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April 2013

Black Women Do Not Have To Reject Any Mention Of Beauty To Be Womanist/Feminist

Black women, especially ones with rich dark complexions, voluptuously thick and full bodies, mesmerizing brown eyes, wide noses, enviable full lips, and/or versatile curly or kinky textured hair—the women least likely to be considered beautiful in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchal society—are the ones most often demanded to reject any mention of beauty, especially to “prove” how “feminist” we are. This leads to “unfeminist” vs. “feminist” labeling—labels to reinforce a hierarchy, not truly speaking to actual feminism. (I don’t like the word “unfeminist.”)

The idea that beauty and intelligence are mortal enemies actually represents binary labeling in a patriarchal society—labeling meant to facilitate the idea that women who represent either one are enemies, and the notion that women can only have one or the other. (And for Black women, it doesn’t really matter—both our beauty and intelligence are usually denied.) Claiming one “side” versus the other is not truly progressive; it’s taking a limited approach to thinking about a FULL human being and denying the fullness of who she is. Ignoring one for the other and forcefully rejecting the other is not revolutionary.

This becomes complicated for womanist/feminist Black women because often feminist White women demand any talk of beauty be silenced or rejected. As I wrote about before (in relation to Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama), it’s awfully convenient for White women who have their beauty affirmed regularly and whose images dominate all forms of media to want such talk silenced. They’re going to see themselves affirmed whether they speak about it or not. Yet Black women who are not only excluded from notions of beauty (and simultaneously notions of goodness, kindness, and worth—which are actually wrongly associated with only beauty and should be critiqued when that simple association occurs) but ALSO are consistently portrayed as ugly and thereby bad, unkind and worthless, are expected to ignore all beauty talk, not affirm their own beauty or other Black women’s or are supposed to only affirm intelligence and related accomplishments. This expectation of some White feminists clearly reveals that they do not understand or are being willfully obtuse regarding the differences in experiences between Black and White women in America where beauty (and plenty of other areas) is concerned. No country for nuance and intersectionality? (To be clear, this isn’t to assert that White women don’t face sexist reductionism in regards to beauty, or that they “all” even meet all Eurocentric beauty standards, despite all having White privilege.)

At times, I feel as if this relates to them projecting their view of us as “allies” to their feminism, not as actual womanists/feminists ourselves. "Be intelligent and hardworking for us but shut up about beauty or we’ll have to address how White supremacy shapes (well…everything) the concept of beauty in the first place,” seems to be the underlying message at times.

Clearly Black women shouldn’t take the approach that “only” beauty matters or determine another Black woman’s worth by her appearance. Further, colourism and Eurocentric beauty myths impact how many Black women perceive beauty and how beauty is portrayed as a concept itself in our society. Thus, deciding that only thin and/or only those Black women with passing or light skinned privilege and long straight hair are beautiful and thereby more worthy of anything considered good is problematic. Prizing beauty over every other facet such as a fascinating personality, confidence, intelligence, talent, vision, kindness, wit, creativity, humor, lovingness and all that Black women are then becomes an internalized sexist (and possibly colourist, fat shaming) reduction.

However, ignoring beauty to please White feminists, never personally affirming one’s own beauty (or other Black women’s beauty) as a Black woman, and not challenging negative notions (shaped by White supremacy, racism, sexism and misogynoir) about Black women’s beauty is actually full complicity with White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We’re supposed to think of ourselves as inferior (to everyone, especially White women) in every category, especially beauty. When we reject this and deconstruct White supremacist notions of beauty, we engage in self-care (a part of healthy self-esteem, in regards to race) and critical reflection. Critical reflection is also action. This is womanism/intersectional feminism in practice.

I curate and post photographs of Black women in America and abroad, thin and thick, dark skinned, brown skinned and light skinned, with short hair and long hair, famous and non-famous, to show the diversity in our beauty (which includes uniqueness, style, fashion and representations of diverse cultures, in general). This matters. This especially matters since many of the images I post and that I truly find beautiful are in direct opposition to mainstream (read: White supremacist) concepts of beauty. My defiance is purposeful. The idea that images do not matter and beauty is always irrelevant is a construction meant to KEEP Black women thinking of themselves as inferior while consuming an endless stream of images that affirm White supremacy and Eurocentric beauty. Thus, anyone, White, Black or otherwise, who suggests that Black women should ignore their own beauty (which really means to never consider themselves beautiful) and never affirm it for themselves or other Black women, in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchal society, is asking Black women to commit psychological, emotional and cultural violence against themselves and other Black women. This most certainly is diametrically opposed to womanist/intersectional feminist theory and praxis.

I also post various forms of art, media, news, critiques and accomplishments of Black women to affirm many facets of who we are. I also write about my and other Black women’s intersectional experiences in critical essays. Thus, I never take the approach that “only” beauty matters. Conversely, I refuse to ignore beauty as to appear “more” “feminist” to feminist White women. They aren’t my “feminist keepers.”

My womanism isn’t a performance to please a White female audience; it’s about affirming myself and other Black women, rejecting White supremacist capitalist patriarchal thinking, challenging the kyriarchal society that we live in, and taking a complete anti-oppression stance, hand in hand, with any and all who face oppression (whether such oppression is related to racism, sexism, misognyoir, misogyny, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sizeism, ableism, etc. or the intersection of multiple forms of oppression). I am "committed to survival and wholeness of entire people" as the definition of womanism includes.

Wholeness relates to recognizing the nuances, intersections and fullness of people and this includes Black women. We aren’t just any one thing. I don’t view feminist praxis on a personal level as choosing one side of any patriarchal binary, but rejecting binaries and racist/sexist (or any “isms” related) simplifications in the first place. I view it as deconstruction and rejection of rigid thinking and action, which then allows individual choice and collective growth and liberation.

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