I don’t even remember how old I was the first time I felt ugly. From a very young age, girls are informed by the world around them that being pretty is a kind of power, and can lead to success; we see women who are lauded for their beauty all over TV, in movies and magazines, and in our own communities. While being ugly, well… it sucks.
While the connection between beauty and success is problematic in its own right—all women have more to offer than just our bodies—this screwed-up system is the one we actually live in, and it’s made exponentially harder when the vast majority of women who are praised for their beauty don’t look anything like you.
I could count on one hand the number of beautiful black women I saw on TV when I was a young girl, and when it came to kids’ shows, that number dropped to one: Meagan Good on Cousin Skeeter, a minor Nickelodeon show most of my peers don’t even remember. I dreamed that I’d be half as gorgeous as she when I grew up. Beyond this one actress, there were virtually no other black women to admire on child-friendly TV. While my friends could base their aesthetic on favorite celebrities, determining whether they wanted to be a Jennifer or a Courtney, Britney orChristina, Demi or Miley—I was stuck. Being pretty and being black felt mutually exclusive.
This lack of representation caused my 13-year-old self constant confusion and self-doubt. I know I wasn’t the only adolescent black girl to look in the mirror and think: How do I feel pretty when pretty doesn’t look like me?
When there are very, very few people on television who look like you, it’s easy to believe—especially as a teen—that it’s because you’re not worth representing. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but when people aren’t choosing to behold anyone who looks remotely like you, you’re bound to start asking why.
When we did occasionally receive representation, the characters were awfully cliched; the few times a beautiful black girl was introduced on the shows I watched, she was inevitably depicted as an over-the-top urban sidekick. Whether I was watching Fairly Oddparents or That’s So Raven, the black characters were hardly multidimensional.
By the time I was in college, TV had become ever-so-slightly more diverse. Glee was arguably primetime’s most obvious effort at inclusivity to date, and I fell in love with the show’s humorous and often progressive plotlines. However, while there was a black protagonist named Mercedes (shout-out to the fabulous Amber P. Riley), I still couldn’t relate. Sure, Mercedes was rather straightlaced; her father was a dentist, and she was a smart high schooler, but her character was usually assigned the most tired storylines. Mercedes was frequently depicted as the overweight, over-agitated, loud, obnoxious black woman, a trope that’s so played out. Pair that with her inability to keep a man—much less the white guy she truly fell for—and my eyes were rolling all the way to the back of my head.
Things haven’t changed much since. If you ask someone to name a beautiful black woman (yeah, I’ve asked), their response is usually Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, or sometimes “that black girl from Scandal,” a.k.a. Kerry Washington. Although I’m sure most millennials could name at least dozens of blonde, brunette, and redheaded white actresses (hell, probably dozens of each), most of my peers would be hard-pressed to name 10 black actresses… much less 10 they consider beautiful.
I am tired of Beyoncé being the token woman of color when there are so many other beautiful black voices and faces that deserve to be amplified. I am tired of feeling like my beauty and the beauty of those who look like me can only shine on an urban series like Empire or Power. And I am tired of black women being portrayed as one-dimensional, for that matter. I am tired of being seen as threatening, “ghetto,” and just too much. I am tired of hearing the words “you’re pretty… for a black girl.” That sentence has been said to me on more than one (or two or seven) occasions, and it stings like rubbing alcohol in a fresh wound. And in a way, it is exactly like that: a constant reminder that the world would love me if I was disinfected and sterilized of the blackness they think I’m plagued with.
I have spent a lot of time wondering if I am overreacting to all of this. It’s easy to suggest that self-confidence is an internal characteristic we should nurture independent of others’ opinions. But unfortunately, changing how we think and feel isn’t so simple. From billboards to our local prom queens, young people are inundated with image after image of beautiful women who are celebrated exclusively for their beauty. And many of the jobs that confer status and glamour, and are depicted as being especially desirable—being a Hollywood actress, for instance—are overwhelmingly populated by white people. What conclusions would anyone draw here?
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So when my 6-year-old sister asks me why there aren’t girls who look like her on TV, I know that no, I’m not overreacting. I don’t want this cycle to keep repeating; I don’t want my sister to grow up flipping through Teen Vogue and wondering where all the girls with brown skin are. We need to do a better job at expecting and demanding their inclusion. We need to stop focusing only on Jennifer Lawrence and Bella Thorne and Kendall Jenner, and talk more about Yara Shahidi and Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg. There are so many brown and black girls who are not only talented, but also stunningly gorgeous.
It took a long time for me to look in the mirror and see myself as pretty. I may have been blessed with cheekbones I don’t need to contour, but for years, my sense of my own beauty was masked by the insecurity I felt as I developed hips and griped about the texture of my hair. Self-love is an uphill battle for all of us, but it’s downright treacherous when you feel you simply can’t be beautiful. When I was 13, all I wanted was thin hair that fell freely down my back and skin that was seven shades lighter. A decade later, I want my little sister to live in a culture that won’t inhibit her feeling beautiful for so long, and for pop culture that shows her that yes, brown girls are pretty too.
Alexis Dent is a writer and cupcake aficionado from Western New York. Follow her on Twitter @alexisdent.