Sunday, March 11, 2012

How I See the World as a Black Woman--Part II: Standards of Beauty

Black is beautiful. That is a phrase that was invented in the 1960s to affirm black peoples' sense of self that was robbed from them by slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and later, the media bias against black people in the United States. For many years, having dark skin and kinky hair, full facial features, and elaborate curves to one's body was considered ugly. Black people did things to themselves to change the aspects that they were taught to hate, such as enduring hours of painful hair treatments such as straightening and relaxing their hair. And in the later 20th century, plastic surgery became another tool in arsenal of self-hate. Why not have one's African features cut down to look European, or one's skin lightened? We bought into that assertion that something was wrong with the way God made us.

I had my hair relaxed when I was a young preteen, and for years, I adhered to a semi-regular regimen of hair relaxation, and other treatments to keep my hair healthy because I had fundamentally undermined its natural integrity. I took Biochemistry in college, and I learned why my hair was curly, the unbreakable sulfur bonds. I also learned what relaxer did to my hair, it broke those bonds in my hair and made it weaker and more susceptible to damage. That was around the time I said no more. I cut out my relaxed hair and went natural. I haven't gone back. That was about twenty years ago. Honestly, I don't miss it. Before someone gets mad and decides to send fifty angry retaliatory posts, I'm not saying that one cannot be proud of one's heritage and have relaxed hair. What I am asking or trying to get one to think about is why you need to relax your hair to meet someone else's standards of beauty? What is a standard of beauty? Is there one or many?

Yes, I could go on and on about beauty standards, and I don' t have to stick to the ones that impact black women specifically. What about the thin body beauty standard, which is unrealistic and especially hurtful for women? What the modeling industry does is hire pre-teens and physically immature girls to model a lot of their clothes. Most grown women don't look like that. They have breasts and hips. Their contours are naturally more lush, and that's the way it should be. So why should a woman have to starve, diet, and exercise herself to a shape that's not realistic for her? I think we all can agree that being healthy, eating right and exercising is important. What we don't all agree on is what is a normal body size. Some people are going to be larger than others. Instead of trying to be like a 12-year-old model, maybe their focus should be on being healthy for themselves.

It's interesting going to the doctor and getting the "You need to lose weight lecture" every time. I am prepared to get it. I know I need to lose weight. I don't need a body chart to tell me that. However, I know that my cardiovascular state is pretty healthy. My cholesterol levels are normal, and my blood sugar is normal. However, I was told I was pre-diabetic because of my weight and that my blood sugar is on the high end of normal. The second tells me more objectively what my status is than my weight. So, I work on that, exercising and trying to eat better (although I don't always succeed with the latter). And I honestly feel better when I take care of myself. That's why I want to lose weight. Not because the media says fat is ugly and thin is in. Personally, I don't find unhealthy thinness attractive, either in a man or a woman. Notice I said unhealthy. There is a difference between natural slenderness or athleticism and a thin body due to dieting. I call it the "Barbie Doll Syndrome", ie, the head is bigger than the body. When a person is dieting and has not maintained a healthy body fat ratio, their head starts looking two times as big as their body. Yes, some people just have big heads, but that' s different. I don't like to put a lot of stock into scientific treaties on racial differences, because a lot of that feeds into racism. What I do know is that like breeds of animals, if you have a population of certain people who breed together, there will be a concentration of genes. Some of those genes code for physical characteristics, such as shovel-shaped incisors in Asians, and a fuller aspect to the nasal base in African-Americans. Along those lines, you might see differences in body shape that would cause certain groups to wear their weight differently. Is that a get out of jail card for obesity? No. But what it does mean is that one weight chart won't work for every woman of every racial/ethnic group. And along with that, not all women would be able to hold to a standard of size zero. Have you ever looked at most of the actresses on TV? How many of them are full-bodied, and I don't mean overweight? Not too many. Most are stick-thin, with the "Barbie Doll Syndrome" going on, and no curves except for the fake ones. Watch a Victoria Secret commercial, and you will see that these adolescent girls actually have to cock their hips and stick their chests out to give the appearance of curves. Watch the Dove commercials, and you will see normal looking women. Go walk around at the mall, and you will see what normal women look like. Why should television be such a profound difference? What message is that sending girls and women? A very poor one. To hate oneself because you don't have the skinny look of most of the women on television and in movies who are lauded for their beauty.

Why is brown skin undesirable and pale skin sexy? Who said that was the case? Personally, I don't think one is better than the other, other than the bone-deep rejection of pale skin as the ideal. I like the rich variety of skin colors that nature provides us. From blue black to porcelain white. All beautiful. I don't think a person should be afraid of being called names because their skin is dark, nor should a person subject themselves to harmful UV rays just to be brown. Embrace what you are. Make the most of what you've been given, and own it. And let's be clear, the color issue is deeply entrenched within the African American culture. We take it way too far. If you watch BET music videos, do a head count. How many of the video girls are lighter-skinner with long hair? How many are darker-skinned with shorter, kinky hair? What lessons does that convey to young black girls in this country, on top of the ones that mainstream media show when you see consistently that the lists of the most beautiful women are all white, or lighter-skinned women with long, straighter hair? Not a good one. Did I ever wish I was blue-eyed with blond hair? If it did, it was for a hot minute. I don't want to be either. I like my curly/wavy hair brown skin, and brown eyes. Again, whatever floats your boat. If you want a weave, knock yourself out. But why do you need to put fake hair on your head to feel womanly and beautiful? I personally find short hair very attractive and flattering on women. Some women don't look good with long hair. And the long, straight weave that some black women sport looks unnatural. I wonder how gorgeous they would look with their natural curls or whatever length God gave them. I wonder how much happier they would be if they didn't have to spend hours upon hours at the beauty shop, and thousands of dollars on getting their hair done, even when they can't afford it.

I touched on plastic surgery. This is not race-specific. I watched 20/20 when they talked about plastic surgery, and it was disheartening. An 89-year-old woman had gotten breast implants. Really???? What about a surgeon who was operating on his own daughters since they were young teens? And the men who were getting their legs broken so that they could be taller. They have these rods implanted that they have to flex in a painful and wrong-looking procedure several times a day to stimulate the necessary bone growth so they could be taller. When does the madness end? Will the surgeon's scalpel give you the ability to love yourself that you lacked beforehand? No. That comes from within.

I'm just a pilgrim here. A person with eyes in her head and an opinion. My opinion is no more important than anyone else's, but I choose to exercise the opportunity to get this off my chest. I love womanhood, very much. I think women should have all the opportunities, the love, the acceptance, and the freedom to be happy in life and with themselves as they can grasp in life. I hope that women can break free of these fears of never measuring up to unrealistic beauty standards that hurt more than they heal.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bullying Long Distance

In the past week, there was yet another explosion in the online reading communities. Author/reviewer meltdowns. (Deep, heartfelt sigh!) I hate drama, avoid it like the plague, unless it's between the pages of my Harlequin Presents novel. I have tried to stay out of it, because that pathway is madness. I have my opinions on the whole debate, and I think I can see both sides. I don't want to get into that. I want to talk about the aftermath, and the ugly pattern I see here.

This is a woman who was bullied most of her childhood in school. I had a permanent pick on me sign attached to my forehead. Strangely enough, I went out of my way to be invisible and to do my own thing. But still, the bullies always found a reason to make my life hell. Something good came out of it, though. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and all that. I have found there is freedom in not being part of the crowd. The crowd will take you places you don't want to go many times than not. As for the bullying, one hopes that people grow out of this. It's not the case. The bullying just grows a more high-tech skin. It seems at though the internet is the new tool for bullying.

Here's the scenario.

Let's say Person A wrote a review/blog that said some things that people didn't like, you go and recruit your friends to go and bombard said blog/review with reasons why those words and actions were so heinous and how wrong they are. The crowd overwhelms the opinion of that one person. That person starts to second guess their position. They run and hide and decide to keep their mouths shut. Free speech loses this day. Because the majority has overruled the minority by sheer force. I see this is internet bullying.

Why is it bullying? Because if two people don't agree, that's one thing. They talk things out, and decide they can either see the opposite side or they can't. They agree to disagree and move on. But one person goes and gets all their friends to come say why the other person is wrong, how do we really know that the other person's argument wasn't sound or correct? We don't. Their voice has died away, and all is left is the fact that they slunk away to lick their wounds. Or they keep it going, and things escalate into Internet Community Smackdown #1001. There is no winning in this scenario.

The internet is a beautiful thing. It's a way for people to connect to each other over mutual interests, to educate, and to entertain. Like any invention, it has its dark side. I think that this is definitely a dark side of the internet, with the various internet social communities. There is only freedom if you are strong or loud enough, or have enough friends to support you. There is only a voice if you don't have many others drowning you out. That's not freedom to me. That's a form of slavery. You become the big bully so you don't get bullied. You're now a slave of the system, the person keeping the lone voice down. Maybe you thought you were doing the right thing at first. But the ends don't justify the means.

That leaves us with a choice. We can creep back to our own corners, keep our mouths shut, keep a low profile. We can become part of the problem, or we can do our part to keep the lines of communication open, in the ways that feel right and honorable to ourselves. I know which one I'm going to do.