Reclaiming Beauty

25 Feb 2018

Fed up with Western ideals of beauty, diaspora black women are stepping up the fight to proudly own their image, but the battle is far from won.

Just how much beauty is in the eye of the beholder? For black women finding themselves living in a culture that often glorifies Western ideals of beauty, particularly in the entertainment and fashion industries, this has long been a struggle.

From skin tone and natural hair to body type, many women of colour have had enough of trying to conform with European styles and have drawn a line in the sand to proudly take ownership of their look.

“We feel we must have flowing hair and narrow hips to conform, having to use self-lightening creams to be acceptable to society,” says Christine Spencer, a 39-year-old British-born Ugandan.

The pressure on girls to emulate the airbrushed images on magazine covers remains immense, but now some women of colour are determined to push for greater ownership of black women’s identity.

EMBRACE THE KINKY CURLS

It’s not just the shade of their skin that black women worry about, but also their hair. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once put it, the idea of wearing hair naturally is unbearable for many women. But some are breaking the mould.

“Black women need to own their image,” says 39-year-old French-Senegalese journalist, filmmaker and anti-racism activist Rokhaya Diallo, who was one of the first African women to make prime-time television in France with natural short hair.

The nappy movement is encouraging black women to embrace their natural kinky curls much in the same way as the 1960s Black is Beautiful movement; so too has the presence of dark-skinned celebrities such as Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o.

But there is still a long way to go.

“It’s a psychological battle,” admits Afia Badu, a 33-year-old Ghanaian-born British lawyer. “We all want to be beautiful. We worry about other people’s perceptions.”

A PLACE OF ACCEPTANCE

How do black women overcome a burden that costs time and money and makes it impossible to ever sweat, forget an umbrella or go swimming? Many African women in the diaspora don’t see any way around it.

Betty Akello, a 50-year-old housing officer in the UK, laughs when she recalls the reaction of family and friends in Uganda when she started dieting to lose weight: “Men back home like their women meaty.”

Fashion bloggers are doing the rest. Social media stars Fiona Kolade and Adanna Ohakim are helping black women to fall in love with their own images.

"We’re coming into a place of acceptance, where we can say we’re just as valid," adds Badu.