When I was five years old and asked to draw a self-portrait in reception class, I drew myself with long, blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. In case you don’t already know what I look like, here is me aged five:
No blonde hair, no blue eyes, no white skin.
It was pointed out to me by a clearly more aware fellow pupil that the picture I had drawn of myself looked nothing like me. So that self-portrait turned out to be the first time I became aware of what I looked like; became aware that ‘I’ did not look like the white-skinned children in my class. My hair was different, my eyes were different, my skin was… dark.
And I remember being disappointed.
Because darkness – blackness – never, ever represented anything good. Fairy tale princesses were white – and they were beautiful. Nobody wanted to be the black sheep of the family. The darkness of the night-time represented fear and the unknown, while daytime brought lightness, safety and goodness.
In the 1980s, there were even fewer representations of beautiful black women in films and in the media than there are today.
At the time I was drawing my self-portrait, not much had changed since 1954 when the famous Clark Doll Experiment took place. In the experiment, held in Harlem in New York City, black children aged between six and nine were shown a black doll and a white doll and asked to choose between them based on which doll was the ‘nicest’ and which one they would prefer to play with. The majority chose the white doll. In a re-creation of the study in the mini-film A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis in Harlem in 2005, the situation hadn’t improved much. The black children still chose the white doll, and agreed the black doll ‘looked like them’ even though they identified it as being the ‘bad one’.
This feeling that black women are not beautiful is not just found in Western societies either. The number of skin-bleaching products available in Africa has increased significantly in recent years. The World Health Organization reports that 77 per cent of Nigerian women have used these potentially dangerous skin-bleaching products, while 59 per cent of those from Togo have, 35 per cent of South Africans and 25 per cent of Malians.
People are finally waking up to the fact that this is not ok. That beauty is found in all of God’s wonderfully diverse creation. That beauty is found in blonde hair and blue eyes and red hair and pale skin and brown hair and brown skin and black hair. And hourglasses and washboard stomachs and flat chests and long legs and ‘cankles’ and bingo wings and double chins and high cheekbones. That beauty cannot be defined solely by some narrow interpretation of culturally-relative biases towards certain traits. That Beauty comes from somewhere far greater.
But first we are addressing the hurt that so many of us have felt because we have believed we fall outside of these arbitrary standards. This heartbreaking trailer for upcoming US documentary Dark Girls shows the pain that so many black women have lived with, but have kept hidden for so long:
The film by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry explores the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin colour, particularly dark-skinned women, outside of and within black American culture.
This feeling that we do not fit into to a narrow definition of beauty lies deep within a woman’s psyche, regardless of her skin colour. Sometimes we look at ourselves and think that we are the ‘bad one’. That we are not good and that we are not beautiful; that the description ‘beautiful’ applies to someone else, despite our craving for it to be used to describe us. With every image, every doll we create that leads a little girl to think that she is not OK as she is, we are robbing her of her childhood. We are force-feeding her insecurity when, instead, she should be made to feel secure, at home in her own body.
Let’s make it our duty to ensure that no girl or woman feels that they fall outside the realms of beauty.