A New Approach to Race and Beauty

This may seem a little out of place, but in the process of figuring out who I am and what I want out of my professional and personal lives, I am confronted with a myriad of issues related to race and gender and the impact they have on my identity.

A few weeks ago, I went to a round table discussion held at UPENN about black female beauty. While the conversation itself didn’t go anywhere, it highlighted how we need a new way of talking about race that goes beyond the old school approach of “us vs. them” especially when it comes to something as tricky as beauty.

During the discussion, someone asked a great question: what does progress look like? We go on and on about what is BAD and whenever we feel something is holding us back, but what exactly are we striving towards when it comes to beauty?

My ideal society is when we move past dichotomous approaches to beauty. Am I the only who revels in how different our complexions are? In how we can rock different hair colors and hair styles? In how we come in different shapes and sizes? Why does it have to be “natural” hair versus chemically treated hair when some women look great with natural hair styles (Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott) and some look great with chemically treated hair (Beyonce, Queen Latifah)?

For me, the issue is not what you do but why you do it. If you straighten your hair because someone told you curly/kinky hair is ugly or you think it makes you look dirty, then there is a problem. However, if you straighten your hair because it fits your personality and lifestyle, then I don’t see what the problem is.

For example, I usually wear braids because I find it to be the easiest way to deal with my hair. However, the synthetic hair and the tightness of braids makes my scalp itch and pulls out my hair. Also, I have a very pretty face (if I do say so myself); braids tend to hide that. So I took out my braids, straightened and cut my hair and I love how I look. My face is highlighted and looks brighter.

I tell my sisters to experiment with their looks: you wanna cut your hair? Go for it! Wanna try a new color? Why not? Wanna try the punk rock look? Knock yourself out! I really don’t see what the problem is. No single look is for everyone and we are doing ourselves a disservice by pretending that our lives should be either/or.

I recognize that we live in two worlds: one that was created FOR us and one that is created BY us. Creating our own world that doesn’t destroy us and make us susceptible to the needs and desires of the other world is exceedingly difficult; it requires us to be self aware and have a great deal of self determination. This is why the hair/skin complexion issue is so messy: how much of our decisions are based on us and how much of our decisions are based on what other people tell us?

In the discussion she brought up the dominant white aesthetic that black people are either rebelling against or conforming to. And maybe it’s because I recently graduated from college and am from NYC but I see various niches and subcultures that fall in between that spectrum of FOR/AGAINST; our look is drawn from many different places and different influences. This is an old school approach to analyzing race and I wish we would become more comfortable with our complexities.

The last thing we need to do is move from one box to the other. We go on and on about “celebrating diversity”: why dont we celebrate the diversity that exists within a group?