I grew up thinking that my body was blemished by Blackness
A crucial step when combatting racialized body dysmorphia is giving ourselves grace through the recovery process
Editor’s Note: April is Black Women’s History Month. Throughout this month, Black Youth Project is celebrating Black women. This month is also National Minority Health Month, Autism Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
By Gloria Oladipo
I grew up thinking that my body was blemished by Blackness. I was obsessed over the possibility that my nose, inherited from my Nigerian father, was too large compared to the narrow bridges of white people. My lips looked bloated and only seemed to grow larger and larger the more time I spent consumed by how “ugly” they were.
The stigma around having “Black” features—the traditional large nose and fuller lips—can evoke a specific, racialized body dysmorphia, one where these features are obsessively viewed as beastly and unattractive.
It is no secret that beauty standards are based upon a white supremacist foundation. The image of classic european standards—slender nose, thin lips, waifish body—are exalted as beautiful, lustful, and desirable. But not only is whiteness celebrated, Black features are subsequently criminalized. Serena Williams is continually masculinized and degraded because of her body. Leslie Jones, who has a larger nose and lips as well as dark skin, is labeled “ugly” and a “gorilla” by online trolls. Even children with more pronounced Black characteristics have not been spared from attacks about their looks.
Internationally, idealism around fair skin, a colonial import, is still in heavy circulation. Within Nigeria, over 99.5 million people use bleaching products to lighten their skin. In South Africa, one in three women bleach their skin, with local celebrities touting how their lighter skin helped them feel more confident and beautiful.
In european countries such as Italy and Ireland, colorism is targeted at African immigrants and Black visitors specifically. Black people within Europe routinely describe experiences of microaggressions like being asked if they “taste like chocolate” or the unfiltered violence of being called a “disgusting black [woman].”
The continual disparaging of dark skin only creates more internalized hatred about an unchangeable part of yourself. Additionally, the typical build of Black women’s bodies is constantly under medical scrutiny. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black women have the highest rates of being overweight and obese, with four out of five Black women considered an unhealthy weight.
However, measurements for appropriate body weight are skewed against Black women. The common, simplistic method of using BMI to judge a person’s weight and overall health doesn’t take into account the larger body frames or a higher amount of muscle mass that Black women naturally have. The comprehensive narrative that Black women can be healthier at a higher BMI is rejected in favor of one that fat-shames and stigmatizes Black women’s bodies.
The dissection and constant disapproval of Black women and our bodies does not happen without consequences. The seeds of obsessive body hatred start growing early and feverishly. At five years old, I pinched my nose for hours a week, fervently hoping that it would thin out with this DIY method or with age. My mother advised me to be cautious of the sun, either by staying indoors or applying layers of sunscreen to prevent the broiling (and subsequent darkening) of my skin. My teeth chomped down on my bottom lip in a vain attempt to shrink them.
I was haunted by opportunities to transform into the Nicoles, Sallys, and Ashleys of my white neighborhood. My body looked damaged to me, a substantial barrier to the many goals that were already hard to achieve as a Black woman.
I felt that my body was the one thing I had to contour the bleak destiny that is prescribed to Black women in America. The mentors around us rarely teach Black women how to navigate white supremacist spaces with our Blackness in tact. We are told to “tone down,” box ourselves into acceptable beauty standards that can maybe make us desirable enough to earn our humanity. White women change their looks, change their bodies, rewire their physical presentation to elevate themselves above average standards; Black women change to survive.
In a world where Black women are taught to appraise our beauty through the lens of european standards, how can we rewire our brains to value all of Blackness, even body parts that are actively disparaged?
For one, various forms of Blackness, specifically demographics considered most deviant, must be shown and celebrated everywhere without relying on white approval. We need truthful representations of fat Blackness. We need truthful representations of disabled Blackness. We need truthful representations of queer Blackness, and of big-nosed Blackness, and of dark-skinned Blackness.
Black people need to see Blackness that doesn’t “fit” the front cover of Vogue, Blackness that gets mocked as manly and beast-like, Blackness not made for white consumption. The goal is not for white platforms to give approval towards Blackness or to find Blackness attractive or acceptable. Presenting different ranges of Blackness is not simply so we can say: “We are finally being seen in spaces that want us cancelled.” It’s a question of becoming more comfortable and being more grateful for ourselves, taking in Blackness in various forms to undo teaching on what “beauty” is.
I also believe we empower Black bodies by honoring the specific things our bodies can do. I used to read my hair as difficult and unmanageable, but I celebrate it now knowing the many historically significant hairstyles it can hold. My “untamed” hair is the only kind that grows towards the sun.
Our larger builds, the same ones that get us labeled as unhealthy and lazy, have crossed airless swamps and frigid terrains for our freedom, and do daily resistance of raising children in an anti-Black world. Our large lips, both mocked and fetishized, enable us to speak out against the daily forms of oppression we face.
Once I began to understand the purpose and power of my Black body, my obsession over aesthetics lessened to make room for a curiosity and appreciation. But a crucial step when combatting racialized body dysmorphia is giving ourselves grace through the recovery process.
When I had an intense hatred of my Black features, the response of many peers and family members was to condemn me as “white washed” and “colonized.” They were right insofar as I was internalizing the anti-Black beauty standards around me. But what none of us acknowledged was that my understanding of Black features as ugly wasn’t something that happened consensually; the process—mostly continually hearing narratives from white media about Blackness—was invasive, inundating, and painful.
Black body dysmorphia is a learned behavior, something that we as Black women do not do to ourselves. Undoing it and learning to even have a neutral relationship with our bodies is an arduous process that will require patience and self-compassion.
For many, attempting to cure Black body dysmorphia is an infinite and painful cycle of trying to renounce one’s internalized anti-Blackness. We go out of our way to empower ourselves in our bodies, but ultimately fall prey to the same lessons of anti-Blackness that we were taught before. The process of learning to love ourselves or even be ok is difficult and can feel impossible, but it’s important to remember that there can be no end goal or singular moment of body acceptance.
We fight against Black body dysmorphia knowing that the world and our own hearts may be wired like this for a long time (or permanently), but we celebrate our bodies because of we deserve to feel freedom within them, even if the world says otherwise. Our celebration of our beings is not dependent on a finality of our self-hatred; it is an active, fluid, ongoing, painful, and beautiful process that we do because we deserve to feel some sense of peace and mental clarity.
The undoing of body dysmorphia is a long, continual journey. It is rejecting beauty norms and beliefs that have been in place for centuries, that have been fed to us our entire lives. By finding new ways to appreciate ourselves and changing the metrics we use to define “beauty,” we can alleviate Black body dysmorphia in our communities and in ourselves.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black/Nigerian-American first year student at Cornell University. Based in Chicago, IL.