As far back as I can recall, I always wanted to be pretty
I know that sounds really shallow, but this is a safe space, right?
So as I was saying, my greatest goal in life as a little girl was to grow up to be pretty. I knew this wasn’t an acceptable life goal, so when adults would ask that obligatory question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I knew to rattle off the standard respectable answers that Black children are supposed to recite.
With great sincerity, I would say, “I want to be a physician or a veterinarian. I would like to do both, but we’ll see.” And while my mom would beam with pride over her ambitious little girl, I knew the whole time that was a bunch of bull. Truthfully, I never really knew with certainty and commitment the specific career I wanted. What I knew for sure was that I wanted to be wealthy, successful at something, and most of all, I wanted to be pretty.
What brought about this burning desire?
First of all, I grew up in the 90’s; the heyday of Black film and television. During that time, there was no shortage of images of beautiful Black women of all colors and shapes…and whose beauty was attainable. The first time I saw A Low Down Dirty Shame
, it was Peaches (Jada Pinkett-Smith
), not Angela (Salli Richardson), who I became obsessed with. I wanted to be Debbie (Nia Long), not Mrs. Parker (Kathleen Bradley), in Friday
. The character that really sealed it for me was Natalie (Halle Berry) in Strictly Business
. Notice a pattern? More on that later.
Second, I have the privilege of being from an insulated Black community in Atlanta—East Point, to be exact. There is a huge benefit to growing up among people who look like you, but who are not a monolith. Black people who are born and raised in Atlanta see blackness at every part of the spectrum, from the very wealthy to the very poor.
Additionally, there is a very close juxtaposition of the haves and the have nots. For this reason, we never knew blackness to mean “minority” or “less than.” We grew up with the knowledge that there is no one way to be Black, and no one way to be beautiful, because blackness is so inclusive of so many additional identities. I have always seen blackness as limitless, not limiting.
Third, the Black women who raised me carried themselves with a certain air. I never heard any of them speak negatively about their appearance. I never heard my mother compare herself to white women, or long for their features. With her high cheekbones, flawless skin, full lips, and hips, my mommy let me know early on through her actions to be an unapologetic Black woman who takes pride in her being.
Beauty seemed like a reasonably attainable goal to have since I was surrounded by it at all times in my life. I went to all Black schools with all Black teachers who unknowingly fed this secret desire of mine. My very prideful and fashion-conscious mother dressed me to the nines every day for school. So much so that I was the favorite of my teachers, and they would send me to the classrooms of other teachers to show them my look of the day. I’m not joking or exaggerating here; that was my life. In my mind, that kind of approval was the height of accomplishment, and I was actively living out my goal.
Then came my awkward phase, and my life goal went to shit. It was right around middle school when I learned that I would rarely—if ever—be considered the prettiest girl in any room, no matter how hard I tried to look like everyone else. I wanted to be the girl who the boys all chose, but I learned about the emptiness that comes from seeking that kind of approval when the first boy I ever kissed said he only did it because no one else would because I was ugly.
Beauty then became something I hated and resented.
That was my first real rejection, and it stuck with me. I internalized the belief that I wasn’t one of the pretty girls, and it hit me like a Mack truck how ridiculous that goal of mine was. In response, I did that thing that the girl who is deemed the “less-attractive” friend in the group is forced to do in adolescence: I developed a personality because I couldn’t rely on looks to get me by.
The more comfortable I grew with myself as someone who is smart, funny, outspoken, charming, and talented, the more I learned to feel beautiful on my own terms. From that initial rejection, beauty by anyone else’s definition just became less and less important to me.
As my personality grew, I saw that that’s what I was seeking from those movie characters I admired as a young girl. I wasn’t obsessed with them solely because they were pretty, it was their confidence that I wanted. Peaches was loud, funny, and fierce. Debbie was courageous and effortless. Natalie moved through New York city nightlife like she owned everything, and was unafraid to go after what she wanted.
Growing up black in Atlanta in the 90’s taught me how to define beauty on my own terms. It is the knowledge of and confidence in oneself that births true beauty; the kind that isn’t subject to anyone else’s ideals. We can’t seek the approval of the world, because that goal post is always moving. What we can do is look at ourselves closely and discover those unique qualities that strengthen us.
Ultimately, the only person whose perception of your beauty you can control is your own.