Growing up, my parents always taught my sister and I to love the skin we are in and give thanks for the natural, velvety chocolate hue we have been blessed with. I am a Black Brit of Jamaican heritage and I am so proud of where I come from. Having said that, as I look around my home there are no daily reminders of the fact that my family is Jamaican (apart from the food, of course!). My daily reminder is that I am a Black woman first and foremost – not Jamaican. While many families of Jamaican heritage decorate their homes with Jamaican flags and scrolls that read “Out of Many, One People”, I have grown up with sculptures of beautiful black mothers feeding their children and picture frames of Queens of Kemet. They were beautiful. They were strong. They were Queens – and they looked exactly like me.
I didn’t realise it then, but these women did wonders for my self-esteem and played a strong hand in the young woman that I have become today. They were and are my role models. That is why when I see my younger family members scrolling through their phones and showing me pictures of what they perceive to be beautiful, I can feel and hear my heart shattering into thousands of pieces. These pictures look nothing like the women I perceive to beautiful and strong. And then it clicks. My younger counterparts don’t have sculptures and picture frames. They have Twitter and Instagram.
The “Whitewashing” of Mass Media…
… or The “Kim Kardashian Era” is the phrase I like to use.
We are living in a time where we pretty much rely on mass media for everything. It is endless and readily available simply by a click of a button and while this can make life so much easier, it can also make life a living hell, as far as I am concerned. Mass media is the most powerful source of information out there and therefore is extremely pervasive, intrusive and as a result, completely and utterly damaging. The Media constantly barrages us with ideas of what is good and what is bad, what is attractive and what is unattractive; and what is adequate and inadequate. These types of ideas are clear and evident in the way that Black women are portrayed in mass media. All one needs to do is type the word ‘beauty’ into Google and see what comes up. You will be bombarded with images of white women with straight noses and long, straight hair. According to mass media, one needs to look like this to be considered beautiful and if you’re a black woman – you’re going to need to look like that too. Only if you fit these euro-centric ideals can we put you on the cover of a magazine or make you the face of our brand. If you don’t fit these euro-centric ideals, you are deemed unattractive, inadequate and thus, unworthy of any attention from the media. You are invisible. What is even more distressing and damaging is that while mass media and the dominant culture continues to disregard black women who do not match their ideals, the way in which many other black women have internalised the West’s standards of beauty has also caused a rift in between what should be a complete sisterhood.
‘I Am Not My Hair, I Am Not This Skin…’
-India Arie, I Am Not My Hair, 2006
I believe there are two main characteristics that continue to be “whitewashed” by the media and these are black women’s hair and their skin tone. As highlighted in the aforementioned section of this blog, black women who are in the public eye often adhere to euro-centric ideals and over time their image has become even more “whitewashed”. Famous black women such as Beyoncé and Tyra Banks are typically presented in the media with light-coloured straight hair and skin tones that have often been altered digitally. Too many times I have seen a picture of Beyoncé when she looks like a white European woman and I’m like, “I know you ain’t look like that in No No No Part 2.” This babe even had cornrows and pick and drop back in those days.
However, slowly, but surely the braids came out and instead long locks of blonde hair were installed.
I mean. A lyric from Common’s I Used To Love H.E.R. springs to mind:
‘…But once the man got to her he altered her native
Told her if she got an image and a gimmick
That she could make money and she did it like a dummy
Now I see her in commercials, she’s universal…’
– Common, I Used To Love H.E.R., 1994
It is no coincidence that many black female stars hit the big time once they fell victim to the prevalent forces of media, having no choice but to become “whitewashed”. At the launch of their careers, the different types of media that one could look to for information were not as readily available as they are now. There were no Smartphones, iPads or Tablets and there was definitely no Social Media. There was Word Up! And Black Beat magazine. It was all very pure and innocent. However, gone are the days of buying a magazine after school with your favourite girl group giving you cornrow and braid inspiration. With the rise of online and social media, there has been a direct knock-on effect on what young women look to for inspiration and thus, the way in which they view themselves. Online media has encouraged a narcissistic society, where we are only interested in how we look and whether we rank in society’s ‘beauty hierarchy’. We no longer care about virtues such as kindness, knowledge and humility. Tell me it ain’t so.
Cheryl Thompson writes in ‘Black Women, Beauty and Hair as a Matter of Being’ that “Black women continue this practice [straightening, weaving, etc.] Because a ‘real’ woman has long straight hair, while short nappy hair is relegated to something children have or those women – according to mainstream and Black beauty standards – who may be deemed less attractive.” Similarly, many black women are not just altering their hair, but altering their skin tone too. The problem of skin lightening does not only affect the global Black community, but the global Asian community, too.
Psychologists say that there are many underlying reasons as to why people bleach their skin, with low self-esteem being one of them – I consider this to be a principal reason. To have to exist in a world where you are constantly led to believe that you are not beautiful or not good enough because you are darker in skin tone or have ‘nappy’ hair is sure to leave one feeling completely shitty about themself.
But you don’t have to listen.
‘I am the Soul that Lives Within…’
– India Arie, I Am Not My Hair, 2006
Stop following Instagram profiles that post pictures of European women with long, ombré hair. They do not look like us. Stop following Twitter profiles and reading entertainment blogs that dehumanise black women and relish in “banter” based upon ugly and damaging stereotypes. They are not empowering us. It is only once we begin to take these steps and appreciate our own skin and ‘the soul that lives within’ that we can start to deconstruct society’s warped perception of beauty. We are beautiful. We are strong. We are Mothers. We are Queens – and always have been. And to be honest, with credentials like that, the only place for us is at the forefront of the race.