Body Image: An African Woman in America

Many Thanks to Disruptive Women in Healthcare for launching the Body Image Month. My contribution below is featured on their website.

I remember a time when my childhood friends and I innocently sang along with a catchy ad for a skin cream that would make my skin, all mocha, into something fairer and lovelier. I have seen countless television talking heads, reality shows, and clothing connoisseurs talking about how a black woman should look. The noise goes on all day, and every day – a loud beat in every voice telling me and other black women there is something wrong with the way we look. I wonder, how many black women will be influenced by this to change their appearance? How far do they have to go to fit in?

Every ounce of my health training has taught me to consider the mind an integral part of staying healthy, or recovering from a health condition. Our minds are open sponges from the day we are born, rapidly absorbing the right kind of information about what things to eat in order to thrive, what is a danger to us, and how to survive in the world we are born into. When we move to new places, again, we take in all the information we can about places to go, things to eat and how to interact within this new culture.

Born to African parents in an African country, I learned that black is beautiful, and to be proud of my looks and body shape. I learned to value my contributions to the world. As a teen, I battled the full range of growing pains, discovering the unpredictability of my weight and skin, and navigating the emotional rollercoaster that is growing from girl to woman. Fortunately I had an extensive network of school friends, sister, mother and a bevy of aunts who made these times seem normal. They cemented my view that I was beautiful, first and foremost, and that nothing and nobody could ever take a strong sense of self away from me.

And then as an adult, I moved to the United States, and settled into the college culture, where I quickly discovered that black women and other women of color received many of the same messages, but were also often rejected in their youth for their skin and figure. There was incessant image manipulation noise about what size I should become, what diet I should be on and how I should blend in.

I am not sure what an ideal black female in America is supposed to look like any more. I have observed that women who are celebrities look nothing like my mother, aunts and grandmothers – nor the women on TV when I was little. And even with these fiercely independent positive role models, I still battled with the overwhelming sense that I should want to be like that idealized woman. I changed my hair and my look, and never quite found a happy medium until I had shorn off my hair to about an inch off my scalp, and started planning to sport a natural look. And more importantly, I started to think that my struggle was multiplied for anyone who had no alternate frame of reference as I did.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some women of color express deep dissatisfaction with their bodies, and even at times wish they were born another race. Malcolm X said in 1962: “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?” These are questions we must answer to retrieve ourselves from the way we have been conditioned to think about black skin.

How can we accomplish that? One way is through affirming the variety of skin tones and body types in fashion, beauty products and throughout film and television. We need to ensure that women are not compelled to change the hue of our skin and the way we look to blend in, or to emulate icons like Beyonce, who have lighter skinned and fairer hair. More than anything, let us start with young women, many of whom have internalized these harmful messages, and teach them to share it back and defuse this desire to change their selves totally.

I am asking us to implement our own public health intervention, that requires us to reject the media’s portrayal of the black female body – stop comparing ourselves to the TV stars and we endlessly see, stop trying to carve our features into those of another, and start asking ourselves: Who am I and who made me hate the skin that I am in? I would like the world’s media to issue a retraction, a giant proclamation that they were wrong, that black is beautiful, and so is brown, and any other shade of color. Because that is the key to the way that we can start loving the skin we are in.

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