We talk about beauty day-in and day-out and it’s quite an elusive subject isn’t it? The old adage is that its value is hidden in the eye of the beholder, so then why is it that what’s reflected at large is such a narrow gaze? Perhaps, it’s because black beauty seems mysterious to some: not to you or I who are living it, but those who have an inflexible idea of what it means. It might even seem a bit indefinable to us who haven’t traveled to every corner of the world where the black diaspora is present. Well, Antonia Opiah is looking to debunk any myths or limited views of black beauty with her site Un-Ruly.com and documentary series, Pretty.
With the advent of the internet and social media, the world has seemingly shrunk in many ways, but the intersection of beauty and race still has so much to be discovered. Antonia has learned a great deal based on her conversations and travels, so we spoke to her about her observations.
Thin, White and Blond Seems to Be a Global Ideal… So Far…
So far I’ve interviewed women in Paris, London, Milan, Tel Aviv and Casablanca. In each of those cities, across the board, the beauty ideal is described as someone who’s thin, white, and blond. There are a few variations in the description—like in Paris, subtle beauty is admired, in London their English Rose has fair skin and rosy cheeks, in Tel Aviv she might be tan. But overall, the ideal beauty is basically what you see in magazines, which often times leaves a huge part of the population on the sidelines. I’m hoping this won’t be the case when I head to sub-Saharan Africa.
Beauty is Incomprehensibly Varied
I like to scroll through the Pretty page and just look at the video thumbnails of the interviews we’ve released. It’s nice to see everyone in ‘one place,’ so to speak. I like seeing how different everyone is, and knowing each girl’s story adds even more color to that. This is one of my biggest takeaways, and it’s probably the most obvious one. Beauty–people rather, are all so different and unique. We tend to put people into groups or categories because it makes it easier for us to comprehend them. But doing so, makes us miss out on the beauty in the details of a person’s appearance, personality and experiences.
We’re More Similar to Black Women Abroad Than We Are Different
A lot of the women I spoke to seem to be facing similar challenges as women in the U.S. We always talk about media in the interviews and it’s become clear that the lack of diversity in the media is a global issue. We even see the same caricatures of black women appear in international media–the jezebels, the mammies. It’s funny because a few people have said that there’s way more opportunity for black people in entertainment in the U.S. than there is in Europe, meanwhile, #OscarsSoWhite is trending. But it just goes to show there are different levels of exclusion. In Italy, for example, there’s almost no representation at all. Additionally, police brutality is an issue we have in common with our counterparts in Israel, as can be seen in our most recent episode here.
Natural Hair is Everywhere
Everywhere I’ve been so far, I’ve met women who are wearing their hair natural and are even eager to speak about it. It’s nice to see that the movement is spreading way beyond U.S. borders. It’s reached the Middle East!
There’s No Such Thing is Black Beauty… Or is There?
I’ve never said this outright yet, but this series has always been just about beauty, never specifically about Black beauty. We just happen to be interviewing Black women. (Just like how every other TV show happens to be featuring white people lol). Nowhere in the series description do we say it’s about Black beauty. We do, however, ask each woman to describe beauty and then Black beauty. And we’ve gotten some really interesting responses, like in the first London episode for example here. Many women say there’s no such thing as Black beauty because then it puts us in a box. But then again there are socio-political undertones in the notion of Black beauty that can’t be ignored.
Race Can Heighten Your Awareness of Your Appearance
One of the questions that we ask the women we interview is when did they first become aware of their appearance. And for most of the women it was a moment when they were made aware of their race. Race doesn’t ever have to be a factor until someone is treated differently or made to feel differently because of it. That’s been the case for quite a few people. And when you throw being a woman and being valued for your appearance into the mix, it can become a very formative moment.
It’s Important to Question Beauty
One of my favorite messages in the series is Minna Salami’s advice to question beauty. We’re very much products of our environments and the things we learn, believe, and subscribe to can be really ingrained, which is why it’s important to question beauty. Question everything. Like, really take the time to explore and discover what appeals to you, what you respond to what and what you value. Because if you don’t do so, your choices won’t ever really be your own and thus your experiences won’t be either.
What do you think about Antonia’s observations? What have you noticed about black beauty around the globe?