I recently asked my great-grandmother if she thought she was pretty as a child. She replied, “Lord, no!”
She said she wondered why she wasn’t pretty like some of the kids she went to school with. She described one girl in particular who was “real light. Looked like a white child. A lot of the children picked on her ’cause she was white-looking, with long, pretty hair.”
My great-grandmother is 105 years old. It was around 1913 that she went to school with this girl, so of course the children picked on her for such silly things. Envy can lead to taunting, and how could poor black children not be envious of a girl who embodied all that was considered beautiful?
I’ve been at odds with my own look as of late. I don’t glorify pale skin and straight blonde hair; I’m very happy with my butterscotch and toffee tone that’s quickly adding more dark brown sugar as summer roles in, and I love my multi-textured hair and all I can do with it. But I feel like I’m reaching if I describe myself as pretty, or beautiful, or hot, or stunning, or fine, or any other such adjectives other people have applied to me.
I think I’ve been corrupted. During a recent text conversation, a friend noted that the self’s perception of beauty is “usually affected by the outside eye. And by the self being corrupted by the outside.”
Me: Exactly. I don’t know if I would say corrupted. I would say influenced. How can it be corrupted unless you start out with a pure sense of self? And how do you define beauty without some outside perspective?
Him: Corruption is when all you believe about self is strictly off the outside eye. When the self is blinded.
When we have been “sedated with perfection,” as photographer Platon put it in an On the Media story about the perceptions we get about other people through the images journalistic photography supplies and Photoshop alters. Perceptions we get from a “two-dimensional representation of a living, moving, three-dimensional being, a laser-sliced instant invisible in real time …” a likeness that “is, by definition, out of context.”
In the past few months, I’ve actually said things like, “I wish I looked/had a body like Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, the latest Miss USA, Jill Scott, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez,” and “It’s unbelievable to me that some people are really that pretty,” out loud. I have rated myself against women I’ve never seen in person, who I see in the context of magazines and television shows, media whose true purpose is to reimburse their beauty product advertisers with my dollars.
I walk into this trap with eyes wide open but still find it difficult to navigate my way out. I know the solutions: tell yourself you’re beautiful every day. Mean it. Perfect your inner beauty. Remember that outer beauty fades.
I think the fade is one of the problems. I didn’t think I’d keep my 24-year-old California body forever, but I assumed that when I lost it, I would have an excuse, like childbirth or a husband who enjoyed four-course meals at expensive restaurants. I have neither. I assumed I would have flaunted the young body more, too, especially on beach vacations or in front of some lucky man. Now I feel like what I dreamed of is leaving before I had the chance to use it.
The other problem is feeling as though I live up to neither airbrushed standards nor cultural ones. I’ve accepted that nothing short of cosmetic surgery can give me the celebrated black booty that everyone now knows Erykah Badu has, but the celebration of a body otherwise unattainable to me continues.
I’m certain I’ll get over it. I’ve been working on improving my writing talent, and I want my words to make a greater impression on the world than my looks. My great-grandmother remembers the pretty girl’s intelligence and kind heart with just as much detail as she remembers her beauty. And if the girl lacked those intangible qualities, I’m sure her face would be remembered differently, or not at all. Even memories of the women I idolize now will fade away. But this blog may last forever. It is hard to erase anything off the internet.