A couple of weeks ago, my baby sister sent me a text. It said, “Hey. Do you think I’m attractive?? Like would someone pass by and think I’m pretty?”. It broke my heart. After a few more texts, I found out that her feelings of inferiority were brought on by existing alongside a “more beautiful” friend.
I unfortunately have a lot of experience navigating those feelings. My more beautiful friend was Tiffany. We were 15 and she was tall, curvy, light skinned and fun to be around. However, going out with her meant becoming increasingly invisible. Whenever we went out, she would always attract a lot of male attention, and rightfully so, yet it made me question why I wasn't receiving the same. This was further exacerbated when the motivation for men talking to me was so I could 'put in a good word' for them, so they would be favourable candidates in Tiffany's eyes. I slowly began to realise, and was being made explicitly aware of the fact, that I just wasn't their 'type'. Whether or not I found these men attractive, their blatant erasure of me as a potential romantic option was a confirmation that I would never be anyone’s dream girl. It sucked and I told myself that it didn’t matter. I decided that I didn’t need the burden of beauty or male attention. I could be interesting, humorous, intelligent and spontaneous.
Over the subsequent eight years, there were other Tiffanys; stunning girls with whom I had the best time but alongside whom I could not experience the world as a beautiful girl. I got to chase creepy guys off, take potentially spiked drinks out of their hands and listen to the people I introduce them to gush ceaselessly about how insanely gorgeous they were. I stayed interesting, ambitious, busy and stubborn, in part, so that the fullness of my life distracted me from this insecurity.
Last week, my therapist very aptly singled out this ideology as a trauma response. Apparently, actively not thinking about my own perceptions of my attractiveness, and the politics of it, is just as damaging as dwelling on the negatives. I wanted to feign shock but the reality of my pain proved her point. Beauty, its inherent value and the tangled web of politics and bias it exists within, is complicated and deeply personal. The Kardahsians, or figures like them, have been the beauty standard of my young life. Obviously, we know how unattainable the racist and classist Kardashian beauty standard is, and for me that unattainablity is demoralising and incapacitating. I exist as a dark-skinned Black woman, so more often than not I am not the girl receiving free drinks at a bar. My university years were spent in an obscenely white context and that exacerbated an already bad problem.
What is most harmful about thinking of yourself as unattractive is that no degree of affirmation from others will save you. I was always too ashamed to bring it up with my friends because (a) they have a vested interest in me and so their protestations are biased and thus empty or (b) what if they agreed and then I have to deal with knowing, not just suspecting, that I would always be secondary. Some guy I was seeing told me that I was beautiful literally every day, but I felt genuine resentment about it. I refused to rewrite the part I had cast myself in. I was Miranda Hobbes - sexy is what I try to get them to see me as, after I win them over with my personality. Now that I know better and I’m working to move away from this state of deprivation, I am sad for my younger self and every other girl who had to believe that they couldn’t be beautiful.
When I called my sister this week, she was feeling better. I hope her sad text was one faltering moment and not a longer saga of pain and self-invalidation. I hope that she’ll waste less time on it than I have. I hope that in a year I will be a lot more healed and able to accept, dare I say enjoy, a compliment. Wish me luck.
Written by Lauryn Mwale
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