Why is it so hard to see beauty in black bodies? Deconstructing the ideal standard of whiteness

Abdu Dia e Caetana Santos

Note from BW of Brazil: It is an honest and necessary question: Why is it so difficult to see beauty in black bodies? It is one of numerous questions that we in the black community must begin to address, acknowledge and deal with. Perhaps after making that first step of acknowledging that this belief system does exist among us, then we can move to the steps of understanding why our own people may carry views and then continue on to finding a remedy such thoughts.

In reality, this is not an issue that those of the dominant community ever consider, and why should they? When everything one sees suggests that the race of people in which you belong is the most beautiful, most intelligent, most powerful, most important and richest in the history of mankind, why would you even care to know how such assumptions and the imposition of such beliefs on all others might affect those who aren’t part of your tribe?

This is a question that I grapple with everyday as my little ones get a daily fix of nearly exclusive white images even in their childhood world of cartoons. Watching how these innocent children develop an adoration for the stream of blond, brunette, green and blue eyed, white-skinned characters of their favorite cartoons makes me wonder if I will one day have to deal with a rejection of their own appearance in favor of a certain phenotype that they will never have. I personally don’t think most of us really understand the depths of how such sinister indoctrination affects how we see ourselves and others who are our peers.

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A few of the cartoon characters my children ask for by name

Fron time to time, I read text by black Brazilian men and women who have come to terms with how this indoctrination has played out in their conscious and subconscious. One woman openly about disliking the appearance of her own sexual organ and professed her adoration of the pink organs of Caucasian males. Another revealed her practice of seeing herself as white, behaving as white and relating to whites to stay away from her blackness. Yet another admits to not liking being black, only identifying with white women, only having white friends and only liking meninos brancos (white boys). Her transition into a black identity would only happen when she began to see other black women, such as singer Negra Li, as being beautiful. 

The feelings and experiences of these women are very much common place in Brazil still today and as long as we are unable to see how we’ve all been manipulated to think in a certain manner and accept a certain (European) standard of beauty, it’s rather pointless to have a real discussion about the phenomenon of ‘palmitagem’. For before one can seek a cure for an illness, they must first understand that they have the illness, what the symptoms of the illness are and how they became infected by it. 

Let the discussions begin continue…

abdu - caetana

Why is it so hard to see beauty in black bodies?

by Ariel  Freitas and Camila Silva*

“Realizing something black as beautiful is a stone that strikes us. And how it strikes…”

How many times have you heard that beauty is personal taste and each individual has his own? I bet you’ve heard this in countless moments. Clarification from early on: the purpose of this publication is not to impose what we should consider beautiful or not, but to present the problems of such a shallow discourse.

This line of reasoning is flawed and quite lazy for the simple reason that we are embedded in a capitalist society that has always relied on racist pillars not to disrupt its system. With this in mind, the aesthetics of what is considered beautiful have always been directed towards corpos brancos (white bodies), since the risk of unbalancing the balance by presenting blacks as a reference in this area was unnecessary.

If the world connects the image of something beautiful as a white synonym, automatically our head will be aligned with this, without even questioning why.

Don’t you think of this as desperate? So let’s do an exercise. Imagine the scene: you are a criança negra (black child) who is constantly being bombarded with visual stimuli where everything is white. Actors, models, artists, cartoon characters… Everything!

Over time, you begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with you, because you can’t see yourself represented in almost anything. The seed of the desire to look like others is planted in you. And now what? What do you do?

Try to whiten your skin by washing it with laundry soap because someone said it would help? Decrease your black features, such as your nose, with clothes pin-like objects? Shave your head because yours is considered ugly or exotic? Hide your ears afraid of them being compared with fruits of a tree that are called monkey ears (tamboril)? Being a quiet person in school until they think you’re dumb because you’re afraid they’ll notice you? Or throwing everything in the air and being the violent guy in the class, because nobody messes with the bully?

This could be the story of any other black person who is reading this text, but it’s just my trajectory in elementary school. However, today’s text is focused on us and plurality and we will maintain this until the end.

This scenario is complicated because even when we are considered praise worthy for our appearance there are numerous issues behind it.

Black men in the concepts of a white beauty

In recent years we have noticed a greater attention from major media, such as television stations, the film universe and even the music scene in corpos negros (black bodies). The exaltation of these means is super important because it brings the representation that was mentioned at the beginning, but to what extent is it really a representation of something that was never represented?

Most bodies that gain attention along these lines follow the standard set by a Eurocentric culture and what they expect of us, black men. Examples? We have plenty.

On television, the actors who appear always carry the stereotype of violent man, vagrant or unfaithful man. We can’t consider this a representation because it directly affects our image and the concept our children are constructing about themselves.

In the cinematic universe, the movie Pantera Negra (Black Panther) brought a cast full of black actors and a lot of people felt represented. But we need to think about the kind of beauty and ideal body it brought: black men with many muscles and many scenes without a type of costume on the body – we may call it objectification and representation of black men who are not real. Do you happen to remember any plus size actors? If so, how many?

In the music scene the story is the same… If it is in the music business of rap, artists at first need to demonstrate an aggressive and controversial profile in the lyrics. Otherwise, they won’t have a space in the scenario. In the pagode (music), a good portion need to reproduce racist stereotypes in their music and so on.

The result of this is there: black men being called handsome by others, but failing to see that beauty in themselves. Sorry to leaving the plural again, but it’s cool to seek a piece of beauty when looking in the mirror only to prove to yourself that the comments of those who praise you is true.

Black women and the cruel bonds of a white aesthetic standard

“I have a hard time thinking of myself as pretty without makeup and with natural hair” – Camila Silva

It was a Wednesday. It was cold in Porto Alegre and I had a show to go to of the wonderful (singer) Larissa Luz. However, I had forgotten my bag of make-up at work, so I thought about not leaving home that night. This was just one of the days when I wondered about my difficulty seeing beauty, especially on my “clean” face.

It’s noteworthy that I am a mulher negra de pele clara (light-skinned black woman), but my nose is wide, my lips are thick and my hair is crespo (kinky/curly) and stands up. Looking at myself in the mirror, it seems that the sum of these factors does alter the result. Since that didn’t happen when my hair was straightened – I went through the hair transition three years ago.

My vision is very personal, these are factors that make it difficult to find myself beautiful, however, the discussion is universal among black women.

Why do we have difficulty seeing beauty in our faces and bodies? I know, you know, Ariel who wrote this text along with me too, we know. The standard is white and European. In recent years, we have been facing a series of processes – mostly linked to the acceptance of natural hair – that have helped pessoas negras (black people) see their beauty.

However, although we have advanced a lot in this matter, we know that this process is slow and gradual. In recent weeks, a search suggestion on Google has gone viral with a simple proposal: type tranças feias e tranças bonitas (ugly braids and pretty braids) in the search tab. The result? Those of black people are ugly and those of pessoas brancas (white people) are beautiful. This proves that we still have a ways to go win terms of natural hair.

The standards of social beauty are reproduced in media productions, which have a great influence on the formation of people’s opinions. How do you find a wide nose beautiful if models, actresses, TV hosts have a thin nose? How do you find cabelo crespo natural (natural kinky/curly hair) beautiful if for years we have been taught that beautiful is straight and flowing hair? Although we are the majority of the population.

From an early age I learned that hair with too much volume is ugly, wrong, outside of the standard. I have to exercise daily to go against what has been imposed on me for at least 20 years of my life. It’s difficult. We need to talk about it.

Aesthetics is one of the main mechanisms of “empowerment” (I use words in quotation marks here, as it is a correct expression that has been trivialized). In addition to seeing beauty in ourselves, we must observe this in black men.

The star of the movie Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan is used in posts, stories, advertising content as a reference for aesthetics. However, he has a “standard” face and body, the profile that white people find acceptable and fetishized. But what about black men who don’t have a standard body, wear natural hair and have pele retinta (very dark skin)?

Even among us black people, we need to deconstruct the ideal standard, which is often linked to fine features and thin bodies and to review our references. If most of us don’t descend from Europeans, we don’t have the same phenotype and genotype as these people, so why are they still our references?

The night I was finishing this text, I was reading Todos contra Todos, a book by historian Leandro Karnal. Despite being a white man, I will open a quote in this text for him, because the passage meets the proposal of this publication:

Brazil being the country of straight hair as a beauty standard says a lot about us, as much as choosing a woman like Gisele Bündchen as a symbol of national beauty at the Rio Olympics.

She is our uber model, beautiful and extremely professional and competent in what she does. But when we decide to take an exception – a beautiful woman of German origin – to symbolize national beauty, it’s because our aesthetic identity is still foreign, based on a particular model of northern Europe.

As a further reading, I recommend the text “Somos feias, mas estamos aqui” (“We Are Ugly, but We Are Here”) by the American writer of Haitian origin Edwidge Danticat.

It’s complicated for us because even when we are considered beautiful we need to absorb white features in our features.

* Ariel Freitas and Camila Silva are part of the collective Movimento Negritude nas Mídias (Blackness Movement in the Media) (MONEMI), a space where blacks from the capital of racial inequality debate issues of racism in society.

Source: Alma Preta

About Marques Travae 3491 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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