I grew up on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, surrounded by the idea that white skin, light, blonde hair and blue eyes were the most attractive features you could possess. Yeah, I know, weird. Especially because I grew up surrounded by brown and black Latinos that were still sold on the idea that lighter skin and Barbie-like hair was what was appealing. Meaning that it was really difficult for us to appreciate the beauty in our skin, the beauty in our afro, kinky, curly hair, and the hips that come with it. Foreign was better and foreign was white.
Trinidadian artist Boscoe Holder (1921 – 2007)
When I turned on the TV growing up, most women in soap operas, and even news channels were white. When I looked in magazines, most women were thin and blonde. My curvy, full of acne, brown body wasn’t like anything I saw in any form of media. The girls from school that got all the attention were the ones that had lighter skin and straight hair. For a while, I wondered if I could ever feel beautiful in my skin because most of the women I knew didn’t feel comfortable with how they looked. And how could they? When everyone was telling them otherwise. Our bodies, my body, became something I needed to fix. I needed to stay away from the sun so I wouldn’t get darker, I needed to eat less so my hips and my butt wouldn’t look vulgar in shorts and I needed to get my hair straightened every week, so my face would look “softer.”
by Rich Mnisi
For years, I believed that my body needed “fixing”. And although I never fully believed the ideas that whiter/lighter skin/hair was more beautiful, I somehow still did all those things to please the people of my hometown. Things shifted a little bit when I moved away from the Caribbean coast in Colombia and started letting my hair be natural “just to see what it would look like.” Also, I slowly started spending more time at the beach, and this time without hiding in the shade. Recently, I’ve begun to accept that having big hips and butt is a thing that comes with my body and unless I want to live at the gym, I probably won’t get rid of them. In a way, I’ve started to like them.
Nowadays, I don’t live in my hometown, and fortunately, things are slowly changing in the media too. Dark skinned women like Duckie Thot and Joan Smalls, among others, are considered beautiful. Every day we see women of color on tv, magazines, Instagram, and movies. It was a slow process that, to be honest, I didn’t notice until there was an effort to make media more inclusive. Suddenly I was seeing women celebrated by the color of their skin and their curly and afro hair. The result was that at first, I could slowly feel more like myself. It sounds weird but seeing that there were more spaces to create more definitions of what was beautiful made me feel that I was onto something all this time, even when I was a little kid.
I’ll say it in front of whoever: seeing more black and brown women has made me accept myself more. Growing up with women who looked like Barbies, and representations of Britney and Shakira as what was considered beautiful didn’t help. I grew up starving for representation and for shades of makeup and hairstyle inspiration from women that looked like me. For me, this came later in life, but I’m hopeful that for next generations of colored women the representation is more present, and that when someone tells them that lighter is more beautiful, they can look to Rihanna or Lupita Nyong’o or whoever, and know that it simply isn’t true.