The black is beautiful movement has gone a long way towards reminding us that black beauty standards are as worthy of being respected and loved as any other skin color. And here’s a deep Truth (and by deep Truth I mean a truth that holds true for all cultures, for all people through all periods of time, in other words it doesn’t change according to some or other societal whim) – we are all beautiful Sacred Beings regardless of our body size or shape or it’s exterior color. Now those beauty standards are ones I can buy into!
Black beauty standards in rural Africa
I grew up, a White small country girl, in apartheid South Africa – a place where by far the majority of the population is Black. One vacation I came home from boarding school to be greated by Violet who wrapped me in her big black arms, and chortled with delight, “Utyebile kakulu ngoku!” In English she was telling me that I was very fat now. I was devastated – after all, I had gained weight but I desperately wanted to be thin. It would take me years to realize that Violet was complimenting me – her black beauty standards were very different to mine.
Part of the beauty standards in Violet’s rural Xhosa culture of the 1970’s when she passed this comment, is that ‘fat is beautiful.’ To be large in her culture was considered desirable and beautiful. It meant: you were healthy, you didn’t have AIDS. It meant you were fertile, sexy and womanly enough to attract a good husband – one who is wealthy enough to provide well. It meant you were wealthy enough to eat well.
The media and black beauty standards
What I remember most about Violet (and the other Black women who I came into daily contact with) was that they never questioned that black is beautiful – they weren’t immersed in a mainstream Western media that seems to rank skin colors and body sizes as supposedly more valued and worthy the whiter and skinnier you are.
How can any one skin color, or one body size or shape determine a person’s worth? Why would our great Creator create any one race or culture to be more Sacred than another? That’s all just nonsensical beauty standards made up by misguided humans.
Violet was my black beauty standard
I can still clearly see Violet’s ebony skin – it had a glow to it that was almost iridescent. And when she smiled (which was often) she had this row of startling white teeth all without the latest teeth whiteners. They say beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder – I loved Violet’s blackness. White wouldn’t have suited her. I loved the way she walked, tall and proud. She could balance a bucket of water on her head and walk as gracefully as a dancer.
And she made me laugh – like the one time she came across me sun-tanning and teased me about how I liked black so much that I was trying to get the sun to help me. And when I started perming my hair and she asked me why I wanted curly hair like hers.
Here’s what I think is so sensible about rural Black African women. Firstly, they don’t have scales they hop on and off of and that determine their mood for the day. They don’t swarm to shops bursting at the seams with the latest one-0-size-fits-all fashions. They don’t have mirrors that lie telling they are fat and ugly. They don’t spend hours on magazines and tv that continually bombards them with the message that only a certain shape of thin is beautiful. Their beauty standards are far more realistic.
Beauty standards can determine our stress levels
Instead they live in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and their bodies. Violet didn’t have the ongoing emotional stress of living in a large body which was continually insulted, stigmatized, hated or rejected either by themselves or others. This means her parasympathetic nervous system wasn’t constantly releasing stress chemicals (like noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol) into their bloodstream which would raise their health risks.
And interestingly enough, the Royal College of Physicians official medical report of 1983 found that rural Black South African women might well have a high prevalence of obesity but that it comes without the apparently inevitable poor morbidity and mortality. Makes you think about the value of living in sync with natural rhythms, rather than stressing about being skinny – doesn’t it?
Because they are immersed in their big is beautiful black beauty standards, they feel good living in their bodies. They’re thus continually flooding their biolological system with life-supporting molecules of emotion (like endorphics) that enhance their immune systems, and enhance their health.