Although whiteness was normalized for me as a child, I couldn’t help but question why people that didn’t look like me could think I was as “gorgeous” as they claimed they did.
Maybe because I really was. Or maybe my genes had molded into a preferable medium.
Soon I began to wonder if I was “pretty for a black girl” like I was “so smart” (for a black girl) to those in my community that didn’t know me well or know that I was actually just pretty and smart for a human.
In a strange way, what was normalized for me was also being challenged by my very existence. Blonde hair, slim frames, and light eyes were all around me, and I was none of those things.
Now I question the relativity of everything.
My Former Friend
In high school, most of my friends were white. Their incessant obsessing over every centimeter of perceived imperfection did not escape me, and certainly made me reconsider how I viewed my own figure.
At the lunch table, they gushed over how beautiful the Desperate Housewives actresses were. I found none of them remotely appealing and was honest about it.
“Are you crazy, Angie? What’s wrong with you? They’re absolutely gorgeous!!!”
Not in my world, but I didn’t have to talk about how I wished they all had tans, fuller lips and fat asses. I didn’t want to offend anyone.
On the other hand, my friends of color never fussed about their bodies and, despite my issues with the hypersexualization and objectification of women of color in hip-hop and urban black culture, I was grateful to see curvy bodies praised.
Anyway, I had one white friend who was always fit and healthy and she made it clear a size 2 was her image of perfection. Even though I was a size 8, however, she’d always made me feel pretty.
One day, after finally catching up with this friend, I mentioned that I’d lost weight.
She jumped in before I could tell her why.
“Oh Angie! That’s great! Congratulations!”
She’d been working as a personal trainer, and was bonier every time we met.
I continued, “… I had alcohol poisoning and the stomach of my lining was destroyed… I could only eat brown rice and vegetables for a month.”
Nowhere in the conversation or in the past several years had I expressed a desire to lose weight. In fact, I was happier than I’d ever been with my body.
And then, a long silence. I quickly attempted to dissolve the sudden tension without trying to shame her for shaming me into feeling ashamed of a body I wasn’t ashamed of. The conversation ended on a high note, but after another off-handed remark a few months later, I brought it up.
A few months after shooting the breeze about life, work, and how this same friend hoped Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s child had her mother’s features and hair, despite my near-loathing of both parents, I felt compelled to have a serious conversation about body image, beauty, race and the relativity of it all.
I texted her.
“Hey, can we talk?”
“Of course Angie. What’s going on?”
She was openly hesitant.
This girl was so sensitive, you could break her in an instant, but I was committed to expressing my discontent in the kindest way possible.
“Well, remember those comments you made a few months ago about hoping Kanye West’s kid would have Kim’s hair and features because they’re so beautiful?”
Things got uncomfortable.
“Well, I get the impression that you have this aversion to things ethnic, blackness, and I was a bit hurt — upset by it. And then, to congratulate me on losing weight when I had no intentions of doing so — ”
“Angie, I have clients of all colors, every shape and size.”
“I’m talking about people in your real life — friends. All of your friends are white. That’s not really the issue, it just seems like the way you value certain bodies and features are simply reinforced by your inner circle — a select few people with limited views. I find it a bit challenging. Like, I’m your only friend of color and I think it’s hard for you to even understand what I’m trying to explain now.”
She became defensive.
“Honestly, this was months ago. I don’t think it’s fair to bring up something I can’t remember.”
“Well, this has been building for a while… I feel like you’re judging me and everyone else by your standards of beauty, and not everyone feels the same way. I don’t. Telling me that you hope Kanye’s kid doens’t look like him is one thing, but to say you hope she has her mother’s hair and features because Armenians have such beautiful features sounds like you’re implying something. And to congratulate me on losing weight when I had no intentions of doing so… For example, in white culture, thinness is idolized. In black and Latino cultures, curves are considered beautiful. Different cultures value different things, but one doesn’t have to be better than the other. ”
“It’s not about being skinny, it’s about being healthy.”
She wasn’t hearing me.
“But I’m not just talking about fat, I’m talking race and about not being able to acknowledge beauty in different forms — people who don’t look like you. How can you do that when everyone you love looks just like you? Can you see that you might be lacking some perspective?”
I tried to gently break things down for her. She wasn’t getting it.
“I think I’m feeling really hurt right now. Can I call you back?”
She never did.
I said everything except for “you’re a racist.” While she was no raging bigot, she certainly had some prejudiced beliefs that even she wasn’t unaware of.
As far as I was concerned, she might as well have told me she hoped baby North didn’t look black, because blackness was ugly. I, on the other hand, don’t have to validate white beauty because it is valid, by virtue of whiteness. Ultimately, it was about her applying her mainstream Eurocentric standard of beauty to everything, and my brown body does not in any way, shape or form fit in. But I was okay with that. I was happy about that and I wanted her to know. I just didn’t want her to invalidate other beauty.
It was strange though, defending blackness and otherness vicariously through Kanye West’s daughter. After all, I couldn’t stand Kanye as a human being after listening to him rap about how women like me, “mutts,” were preferable, and how they were the reason for “video girls” in a 2006 interview in Essence Magazine.
It was the wrong kind of favoritism.
But the problem isn’t so much what this friend or Kanye favor, it’s why.
Even as a kid I questioned why Elle and Cosmopolitan praised white actresses for full lips that didn’t look full to me at all — my mother would always scream “for white people!”
My Chinese Godmother ripped two white barbie dolls from my hands when I was eight.
“Why are you playing with these?!?! They don’t look like you!”
I had black ones and I thought they were beautiful too. But I understand now that she didn’t want me to be brainwashed.
In a 2014 article, Journalist Alessandra Stanley made some scathing comments about actress Viola Davis’ role in “How to Get Away with Murder,” describing her as a “less classically beautiful” black woman, like Kerry Washington (with the pointy nose) and Halle Berry (with the half white genes).
It’s easy enough to see straight through those words, which translate into “Viola is dark and ugly, they really took a chance on her for a show that’s going to be watched by so many white people.”
But Davis beautifully clapped back that the comments were “a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you. It worked when I was younger. It no longer works for me now. It’s about teaching a culture how to treat you.”
And I needed to teach my friend how to treat me.
The fact of the matter is, everything is relative.
Kanye is no different from my friend, and many others and others in society who are brainwashed to value Eurocentricity. He married a Kardashian and they now have a mixed-race child, but I doubt their wealth will preclude them from facing further prejudice, as baby North has already been the subject of several bigoted attacks. Kim even admitted to never believing racism was still “alive and well” until after the birth of their daughter and the subsequent criticism they’ve faced. But I wonder how they’ll raise North, what they’ll teach her to understand and value between her ignorance and his apparent aversion to blackness.
I wonder if baby North will also pray for her mother’s hair and what kind of dolls she’ll play with — aside from her parents, and herself.