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Diahanne Rhiney's picture
Diahanne Rhiney
Ain't I beautiful?

CHALLENGES : Tennis champ Serena Williams

IN MY last article 'Ain't I A Woman?', I addressed the prominence of the misrepresentation of black women via the 'angry black woman' myth that has plagued mind-sets for centuries.

Unfortunately, there is another side to this bad penny; the issue of our physical misrepresentation. Co-incidentally, just three days ago Serena Williams spoke openly about the challenges she has faced from not fulfilling the archetypal 'model' appearance of tennis-playing counterparts such as Maria Sharapova.

Williams stormed into our midst as world tennis champion in 2002 and was instantly met with a media bombardment of physical criticisms and derogatory terminology.

Unlike her many petite predecessors, Williams was 1.75m of sheer muscle. Her body was what most would consider an athletic frame. Yet, when her professional peers were offered endorsements and modelling contracts, Williams was labelled as 'butch', 'masculine', 'Amazonian' and 'fat'; She simply did not conform to the European standards of beauty. What is now known as 'body shaming' was a normalcy for Williams.

In much the same manner that Williams has been unfairly portrayed as an aggressive and angry black woman; her physical representation has proven to be even more offensive. Now, at 33 years old, Serena has finally accepted her body shape saying. 'Ihad to come to terms with loving myself, I had to find different role models.'

When I first entered modelling, I was something of a rarity. I quickly learned that the physical features my parents had raised me to believe were beautiful were expected to be toned down and diluted for the modelling world. I was weighed every week; which in turn forced me to doubt the beauty of my naturally tall, lean, curvy African physique from a very young age. What is deeply concerning is that there has not been nearly as much progress as one might think or hope for.

As recently as two months ago, supermodel Jourdan Dunn spoke yet again about her experiences of being turned away from castings and shows because the client 'didn't want any more black girls'. She also shared an incident in which a white make-up artist refused to work on her because she was black. Constant magazine skin-lightening, and Photoshop editing that presents black actresses and singers with thinner noses and lighter eyes means that we are still asking the question: who defines beauty?

Yes, as black women we come in all different shapes and sizes, but generally speaking the modern beauty ideals of Gwyneth Paltrow and Iggy Azalea are impossible to attain for black women. Our curves are not meant for 'sample sized' clothing, our hair comes in all textures and shapes from tight Afro curls to loose kinks and curls.

The floppy blonde 'bed head' popularised as a beauty ideal by Kate moss, is not a natural look for us.

At the start of the year, Cosmopolitan magazine released a feature entitled '21 beauty trends that need to die in 2015'. The accompanying image (as shown above) clearly gave four black and ethnic models, actresses and singers as examples of 'dead' trends, next to four white counterparts presented as 'gorgeous'. An estimated 20 million readers avidly purchase and follow Cosmo's fashion rules. The message this sends to young women is deeply concerning.

In Hollywood, his year has also seen gorgeous and talented two-time Academy Award winning actress Viola Davis forced to speak out after New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley labelled her as "less classically beautiful" (she also called Shonda Rhimes an 'angry black woman'). Davis responded with this succinct and spot-on statement:

"I think that beauty is subjective. I’ve heard that statement my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman, you heard it from the womb. And 'classically not beautiful' is a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you. Now ... it worked when I was younger. It no longer works for me now. It’s about teaching a culture how to treat you. Because at the end of the day, you define you."


To me, the saddest part of this issue is that we have bought into these myths 'hook, line and sinker' and on a massively global scale. The simple reason for this is that beauty ideals and standards have, for centuries, been shaped by a European agenda.

"Who taught yourself to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin? Who taught you to hate yourself from the tops of your head to the soles of your feet?" - Malcolm X

Part of the 'divide and conquer' method used by colonialists and slave masters, was to make Africans believe they were inferior in every way. From dark eyes and broad noses, to brown/black skins and unique body shapes, colonialism quickly promoted the myth that Caucasian features were superior. It was a crucial ploy in damaging African self-belief and confidence. The more they pushed this agenda was the more successful their campaign to defeat an entire people both mentally and physically became. Sadly, their success was so great that the impact has remained centuries on.

Blue eyes, pale skin and blonde hair are still very much coveted features within the diaspora. The modern phenomenon of skin bleaching is just another major example of this.

'The promotion of fallacious insecurities has been so lucrative that the $832mn cosmetics industry surmises that ‘Anti-ageing’ profits burgeoned by 46 per cent between 2010-15. The presence of melanin, collagen and high levels of elasticity in African skin makes Black women a tough sale for so-called age-defying products. However, the beauty industry breathes a sigh of relief at having branded and packaged a different fictitious flaw that must be eradicated: blackness. D. Maison

Skin bleaching is big business. It is a multi-billion dollar industry and It is also a lethal one. Laced with steroids and cortisone, mercury and hydroquinone (so dangerous it is now an illegal substance); peeling skin, rashes, boils, ulcers, hair growth, and skin cancer are just a few of the consequences. In 2014, a Nigerian and Cameroonian pop star cashed in on skin bleaching by launching a skin cream called Whitenicious. Who can forget the mother featured on The Tyra Show a few years ago who confessed to lathering her children's skin in bleaching cream everyday before school? This is just the tip of the iceberg.

We must start to wholeheartedly believe in the beauty of blackness. 'Whitewashed' and 'anglicized' images of black celebrities just aren't acceptable in 2015. We desperately need embrace our natural body shapes, hair textures and skin shades. As long as beauty ideals are dictated to the diaspora, the need to conform to these impossible and damaging standards will live on for generations to come. Like Viola said, 'beauty is subjective'; isn't it high time we influenced, and embraced, our own standards of beauty? I certainly think so.

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