Beauty: Universal or Individual?
I often wonder who the first person to define beauty pertaining to human beings was. Did s/he also come up with the so-called standards of beauty? Or was that decided later on by a group who appointed themselves the keepers of beauty? With the diversity that exists in this world, why then do people insist on this universal standard of beauty?
A high school dorm mate once told a group of us that the marks on her chest were as a result of scrubbing herself when she was younger in an attempt to become lighter. I honestly don’t know if she was joking or not but we took her seriously. Her story reminded me of my former neighbor who took pills and used creams to lighten her skin. The first time I saw my neighbor from a distance, I thought that she was white. It was only later when I saw her up close that I realized skin-bleaching is real. The proof is in the knuckles – they always maintain their original tone.
Isn’t it ironic that in a continent that is predominantly black we have this Eurocentric beauty ideals shoved down our throats? The lighter your skin tone and the straighter your hair, the more beautiful you are. The darker your skin tone and the kinkier your hair, the uglier you are. That is what the faraway “connoisseurs of beauty” want us to believe. It is saddening to realize just how many of us, Africans, have bought into this.
African women are less celebrated for what comes naturally to us than we are for that which comes artificially. How dare you exist confidently in your dark skin with kinky hair and curves? How dare you embrace the body that you were born in? How dare you not aspire to have European features? How dare you unconditionally love who you truly are?
When Lupita Nyong’o starred in Shuga, an MTV Base Africa show, there are those who called her ugly because of her dark skin. As soon as her beauty was acknowledged in the West, the same people who used to find her undesirable were suddenly amazed by her gorgeousness. In 2014, Leah Kalanguka was crowned Miss Uganda. Even before the crown got comfortable on her head, social media bullies were already sweating over their keyboards insulting her. When her beauty and intelligence were praised at the Miss World pageant, the naysayers had a quick change of heart. She suddenly became stunning to them. As if our beauty only becomes apparent when we get two thumbs up from the West.
Is it that difficult to accept the fact that beauty is diverse? That there cannot be a universal standard of beauty? That we can’t all have the exact same features and look exactly the same? Can you imagine what a boring world it would be if we did? Why are people bothered so much by the fact that dark skin girls are also beautiful?
Sadly, the preference for Eurocentric aesthetic has permeated even our homegrown African fashion and beauty industry. I can’t count the number of times I have been disappointed by viewing the website or social media page of an African-based fashion/beauty house only to find it awash with white and light skin models. Most of these businesses state that they exist to promote Africa in one aspect or the other. How can you, in that case, fail to accurately and inclusively represent Africans in your ad campaigns? Isn’t that then sending a message about who the business considers appealing and should thus wear their creations? Or your target audience does not include the average African, whether at home or in the diaspora?
I, for one, look forward to putting the days of taking beauty cues from the West behind us. I look forward to the day when the diverse beauty that African women have is celebrated wholly not selectively. I look forward to the day when all our skin tones are represented on the models of African-based fashion and beauty houses. I look forward to a time when African women no longer receive unsolicited “advice” about what they can do to achieve some elusive beauty standard. I look forward to the day stores will stop selling skin-whitening products. I look forward to the day we, African women, can navigate this world as were were created to – carefree and fearlessly. Beauty is after all as unique as fingerprints.