I remember the first time I asked my mother to relax my hair—to chemically alter my natural texture to be straighter like the Christie dolls in my closet or the beautiful girls on TV. I remember her hesitation to apply a relaxer, as my hair was naturally healthy, thick and dynamic. Society told me that long, sleek hair was beautiful. I believed society.
My godmother called me “beauty” as a term of endearment, a result of my childhood fascination with “Beauty and the Beast” and her devotion to pouring into my self-love tank. Society told me that I couldn’t be as beautiful as a Disney princess until 2009. Even then, I’d spend most of my time as a frog.
I believed society.
The results of my Five Love Languages quiz suggested I invest in my self-worth with words of affirmation. I’d stare at my reflection in the mirror and repeat simple statements, like I am enough. Society told me that I had to alter some part of my authenticity to be deemed worthy of equality, empathy or inclusion.
Society told me that I had to alter some part of my authenticity to be deemed worthy of equality, empathy or inclusion.
I believed society.
It’s no surprise that I, a Black woman from Louisiana with average features and the shape of a high school boy, struggled with calling myself beautiful. Humans emulate what they see.
We see the European standard of beauty saturate the market. So consumers buy into it being the standard of beauty. We see a specific type of Black woman casted in commercials, print campaigns and movies. So society believes that this is the type of Black woman who is desirable. We see corporations employ tokenism—a passive effort to appear diverse— and we believe that it’s representation. Society’s message has been loud and wrong for too long.
I recently had this conversation with a close group of friends, and it was rather refreshing to feel seen and heard instead of yelling over voices that attempt to lessen our experiences. Our stories were different, but our sentiments were similar. Lack of representation can make differences feel like a disgrace.
Lack of representation can make differences feel like a disgrace.
One friend shared a story of how she told her mom that she needed to buy Pantene Pro V shampoo because of how the commercial depicted the women stepping out of the shower with long, silky straight hair. She remembered praying before getting in the shower that her hair would look like “white girl hair” after she washed and feeling disappointed to see it still curly.
Another friend recalled the first time she saw a young girl wear a hijab to school. She said it was mystifying, but she was too afraid to talk to her about it. Then, she got to know her. This experience exposed her to a beauty outside of the norm she was exposed to in her formative age.
She said, “If a beauty standard has remained the same for decades, maybe it’s time to take a look inside and wonder if the eye of the beholder is near-sighted.”
If a beauty standard has remained the same for decades, maybe it’s time to take a look inside and wonder if the eye of the beholder is near-sighted.
I haven’t stopped thinking about this statement since. Representation is affirmation. It tells individuals that they can, but it shouldn’t stop there. That’s how we settled with tokenism—a concept that should have been left in the 70s.
Authentic representation matters in redefining what is beautiful because it broadens our understanding and appreciation for differences. Our country is a melting pot of cultures and differences, and our definition of beauty should reflect that.
I’m not just referring to skin color. Authentic representation entails inclusion of diverse body types, cultures, individuals with disabilities and more. The more we are exposed to diversity, the more we open our minds to the beauty of individual differences. We all deserve that affirmation.
Why is diverse representation so important? How can this diversity have a positive impact on kids and their perception of beauty?
Image via Monica Choi