Women of color define beauty through their eyes

Johanna Pugh

When girls are growing up, they can have multiple influences telling them how to look and who to be. There are magazines, media and peers each divulging their own interpretation of what being beautiful means. To put it simply, it can be overwhelming.

Women of color in particular can often times find themselves at odds with what society tells them are the factors which determine one’s beauty and worth.

Sacramento State women of color examine what being beautiful means to them.

“My definition of beauty has definitely progressed throughout my entire life because growing up, as like a darker skinned African-American woman, the concept of beauty as a child did not exist for me,” said Laila Shabazz, 17, a kinesiology major and member of Advocates for Black Feminism on campus. “The skin color spectrum of my family is very wide and I’m on the darker side and if you weren’t like high yellow, you were ugly, basically. And so I kind of grew up with that kind of preconceived notion that the color of my skin was the only factor in determining my beauty. And so that definitely inhibited my perception of myself.”

Along with familial influences, society can play a role in swaying self-image in women of color.

“I never fit the mainstream description of a beautiful person,” said Dechelle Conway, 20, a theater major. “I don’t have blue eyes or fair skin. I don’t get to check any of those boxes.”

This discrepancy can leave women of color of all ages struggling with self-esteem and identity.

“Before, I was one of those people that avoided mirrors because I thought every time I look in the mirror, I’d see something wrong,” said Briana Swain, a 23-year-old theater major. “Whether it was my hair, or the clothes I was wearing, or the color of my skin, like, I wasn’t really comfortable with myself and what I had to offer because everywhere I looked, I never really saw anybody that was like me.”

According to a study published in Communication Research in 2012, watching television can lower the self-esteem of young women of color because of their lack of representation in the media.

“When you see women on TV, they don’t look like me,” Swain said. “So, I mean, it affects you. I mean they don’t even have to say anything. You can just see something and feel excluded.”

The study also reflected how some students attribute low self-esteem to the poor, demeaning and stereotypical portrayal of women of color when they are featured.

“You see other black women on TV and people don’t understand, not being able to see representation of yourself can literally convince people that the people who look like them have contributed nothing to this world,” Shabazz said. “And that is a very detrimental thing to have on your psyche. That the people who look like me have done nothing. The people who talk like me and walk like me and look like me, what have they done?”

This lack of and poor representation leaves gaps that are inaccurate, frustrating and negatively influential.

“Hollywood leaves portions of the population out, particularly women,” said Roberto Pomo, a Sacramento State theater professor, in an interview last May.

“All these stereotypes Hollywood has created are just terrible…this is how we conceptualized race,” Pomo said. “Women are sexualized and objectified and other races such as African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians are reduced to playing insulting caricatures and villains.”

Students address these stereotypes and how embracing their natural looks has aided in finding themselves beautiful, regardless of what the media says.

“There is a certain standard for beauty in terms of being skinny and having really large eyes compared to Asian women,” said Rachel Mogan, 23, a theater major. “So, for me, when it comes to beauty, I feel like…I love who I am. Now I don’t have that pale face or double eyelid, but I love physically who I am.”

Other students say ignoring the negative influences media can have has helped them view themselves in a better light.

“The media will always make people feel less attractive,” said Magdalena Negrete, 20, a health science major. “I would tell [another woman of color struggling with self-esteem] to feel comfortable and be proud of how she looks, because she is unique and should be proud of her physical appearance and her emotions as well.”

For women of color, the pressure to visually fit the molds society has for beauty can be a stressful thing.

“As a woman of color, I feel there is so much emphasis on the color of your complexion, texture of your hair, length of your hair, et cetera,” said Khadija Hersi, 21, a business major. “Personally, as I got older, I simply stopped caring and listening to what society and media consider what being beautiful is or what it looks like. I just live to please myself and Allah [the Arabic word for God].”

With the influence of society, however, women do a number of things to alter their appearances in likeness to what society deems acceptable. These processes leave some women still unsatisfied with the results.

“We’ve been bred into a society where you alter yourself to fit into like this category, and when someone doesn’t do that, all hell breaks loose and they’re like, ‘Oh my god. You’re not going to perm your hair? You’re not going to straighten your hair?’” Shabazz said. “But, no. She’s not. And like if you do straighten your hair, awesome! And like, it’s not, any flak to girls who do straighten their hair. The point of it is to love your hair and where you’re at.”

On New Year’s this year, Shabazz decided to give up her personal struggle and frustration with relaxing, or chemically straightening, her hair and had her mother and sister shave her head. Shabazz found this to be a liberating experience in terms of self-image.

“I love it. I love the way that I look. I love the way that I feel,” Shabazz said. “I think I love myself more than I ever did with a perm in my hair.”

Students are careful to make it clear that there is no correct or superior way of choosing how to wear their hair to feel the most comfortable.

“I feel like everybody should do what they wanna do. As long as you are being true to yourself, that’s the most important thing,” Swain said. “Are you doing it because you want to do it or because somebody’s telling you to do it? That’s my biggest thing. I’m not, I’m not like a natural advocate. I’m not saying everybody should be natural. It’s just whatever your intuition tells you to do, you should do it. Because our intuition is just like a protector, it protects us. And, you know? You should listen to it. That’s what I’m advocating.”

Swain stopped straightening her hair and started wearing it naturally curly five years ago. In an interview lasting 30 minutes, three passersby came up to Swain in the University Union and touched her hair. She took it in good stride, but addressed how others have seen her natural hair and commented in problematic ways.

“It’s like, ‘OK, so I can’t pull off something that naturally grows from my head?’” Swain asked. “That’s like if you looked at me and you saw me, like, everybody wears gloves and I’m the only person that shows my hands, and you’re saying, ‘You’re the only person that can pull that off.’ Wearing your own natural body. That doesn’t make any sense to me!”

Swain said she has come to terms with how society tells girls what is beautiful and what she deems beautiful herself.

“When I was young I had this image of having the nice ponytail swish in the back of my head during P.E. That’s something the media pushes and movies and commercials and TV shows,” Swain said. “It’s the girl with the ponytail swishing her hair when she’s in P.E. And I wanted that. But I knew that I could never have that, and it was frustrating. And it’s like, wishing you had a third arm. You’re never going to have a third arm!”

Some students agree surrounding themselves with positive influences, and joining organizations on campus can help dissipate the feeling of being uncomfortable in their own skin.

“If you can, take the incentive to go out and find black women who are doing what you want to be doing. It’s really hard to do by yourself and in my personal experience, I would say it’s nearly impossible to get through this world all alone,” Shabazz said. “And so, just try and find something that’s bigger than you are and make yourself a part of it. So like, if it’s finding organizations, even if they’re online, like, look up people who have done successful things with their lives. And ‘successful’ is a very relative term. But like, what you wanna do. Look up ‘black heroes,’ look up autobiographies of black women, black men, black people who have empowered themselves.”

Hersi, who has been involved in the campus’ Muslim Student Association as president, vice president and secretary, said surrounding herself with other women of color with similar ideals has helped foster her identity.

“I always had my Muslim identity,” Hersi said. “But just being around other students who shared the same ideals and beliefs as me, made we want to explore my Muslim identity more.”

For some women, coming to a place where they feel comfortable in their skin and who they are is a rewarding, lifelong process.

“I absolutely think that my skin color is beautiful now. I’m in a place in my life where I can say that now,” Shabazz said. “I love myself and I love my blackness. People often interpret that [incorrectly]. Like loving blackness does not mean that you hate whiteness. Like they are not mutually exclusive. Just because I love myself doesn’t mean that I hate you.”

Shabazz emphasizes the importance of people showing themselves daily affection and reminding themselves of how beautiful they are helps with self-love and confidence.

“It’s kind of like your perception of yourself without having to reaffirm with external sources, like even if there are no mirrors around me, I can sit down and be like, ‘I look great today!’” Shabazz said. “When I am mentally sound, when I am thinking not only kind things about myself but kind things about other people, I feel most beautiful.”

Shabazz hopes having women love who they are will inspire others to do the same.

“And so like people need to be in this state where like, ‘Oh, she loves herself, I should love myself, too!’ And that’s what you want to invoke in people,” Shabazz said.

As some students have found, beauty can have a varied definition, and it’s a definition that does not have to hold anyone back.

“I feel like everyone’s beautiful physically, even if they aren’t your typical definition of beauty. To me, beauty is something that is on the inside because it shines out when you see it,” Swain said. “That’s why some people make your heads turn because, it’s not really the way they look, but it’s something that they have that makes you kinda turn and it’s like, ‘Well what is, what is she about? I want to know more about that person.’ Because beauty turns eyes but, I mean, like you know physical beauty, but real beauty turns hearts, I believe. So I think it’s something that captivates your heart and not just your eyes.”