Recently, I’ve been thinking about standards of beauty, specifically what I find beautiful and attractive in myself and others, what I find unattractive in myself and others, where my beliefs around beauty originated, and whether the original beliefs still ring true. For at least a couple of years this has been something to grapple with because the aging process has drastically changed my appearance, but honestly, I had issues with it even when I was much younger. Coming to it now from a perspective of observing my actions and reactions is enabling me to do some internal restructuring, getting rid of that which simply isn’t true and redefining my standards according to my own truth.
Most of my beliefs, like those of many people, come from conditioning and having unrealistic beauty standards imposed upon us by different external sources like society or different influential industries. For a long time in our current culture, women in particular have received messaging that being super skinny with young, supple, unblemished pale skin, large breasts, and small hips were the only paths to being considered beautiful. Those messages are changing, but honestly, it’s too slow and there’s still a lot of discontent around appearance. Similarly, the male ideal has been tall, white, square jawed, and ripped, but not too big.
Societal standards have traditionally excluded entire races, ethnicities, and age groups from any hope of being considered beautiful. Even with the changes and the increased diversity that has emerged in the fashion and entertainment industries—the main influencers—there’s still an emphasis on thinness, paleness, and youth.
Being of Caribbean and Latina descent further complicates matters for me because of the added messaging around body proportions, colorism, and hair. And now I can add the effects of gravity and shifting body composition due to hormonal changes into the mix. Much of this dogma about the “wrongness” or undesirability of certain traits was filtered through the gaze of colonizers who were invested in dehumanizing those they oppressed and has been internalized and reinforced for generation after generation. This isn’t news. But until now, I never sat down to think about how it impacts me daily.
Weight and body image have been huge issues for me, especially after having kids. I went from fitting that super skinny ideal to the extreme opposite, which has left me at times feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, lumpy, and unattractive. I remember when I was around twelve or thirteen, someone drew a picture that was supposed to be me—a stick with a bubble a third of the way from the top and another bubble facing in the opposite direction just below center. While some people teased me, and I would later start actively trying to gain weight by chugging protein shakes (regrets! Hindsight!), for the most part, I could embrace my body and know that I had a body that others wanted. By my twenties, I was still thin enough to wear sexy outfits, but I was thick where it counted. That was when I lived in a more urban area surrounded by people who looked like me.
That changed when my environment did. Moving into predominantly white spaces, my thick thighs and heart-shaped booty suddenly seemed freakishly big. I felt fat for the first time. Little by little I started hiding in oversized clothes under the guise of being “comfortable.” Except I never was. Aging and hormonal changes pushed me to a weight where I was in physical pain and emotional misery over how big I had gotten. Despite what my doctor was telling me to the contrary, as recently as two years ago I saw myself as borderline obese. I think a lot of that had to do with being around people who had the similar proportions to me and thought that they were ridiculously overweight.
I also never saw myself as pretty. I would typically describe myself as cute, reasonably attractive (my body was the big gun in my arsenal before I got married), decent looking. Never pretty and beautiful? That would get a laugh from me. There were things I liked about my face, mostly my eyes which have always been big and kind of sleepy. I always liked my dimples, which is ironic since they’re technically a deformity, yet some rando decided they were cute. But I have a crossbite, which would have required breaking and resetting my jaw for six weeks to fix it. That makes my face appear asymmetrical and I’ve never felt comfortable with that part of my appearance. As I’ve gotten older, I notice that my face has changed too. My jaw seems squarer, and my nose seems larger, neither of which motivates me to enter any beauty contests. My skin is still pretty smooth, so there’s that.
Lastly, hair is always a big thing for black women. I didn’t even learn how to manage my hair in its natural state until I was in my forties. I relaxed it constantly until I was in my twenties and then had a few brief breaks of other styles—I had a high-top fade in college and wore dreadlocks for a few years until I chopped them off because I was pissed off at my stylist. (Because that would definitely show her!)
I find it interesting that my hair was typically the thing I struggled with the longest, but it was the first area where I was able to shift my thinking and standards. While it took me a while to learn and understand my natural curls, it wasn’t that hard to accept their beauty. I still have days where I cringe, but we all have bad hair days. Overall though, I love the different curl patterns and I’m even getting over worrying about frizz because as my hair turns grayer, the texture and curl patterns are changing too. For a while I dyed my hair purple because I didn’t have to bleach it, and it actually helped to minimize the frizz. However, I want it to turn all white. I think a head of all white hair is beautiful and elegant. So, I finally stopped dying it about a year ago. I love where it is these days, and I will refrain from bleaching and dying it white. I’ll just have to be patient.
Weight was the next area where I was able to embrace a new paradigm. What really got to me was that at my heaviest, I was in pain every day, and I felt like I couldn’t move. I was running, but the extra weight made something that was already challenging feel so much worse, and then I started injuring myself. Even training for half marathons wasn’t taking the weight off. As I process them now, my views on weight and the attractiveness of bodies are less about aesthetics and more about health. Numbers are less important than vitality, strength, and the ability to breathe, to move freely.
To me freedom of movement has always been beautiful. It’s why I’ve always loved to watch dance. And so, what I find beautiful now might be a thin lithe body, but it might also be a larger body. Once I changed my mindset to wanting to be healthy, it made shifting habits and changing lifestyle a lot easier. That was much more motivating that just wanting to fit into some old jeans. As my weight came more under control and reached a target number, other things started to change, and I became more intentional about what I consume, how I take care of this mobile home known as my body, and what I wear. I changed to a completely plant-based diet. I take care of my skin, which I never made time for. I am seeking clothes that feel good, not just look good.
I wonder if part of the reason society is so down on people who are overweight is because we somehow equate that with being unhealthy when that’s not necessarily true. There are plenty of skinny people who are unhealthy and plenty of bigger people who are quite healthy. Likewise with aging—it’s a reminder of our own mortality. No one wants to think of themselves as unhealthy, weak, or moving closer to death. So does that kind of fear-based thinking factor into our acceptance or rejection of someone as attractive? Beautiful? Our view of the world reflects ourselves, including our fears, so many of societies standards may very well be based on fear. At the very least, someone is feeding and profiting off the general public’s fear.
Now that I’ve find beauty in myself in these areas, my last hurdle is to find it in the image staring back at me through the mirror. That’s the hardest one, but my beliefs about my own appearance have taken fifty-plus years to sink in, and they won’t be driven out overnight. I’ve started by focusing on preserving and caring for the parts I like—taking care of my skin, especially around my eyes. The other day, I invested in a toner, eye serum, and revitalizing moisturizer with sunscreen. I’m not a fan of the moisturizer at the moment—it feels heavy and makes my face itch. Probably because I’m not used to feeling anything on my face. So, I’ll need to find something lighter. But it’s a start to what will be a trial-and-error process. After that, maybe I’ll start exploring some lip colors. And daily affirmations. Going into next year, I’m optimistic that someday, I’ll find beauty looking back at me.