosed that she is; so adhering to the “standards” of cisgender femininity was also about safety, comfort, “passing”.
- I’d like to point out how stupid it is to not have a dark-skinned woman in this conversation; without it the conversation is skewed and incomplete.
- The Beyoncé TIME ‘Most Influential’ cover discussion – wow. The first time I watched this, I admit my reaction to bell’s use of the term “terrorist” to describe the images Bey puts out into mass culture was to immediately dismiss the hyperbole. But the context here is important; bell was talking about the impact on young girls (and their relationship to their own bodies). There is no doubt, for example, that Beyoncé benefits from colourism and her cultivated physical proximity to whiteness. What impact does this have on Black girls, experiencing racism in the overall culture and colourism in their own communities?
- bell’s point that the major assaults on feminism and women come from image making and visual media is TRUE. I appreciate her call for genuinely liberating image making (I am going to be hated for this, considering how problematic this person is, but Lena Dunham’s representation of her own body in HBO’s ‘Girls’ is liberating for a great many girls and young women because it is unheard of for a woman with her body type to be centred on a television show. She shows herself naked, she shows herself struggling to run, she shows herself compulsively snacking, she shows herself dancing, she shows herself having sex, she shows herself being loved by others… imperfect and real as she is. And she cops grief for it – see how much hateful and vitriolic abuse she gets for daring to be seen at all. She is a white woman and yet I find her representations 100 times more liberating than Beyoncé’s – even though I enjoy Beyoncé).
- I LOVE this from Shola Lynch, which I will just loosely transcribe, because it nails everything that I want to do:
“There’s a term that I discovered in college that is so relevant these days, it’s a feminist term for media studies, called ‘symbolic annihilation’. It is two things: one, not seeing yourself, and two, only seeing yourself denigrated, victimised, et cetera, and what that does to you. And I think that we can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze, and look for the images and the people and places that feed me. The more we create our culture – cultural images, the books you write, the films we make, the alternatives – these are artefacts that live, and they speak to people whether we are there or not. Bodies of work, that’s critical. [Shola tells a story of her young daughter, obsessed with blonde princesses and battling her naturally big hair, becoming proud of her “Angela Davis hair” after repeat viewings of her Angela Davis film]. So the more we create the alternative universe… which then creates the universe…” [end of comment]
- bell hooks talks about how the journey to freedom is also the journey of imagination; the capacity to imagine yourself differently… counter-hegemonically. Creativity and the uses of the imagination is what led each of the panellists to freedom and a self-defined life path; I love that.
- I love what Janet says about imagining she is worthy in a world that tells her she is unworthy; imagining that she deserves to have a book published, to be heard and seen, to take up as much space as she wants and to share a stage with bell hooks! Creating a foundation of self love and esteem in the face of adverse circumstances is both healing work AND a creative act. If you have to create a larger persona that you will eventually grow into, that is absolutely a creative act (I’m thinking of an interview I saw with Sampa the Great, an anti-hegemonic force if I ever saw one, who said her stage name was something she gave herself to grow into. She’s so dope.)
Last word from bell hooks:
“the incredible power of images. Image changes something. Little girls read ‘happy to be nappy’ and it changes something. We have to be about that work of creating the counter-hegemonic image in order for that transformation to take place.”
This short post follows on from my previous one, ‘ANTI-BLACKNESS/BLACK *BODIES* & THE ‘TOO PRETTY TO BE ABORIGINAL’ TALK.’
In that post, I identified anti-Blackness, anti-Black and non-mixed bodies, as the basis of the offensive, back-handed compliment “too pretty to be Aboriginal” and the superficial favour many people of colour who approximate whiteness (due to mixed ancestry, European ancestry) experience.
Sasha Sarago and Nayuka Gorrie had compelling presentations, Nayuka in particular (by that I mean many of her thoughts on the topic discussed applied to people of colour and the choices we make). Still, I could not help but think about Celeste Liddle‘s broad feminist critique of the ideas and assumptions that underpin the creation of things like Indigenous beauty pageants and modelling in general. If you don’t know who she is, look up her ‘Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist’ blog and her public writing.
If I was curating the event, I would have loved the Q&A session at the end of the two talks to be conducted by Celeste – for her to ask a few provocative questions herself, and then throw it open to the audience to put forth their questions. Celeste looks at things structurally and critiques the very notion of wanting to be pretty in the eyes of white and colonised folk – a really important idea that to me represents the next level of “wokeness” and decolonisation.
Here’s a quote of hers from this blog post: ‘I am very much of the “Audre Lorde” school of thought here whereby “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”. Buying into coloniser notions of blackness, as well as patriarchal notions of beauty is not going to change anything for the better in the long term.’
I enjoy beautiful (as defined within this culture) representations of people of colour, and appreciate how *individually* economically/self esteem empowering it can be for women of colour to capitalise on being able to conform to western standards of beauty or be attractive to/within the dominant culture. That said, Celeste is fucking right – *collectively* it doesn’t advance either people of colour or women generally. We can partake in the politics of western-defined beauty, and use it to empower ourselves as individuals, feel more confident and comfortable, et cetera. But we should not kid ourselves that this is liberation.
In Celeste’s blog post quoted from above, she also defends herself from (incorrect) accusations that by pointing out the flawed thinking behind beauty pageants she was committing “lateral violence”. I highly recommend reading it here.
BLACK BEAUTY, OR ‘BLACK™’ WESTERNISED BEAUTY?
One more thing… something that I thought about as Sasha and Nayuka discussed the gorgeous Black Aboriginal model from Yirrkala in North East Arnhem, Magnolia Maymuru; and representations of Aboriginal people/people of colour in media, magazines, and modelling shoots (including Sasha’s wonderful Ascension Magazine… read Magnolia’s extended interview in Ascension HERE). I wanted to ask them about it on the day but didn’t quite know how to phrase it concisely; I still don’t, so I’ll just put it here as an incomplete thought.
I enjoy consuming western-based ‘Black media’ – magazines, films, television, radio, podcasts, vloggers, and so forth. When it comes to ‘beauty’, I prefer (aesthetically and politically) natural Black hair and holistically focused Black media makers. My favourite Black beauty vlogger uses all natural and ethically sourced ingredients in her hair and body remedies, and though not against make-up, she does not wear it on a day-to-day basis (beating your face is fun, but time consuming and expensive). I find her work affirming and healthy – she emphasises health, feeling good from the inside but also embracing ones Black body as it is; that feels very Pro-Black (and Pro-Woman) to me. I also enjoy watching vloggers with physical differences (scars, physical conditions) who use make-up to empower themselves, and vloggers who use make-up to transform themselves into characters. It is fun, it is inspiring, it is art.
Scanning western BLACK™ media though, there are patterns of representation that, whilst presented as proudly Black, actually discourage and attempt to hide things that are, by genetics, hella Black: afro-kinky hair texture, skin tone, certain types of noses and facial features. I have seen so many tutorials made by and for Black women instructing how to use contour to make your nose appear more European like, westernised (it is never phrased in this way, but that is essentially what is being done). “How to make your nose look slimmer” tutorials. I have lost count of the number of tutorials in which Black women use a shade of foundation that is obviously lighter than their actual skin tone.
I watch and enjoy all of this (often playful) transformation, truly. But I also feel grossed out by some of it. I firmly believe in the power and importance of representation – and in particular, self representation – but it seems to me that even in self representations of Black people, particularly in more prominent magazines and on film, we shun physical Blackness in favour of Blackness™, a version of blackness that has “tamed” hair, evened out (with make-up or bleach or simply mixed genetics) skin tone, “prettier” (closer to white) noses. And I wonder whether we (in the West, particularly third culture Black kids) will get to a place where the bulk of our self representations as Black people will reject the projections of the coloniser regarding the genetically gifted traits that white supremacy and colourism denigrate and stigmatise… and fully embrace physical Blackness.
So last week I attended this talk by Sasha Sarago (Editor/Founder of Ascension Mag) and Nayuka Gorrie (activist and writer) – ‘Beauty & the Beast: Indigenous beauty decolonised’. This was the blurb for it:
“You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal. This is the abhorrent statement Aboriginal women are confronted with by everyday Australians. Where did this demoralising statement originate? How do Aboriginal women feel about this statement? This talk explores the objectification of Indigenous beauty via Australia’s colonial history. How beauty is viewed by Indigenous women and the rise of decolonisation – a global movement to reclaim the beauty inherent in Indigenous values and traditions, revived through contemporary mediums.”
I went along to the talk for two reasons in particular:
1) I have a mental crush on Nayuka and truly admire Sasha; and
2) I wanted to see if either speakers would identify anti-Blackness – anti-non-mixed black bodies, specifically – as the actual origin of the backhanded and offensive phrase “too pretty to be Aboriginal’.
Because I have been reading about and hearing the views of people of mixed heritage on this topic – COLOURISM – for a long time. And, sometimes, the conversation stays focused on the person of mixed heritage’s feelings regarding having their identity questioned, whilst the bodies being denigrated by such comments – the bodies of non-mixed Black/Indigenous people, women in particular – are not represented in the conversation at all.
As first speaker, Sasha Sarago gave an amazing breakdown of the complex, often traumatic historical reasons why many Aboriginal people are of mixed heritage today. The former model then spoke about being called, many times, “too pretty to be Aboriginal”. She explained how it feels to be on the receiving end of such ignorant comments; her explanation understandably focused on how such comments deny or question her proud Indigenous heritage.
However, it was odd to me that no connection was made between that offensive back-handed “compliment” and the other group of people being denigrated by such comments: non-mixed Aboriginal people’s bodies. Bodies that look as far from whiteness and the standards of western ‘beauty’ as possible. The “too pretty to be…” comment exists because Black bodies/features are stigmatised and devalued. It reflects the privileging of bodies that approximate PHYSICAL whiteness (or non-Aboriginality) more than the bodies that don’t; to not mention anti-Blackness in these conversations is therefore to miss the point.
Thankfully though, Nayuka did mention this, and made the connection. As second speaker, she discussed her experiences and interactions on dating App Tinder; she shared anecdotes about having her Aboriginality fetishised by (white) non-Aboriginal men. She talked about being complimented for her brown skin, green eyes, and other mixed features; crucially, though, Nayuka talked about how it is actually her “proximity to whiteness” as an Aboriginal woman of mixed heritage that these kinds of men are attracted to.
In essence, it is COLOURISM; a toxic physical offshoot of WHITE SUPREMACY.
Being the superstar that she is, Nayuka went on to explain how WHITE SUPREMACIST COLOURISM is deeply embedded not just in white people, but in Aboriginal people (and many colonised Black and Brown people in general, I would argue) too. The first time Nayuka heard the “too pretty to be Aboriginal” line, for example, was depressingly from a young Aboriginal man.
This toxin runs deep. It is the internalised white supremacy that PEOPLE OF COLOUR *ourselves* need to uproot and reckon with. In order to do this, physical anti-Blackness (anti-Black bodies, features, hair textures, skin tones and body shapes) needs to be IDENTIFIED and COUNTERED, always.
Correctly identifying physical anti-Blackness in the statement “too pretty to be a…” is part of that.
Nayuka discussed some ways she is doing the work of unlearning colourism and decolonising the way she sees Black bodies; they involve privileging BLACKNESS in her online and offline life. Surrounding yourself with images of Black & Indigenous people, consuming Black & Indigenous media, participating in Black & Indigenous culture, socialising with and loving Black & Indigenous people… is all a part of ridding oneself of the anti-Black conditioning of immersion in a white culture. Within which Black bodies are marginalised, tokenised, fetishised, stigmatised or simply erased.
And it is all so important. Truly. This may sound like a conversation about superficial beauty, but it is actually a conversation about UNLEARNING UNCONSCIOUS (and conscious) WHITE SUPREMACIST BIAS against Black and indigenous bodies – a bias many Black and Brown people also have.
So CENTERING BLACK AND BROWN BODIES – those bodies that do not approximate whiteness – is a way of countering the dehumanisation and denigration of non-white, non-mixed bodies. For decolonising Black and Brown people, it is affirming, empowering, anti-colourism, anti-racism work. We are not merely our bodies, and our identities need not even be related to our bodies… but the fact remains that bodies further away from whiteness are treated and regarded differently than others. The “unlearning” bias and colourism work is about shifting that paradigm and ensuring we are not replicating that toxic bias with what we create, and the choices we make.
That said, there were two counter-arguments that weren’t covered in the talk (or the ensuing Q&A session) that I will get into in my next post: the idea that collective empowerment of women of colour cannot come through beauty pageants and modelling, as Celeste Liddle has argued in the past (I basically agree); and that sometimes representations of Black and Brown beauty created by Black and Brown people can also be fairly conformist and “colonised”, aesthetically speaking (two really basic examples: the use of contour to make noses look thinner, and hair straightening and lightening for those of us with naturally afro-kinky hair.) To be continued soon 🙂
READ NEXT POST: Embracing the Black body (beyond the western aesthetic)
READ ADDITIONAL FOLLOW UP POST: Filed under ‘this is why we have to acknowledge anti-*Blackness* in Australia’
RELATED POST: Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body
Just wanted to share a few wonderful clips that have inspired me in the last 24 hours: women with physical differences and “abnormalities” who LOVE the shit out of themselves (as they should 🙂 ) This is what body acceptance look like. (Note: this has already been a week of dealing with ableism, racism, sexism and gender policing, which has left me weary and emotional, so I personally needed the reminder to sure up my own foundation).
1. “She’s built a solid foundation for self-love.”
This clip I saw via George Takei’s fb page; a young woman who lost all her limbs and sustained scarring as a result of bacterial meningitis, but found a way to love and enjoy her new form through make-up. Now her make-up tutorials on youtube inspire people to love and enjoy their own forms too (I am against “inspiration porn”, but this is different; a disabled woman representing herself and moving others in the process).
George wrote, “She’s built a solid foundation for self-love.” Such a foundation is essential.
2. “This is who I am. I’m different, and I’ve learned to accept it, fully.”
Three clips on the beautiful Harnaam Kaur. I love this woman so much. The British Sikh, appearance and body positivity activist has polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition she was diagnosed with as a child. One of the byproducts of it is excess body and facial hair. As a child and teenager she tried desperately to maintain a hair free appearance through shaving and waxing, but doing so harmed her body and did not stop the relentless, sadistic bullying that came. Upon reaching adulthood, Harnaam had had enough and wanted to just learn to love her body, as is. With the support of her incredible (and equally beautiful) brother Gurdeep, she did (he said, “As long as she’s happy, that’s all I really care about.”)
With that decision, Harnaam found a foundation of self love that continues to inspire people to nurture their own; people who see the light that she most definitely is in the world. It’s not that the whole world embraces her – she still gets stared at, vilified, and threatened both on and offline by damaged, ableist, misogynistic gender police for daring to just exist unapologetically in her body. But her foundation is so strong that they cannot crack it.
This is Harnaam’s story:
This is a Aisha Mirza music video collaboration Harnaam starred in: “fuck me or destroy me”.
And here Harnaam is doing a live feed for Cosmopolitan, telling her story, answering questions, and looking so damn cute (click on the picture to open the video link). She talks about how she enjoys her body and femininity through makeup and beard care, too:
And here’s a previously related post on my own (ongoing) journey to body acceptance and self love: ‘I will live the life of my dreams… in *this* body.’