As a black woman, I’ve had to unlearn what beauty means to me

Tobi Oredein explains how she turned away from the mainstream media to go on a journey of self-appreciation   .

By the time I hit my mid-twenties, I had realised many things. Firstly, I came to the realisation that if I wanted to own my own house and have a lifestyle that resembled my parents’, I would have to work a lot harder and earn a lot more money. Fad diets are a waste of time and having your own version of a “uniform” for work makes life a lot easier. Yet, the most profound realisation was coming to terms with the fact that a woman who looks like me will never be the standard of beauty.

On top of the dangerous standard of physical perfection all women are held to – the flat stomach, hairstyles without a strand out of place and flawless skin that rivals a baby’s derrière – this near-impossible standard of beauty revolves around the white woman’s body. While I would never dismiss the immense pressure white women feel when they watch adverts in TV breaks and before their selected YouTube video begins, black women are rarely depicted in such a desirable manner.

As a black woman, I would be lying if I said that my self-esteem never took a hit in my teens and early twenties, when I would watch romcoms and see that the leading lady was often blonde and blue-eyed. And, on that rare occasion when the woman every man desired, and every woman desired to be friends with, was black, she usually was, and still is, of a lighter complexion. As a dark-skinned black woman, there were moments when I would look in the mirror and ask myself, “Would I ever see a woman who looked like me being hailed as the girl next door? Or, would a woman who bears any resemblance to me ever star in the latest high-end beauty campaign or R&B music video?” The more I turned to media, the more it became clear that the answer was no.

The first step in this new education was learning that I didn’t need to spend an extortionate amount of money on my hair – that my curls, my tight midnight black afro curls, were good enough

And, while that took a while to digest, I eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to unlearn what it meant to be beautiful and break away from the idea that there is only one notion of attractiveness.

The first step in this new education was learning that I didn’t need to spend an extortionate amount of money on my hair to have a weave that was a carbon copy of Jennifer Lopez’s wavy curls. That my curls, my tight midnight black afro curls, were not only good enough, but they would be an integral statement in telling the world that I was ready to unapologetically celebrate my black body in all its glory. While my hair couldn’t be further from the hair textures of women who grace our screens and magazines, that no longer mattered. I was no longer playing by the static rules that society has placed on women and how they looked.

Becoming comfortable with my afro was just one part of the equation when it came to unlearning what it truly means to be beautiful. I also had to erase the idea that the only black women who were worthy of being called beautiful weren’t just those with a more golden skintone. Black women who had a deeper and darker complexion were just as beautiful. My short phase of yearning for lighter skin or to be considered a “lightie”, as the black community says, wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t healthy because I was holding myself to a criteria of physical perfection that was whiteness. I internalised that the whiter – the lighter – you were, the more beautiful you were. I was striving for an image of beauty that was beyond perfection because it was an impossible principle of beauty to achieve.

Once I came to terms with this and realised that having a complexion that was closer to Kelly Rowland and June Sarpong was something to embrace, I felt liberated. I no longer feared to go on holiday and return home too dark or too black because I had been kissed by the sun. I began to feel at peace and relished lying on beaches abroad, knowing that the sun wasn’t just glistening on my skin, it was enhancing my blackness.

I finally learnt that having full lips are my sexiest asset. The physical feature I was often teased about in my younger years was something I should feel grateful for. I realised that my lips were something some women desire so deeply that they pay thousands of pounds for. Yes, on me they aren’t appreciated, but I appreciate them and that is all that matters.

The reality is that no woman can fulfil the unrealistic and downright harmful checkboxes of beauty. The girl I was in my school uniform and early university days didn’t know that and wouldn’t have been prepared to accept that. Now, at 27, I accept that as a dark-skinned black woman, with an afro, broad nose and full lips, my body is not only acceptable, but the only beauty standard worth accepting when I look in the mirror.

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