You are only as beautiful as you feel.
My mirror tells me this everyday as I look back and wish that I had someone else’s eyes or hair or nose or skin. My body is a constant project; there’s always something to tweak or hide. I’ve found comfort in changing my body beyond recognition; it conceals the emotions and dissatisfactions I have with myself when they feel too overwhelming to process.
Last weekend was one of the biggest events in the fashion, media and entertainment industries for black women across the country: the Black Girls Rock! 2015 Awards. The entire point of the event is to defy Eurocentric beauty standards and misogynistic/patriarchal forms of oppression, simultaneously affirming black women in our natural beauty and the value we hold in our communities. It is a very noble cause that has snagged sponsorship from some of the most powerful, influential corporations and stars in the world—including the First Lady herself.
I’ve enjoyed watching this awards show because aside from all of its glamour and its elaborate performances, this is the first ceremony that essentially gives Western beauty ideals the finger for their cruel and unrealistic standards. This is usually the context for our conversations on beauty standards—analyzing and debunking the ideals that have made it so hard for us as black women to love ourselves and to love the way we look.
But as I look back on the looks that I have experimented with as an adult, I’ve realized that they had nothing to do with Eurocentric ideals or a disgust I had with my natural features. Those experiments were manifestations of my desire to run away from my life and into somebody else’s.
I used to wear wigs a lot. I saw myself with the different looks and my face would transform into that of another woman, a mysterious figure that was always just beyond my reach. It felt good to wear wigs because I could leave behind my intrinsic hang-ups and take on the allure of someone whom I could never be or whom simply didn’t exist.
I was a different version of myself when I wore those wretched things. I sheltered myself from other people, much more than I do now. I grew a habit of giving men mixed messages because I was so unsure of myself. I didn’t have a clear understanding of where my career was going. I was perpetually irritable from living at my mother’s home. Black feminist theory told me that I was supposed to decry my invisibility. However, back then I had reveled in it. It made it easier to move through spaces without being questioned or confronted about the restlessness and frustration that bubbled underneath the surface.
My hair was an easy target when I tried to render myself invisible because it was so unhealthy. My afro plateaued after four years of twist-outs, co-washing treatments, lack of exercise, stress and poor nutrition. Cheap, synthetic wigs were an easy and fast solution. It didn’t matter that these wigs that weren’t really me, or that they didn’t represent me in the best light. I was so bored with my own look and uncertain of where I that I was willing to change anything about my appearance to make life more interesting, even if it made me look less attractive than I naturally was.
It was fun because it was different. I liked playing with the shapes and I was amused by people’s looks of surprise or horror. The strange hairpieces justified that I didn’t feel as good-looking as I’d felt in years past when I was a more active dancer, or when I was in college doing things that gave me a purpose everyday. I had lost the enthusiasm I once had for natural hair. I had lost what natural hair once meant for me. Resultantly, I would add to my pile of insecurities instead of trying to counteract them. I grew a comfort in these cheap wigs; even though they obscured my natural beauty, they made the way that I looked more compatible with the way I felt. It wasn’t an act of self-pity. It was an act to humor myself in a time when it was hard for me laugh at things and not take life so seriously.
I haven’t worn a wig in public for a very long time. I would wear them more frequently if I could but I’ve grown into some very expensive taste and only Beyoncé could afford the kinds of hairpieces I would be bold enough to wear today. It’s funny walking the streets near my apartment because I’m often greeted by other black women who look like I did a year ago: sporting worn facial expressions and unfortunate, fake hairpieces that will never accentuate the warmth and melanin in their skin or the roundness of their noses and cheeks. I see why my mother would grow so vex at me for hiding myself in public.
Still, I see the freedom in dressing ourselves in ways that confronts other people’s assumptions about us, or contradicts what society says about how we’re supposed to present ourselves in public. We as black women get crap for wearing our hair in any which way: natural, synthetic, dyed, fried, red, purple, Indonesian. Someone is always going to insert meanings behind why we wear certain things and then tell us how we should be wearing them. It’s gratifying to experiment despite the resistance from others.
Appreciating our own (black) beauty is not just about defying discriminatory and unrealistic Western beauty standards. It’s not even about opting to wear our natural features over store-bought ones. It’s about finding peace in who we are, where we are and what life has given us in the moment. It’s about understanding that the way we feel colors what we see in our reflection every. single. time.