For as long as society itself has existed, there have been standards of beauty. We see these standards reflected in magazines, on television shows, on the red carpets, and on the silver screen. In American culture, if you’re a 6-foot-tall woman, you don’t get to be cute. If you’re black, you don’t get to be lovely. And if you’re dark, you don’t get to be beautiful. With my particular DNA, I hit the trifecta.
Growing up as a ’90s kid, the media and my classmates were never slow in alerting me what the standards of beauty were, and how I was nowhere near that standard. Yet even though my self-esteem isn’t perfect (and has taken more than its fair share of blows), I still have managed to come out on the other side basically unscathed.
My mother. Tall ebony goddess that she is, by the time I was a teenager, my mother had already traversed many of the same stigmas I was soon to endure. She had grown to her full height—6 feet—by age 14. She was so tall, in fact, that her parents, fearing she had some sort of glandular issue or disease, put her in the hospital for testing. She was poked, prodded, and made to feel like a freak.
It’s more common these days for women to be so tall and to get that height all at once. I was 13 when I stopped growing at 5’11”. But back then, in the late ’60s, my mother was made to feel as if something was wrong with her. That experience made her teach me, however, that I was just right.
What was the underlying message she was telling her little black girl? That I, like her, was royalty; that we weren’t the norm—we exceeded the norm. That others were jealous because they didn’t get to be like us.
For as long as I could remember, one of the many mantras my mother would say was “I’m walking tall, looking good.” Seeing her doing that very thing—being proud of her height—well, it made me proud, too. I remember taking pleasure in being the tallest kid in class.
I also remember being baffled at seeing other girls who were also tall but would slouch and wear flat shoes, essentially denying their true height. It was like seeing the reverse actions of men who are average height—men who long to be 6 feet tall. Sometimes it seemed like nobody except me was content with their height.
Having grown up with the mentality that height is a delight, I comfortably wear three-inch heels and have no qualms about standing out in a crowd. In fact, I enjoy it. But that was the easy part. There were other things about my appearance that weren’t the standard: I wasn’t only tall; I was a dark-skinned black girl.
Every crush I had in grade school (and a huge chunk of high school) would end up liking one of my shorter, lighter pals. I was the “good friend,” the “funny friend”—never the romantic interest. I even recall one traumatic scene from seventh grade where there was a personality and looks survey, and I got all nines and 10s in personality, but nothing but fives and sixes and a couple of sevens in looks. My friends who were closer to the beauty standard received sevens and up. I just remember thinking, A seven is a 70; a 70 is a D. They think I’m a D?
One of the boys threw the paper across the room, and the teacher caught it. I remember Mr. Klein-Collins’s disappointment at seeing my name, along with a few other “good” students who participated in the vote, and gave us all a week’s worth of detention. What he didn’t know was that seeing my personal results was punishment enough.
But I knew, even all the way back then, that these kids weren’t seeing me. They were seeing my skin. The darker you are, the more unattractive you are. Or so they said. You know how that old saying goes: “If you’re yellow, you’re mellow. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re white, you’re alright. If you’re black, get back!”
My mother told me this saying was ever so popular when she was growing up. She didn’t believe the lies they told, and neither did I. It didn’t take all of the sting out, but it took out enough for me to know that it wasn’t me or my looks that were wrong.
Another thing my mother used to say to me that I recall quite fondly was, “If I hopped a plane to Africa right now, they’d put a crown on my head so fast your head would spin!” What was the underlying message she was telling her little black girl? That we were royalty; that we weren’t the norm—we exceeded the norm. That others were jealous because they didn’t get to be like us.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have my hang-ups, but I cannot stress how important it was to have those mantras and sayings—to have the mentality burned into my brain that I was awesome in spite of what people would say. These sayings had the same effect on me that mantras in meditation do—you repeat them so often that they become the truth.
People talk about online bullying and how harmful that is. I grew up in a time where people would flat-out tell you to your face how ugly you are (or worse). Without that foundation of self-esteem gifted to me by my mother, I don’t know that I would have survived. At the very least, I know that I wouldn’t be a tall, proud black woman.
No. I would have fallen victim to skin lighteners; I would not have embraced any part of my ethnic background and would have forsaken my West African roots in lieu of the delusion of being Native American or Egyptian. But I know who I am and where I came from. I stand tall and walk proud while looking good.
My mother told me many years ago about the royalty inside my DNA. My mother taught me to love myself. And I do.
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
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