For my junior prom back in ‘98, I wanted one thing: a pair of Victoria’s Secret panties with a padded backside I’d found while flipping through the catalogue.
Ever since I’d entered high school, I was constantly teased for being too skinny — Black girls had thick thighs and big booties. But, I, a Black girl, had none of that. I did, however, have a crush on a Black guy from my school (who was also my prom date) who told me nobody Black would ever want to be with me because I “didn’t have a butt.”
My mom denied my request.
In my mind, though, I was trying to embrace the body I was “supposed” to have.
Battling white beauty ideals is something Black people have been doing since we were brought to these shores against our will. It was and continues to be a form of resistance — from maintaining culturally and historically significant hairstyles, like braids, twists, and headwraps, from the time of enslavement to the Black is Beautiful movement to present day, to celebrating features Euro-standards have shunned like fuller lips, wider hips, and darker skin.
Growing up as a Black girl in a world that upholds white skin, thin frames, and straight hair as the ultimate standard of beauty, there’s comfort in belonging to a community that preaches resisting these impossible ideals. But amidst the barrage of messages received outside of the community, hearing that your Black is beautiful from people you already know love and care about you isn’t always enough to prevent those hits to your self-esteem. The damage brought on by the purposeful lack of representation is real.
L’Oreal Thompson Payton, a Chicago-based writer, editor, and certified yoga instructor, was only a seventh grader when she prayed to God to make her white, so she would be beautiful.
“I feel like I can track a lot back to that pivotal late ‘90s/early 2000s time period when I was in middle school, [and] I was obsessed with teen magazines like YM, Teen People, and Seventeen,” the now 33-year-old shares. “Even though I grew up loving Brandy and Monica, ‘90s R&B, they never got quite the coverage in mainstream media that Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera] did. So, every month, when I got those magazines, it was a reminder of what I wasn’t.”
This idea that “white is right” is centuries old. According to NPR’s Is Beauty In The Eyes Of The Colonizer?, it stems from early racial theorists, white supremacist men who wanted to solidify as fact that white people were better than everyone at everything.
Proximity to whiteness is still seen as valuable in mainstream media and society. “White supremacy has impacted all of us,” L’Oreal explains, giving the modern natural hair movement as an example. The looser type of curl pattern is celebrated as the most coveted, while kinkier types are looked down upon and often ignored by hair brands, magazines, advertisements, and the community itself. And then there’s colorism — Black people with lighter skin are often deemed more beautiful and less threatening.
The overall goal of the Black community’s rejection of the white concept of beauty is similar to the messaging of The Body Positive’s This Is Beauty campaign: “Inhabiting our own beauty gives us a generous confidence that allows us to rest in knowing that we are fundamentally OK … By opening up this vision of possibility, we can become free from the paralysis caused by body hatred and can take the necessary steps to live fully, resist destructive messages from the world, and pursue attuned self-care independent of socially defined ideas about beauty, health, and identity.”
Despite this aim, though, the respite from white beauty ideals can turn into pressure to achieve a different set of standards, a set that may also be impossible for a specific Black body. Figuring out how and where you fit in can prove to be a complicated process amidst this dichotomy.
Merely disavowing one set of criteria for another isn’t the body positive movement it may initially appear to be. Truly embracing your own body is loving it as it was made for you, rather than for what someone else says it should be. Perhaps, as L’Oreal posits, “body positivity” isn’t even the right term for what we should be striving for at all.
“I think people refer to it as ‘body neutrality’ … just accepting your body for what it is and not having these unrealistic standards or definitions,” L’Oreal says. “The more we perpetuate those unrealistic ideals, it’s doing the same damage but differently.”
The journey toward overcoming white beauty standards and falling in love with your Black body can take a lifetime. “I don’t know if there’s a point that you ever arrive ‘cause I feel like there’s always changes and something else to learn and grow and embrace,” says L’Oreal. “You only get one body [and] it gives me so much joy seeing Black women be free and happy … the earlier we learn to embrace that, accept that, and live it out unapologetically, the better.”