by Britt Julious
Is there something wrong with my face?” I asked my mother as a 9-year-old girl. We were driving back from my elementary school and I couldn’t stop thinking about what a classmate said to me earlier that day. Often, when we think about the perpetuation of unfair beauty standards, we assume that they are directed only by the dominant racial and ethnic classes. This is the case historically and usually the case regarding the issue from its basest level. But internalized racism and beauty standards have a way of creeping up by surprise. On the playground earlier that day, that “classmate” was another black girl named Trina. She was shorter and prettier, with thick box braids popular in the mid-to-late 90s.
“What’s wrong with your face?” she asked me in disgust.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“Why is your nose so big? Why are your lips so big?” she asked.
My mother assured me that there was nothing wrong with my face, my lips, or my nose. I looked like her, she said, and did I think there was something wrong with her face, her lips, or her nose? Well, of course not. My mother is still the most beautiful woman in the world to me. Growing up, this was not an issue for me, not really. But some things I internalized without realizing. I did not wear lipstick. I barely wore lip gloss. In my mind, it was because I could never find a nice enough color. Truthfully, it was because I was told – by the media, by friends, by family – that I don’t want to “stick out.” Too much color only emphasized rather than diminished the size of my lips. And there was something wrong with trying to highlight what was there (what was often even coveted) because someone some time ago decided that this was not good. Standing out was problematic. I needed to be seen, but not “heard.” I needed to be visible, but not “present.”
In a recent article with Net-A-Porter, top model Jourdan Dunn revealed an incident in which a white make-up artist refused to do her make-up because Jourdan was black and the artist was white. Reading briefly about the situation reminded me of the above story. The insidiousness of the beauty industry can be felt in all walks of life. What is considered normal, approachable, and “workable” is limited in scope and in practice. What does it mean when a model like Dunn can’t get her make-up done by a make-up artist. Well for one, that the artist is unprofessional. But also, that we live in a world in which Dunn’s caramel skin is considered “extra” and “other.” By refusing to do Dunn’s make-up, the artist perpetuated the idea that Dunn was not normal and that approaching make-up with her skin and face was a challenge. Dunn was not “routine.” And to not be routine is to be “wrong.”
“So what lipsticks did you bring?” Alysse asked. This was January 2012 and we sat in a friend’s well-lit apartment preparing for her first photoshoot for her jewelry line. Well I brought a lot of mascaras. I had more than 10 from a variety of different high-end brands. I had products and combs for my hair. This was all very DIY, very young. But lipstick? I owned one perfect red and one perfect pink and that was it.
“Where are your lipsticks?” she asked.
“I never wore many,” I confessed.
“But why?” she asked.
“That’s okay,” Alysse began. “I have a lot of stuff.” And she did. Lots of purples, pinks … even greens. All of it was foreign, but interesting to me. Alysse and I had been friends for years. She regularly rocked seemingly outrageous colors and made them work. But that was her and this was me. And yet, it was okay. Actually, it was a lot of fun.