Chine Mbubaegbu’s new book ‘Am I Beautiful?’ explores the subject of beauty amongst women and, in this article, looks at the sometimes fraught relationship Black women have with their looks
I grew up watching Disney princesses find love and their ‘happy ever after’. These princesses – Belle, Aurora, Cinderella – were stunningly beautiful, as princesses should be. But none of them looked like me. And I remember feeling that I, as one of only a few Black children in a predominantly-White school, was counted out of the beauty stakes. I vividly recall being aged five, and drawing my self-portrait with long blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. It was only when another pupil pointed out that the image bore no resemblance to me that feelings of inadequacy, shame and ugliness washed over me.
I thought all those feelings would have washed away by the time I grew up. But it was one day, when I caught a glimpse of a newspaper headline over someone’s shoulder, that I realised issues of feeling unbeautiful never leave any woman.
The headline was ‘Why are Black women rated less physically attractive than other women?’ It was based on a study in 2011, by London School of Economics academic, Dr Satoshi Kanazawa. Although the study was later dismissed by serious academics, the feelings evoked by the study sent me on a journey to exploring what it means to be beautiful; the importance of beauty amongst Black women, Christian women and all women, and the dangerous ideas about female beauty that contradict God’s original idea.
For us as Black women, there’s one particular part of our bodies which many of us obsess over, spending thousands in trying to make ourselves beautiful: our hair.
In 2009, US comedian Chris Rock made a documentary film called Good Hair, which delved into the $9 billion Black hair industry that had previously been a secret obsession among Black women. I remember watching the film for the first time, my mouth aghast; relieved that the secret was out about our ridiculous hair regimes, but also ashamed and appalled at our collective unhealthy obsession. The film was his first glimpse into the sense of unprettiness and dissatisfaction that form part of the Black woman’s psyche when it comes to her hair and her beauty. Because our hair is different, it is seen as ‘other’ – strange, foreign, ugly. And because of that, we go to extraordinary lengths to change its natural state, or simply to fake it.
I live not far from Deptford in South East London, where I have been going to have my hair done since I was a child. In one afternoon at the hairdressers, you can see life in all its glory. Customers and colleagues will share their life stories – their immigration status; their children’s behaviour; their cheating boyfriend; their sick mother back home. This is where life happens. In the weaves and the chemical relaxers and the plaits and the colourings. And at the heart of this hubbub are women who are getting their hair done because they want to be beautiful. We recognise in each other the importance of that. The hairdressers know that, whatever is going on in our lives, we all crave that boost – that momentary, beautiful feeling when we look in the mirror at our new hairstyle. Beautiful.
The Black Woman’s Hair Upkeep is a significant part of her life. And it’s great; it makes us feel good. But is the pursuit of beauty at all costs what God intended? We as women are constantly looking at our physical bodies and at those of the women around us. We are judging each other, subconsciously rating other members of the sisterhood as hot or not – ourselves included. As women, we can be desperately unhappy with our bodies, seeing only our lumps and bumps.
When we look in the mirror, as many as 8 out of 10 of us are not happy with the reflection peering back at us. The advertising, media and entertainment industries bombard us with images of an ideal towards which we strive, relentlessly banging against the treadmill, as that ideal moves further and further away from us and becomes less and less achievable. As a result, many of us are living with this constant feeling that we have failed; that we are inadequate and undesirable. Our story as Christian women really needs to be better than this. We have heard that we are made in the image of the God, in whom the essence of beauty is found. But this truth melts away during the course of everyday life; the times when we can’t see past our love handles; the times when we spend such vast amounts of money on our hair, make-up and clothes.
We need to fight back against this, and learn again to listen to that still, small voice that whispers to us that we are beautiful, because we were created by Beauty itself.
CHINE MBUBAEGBU is author of ‘Am I Beautiful’ (Authentic, 2013, £7.99)