Body image is no futile concern, especially for women of colour
Assa Samake-Roman is a freelance journalist covering Scotland’s politics, culture, society and travel for Radio France Internationale, Le Figaro, Mediapart and Slate.fr. She also writes columns in the Sunday National. You can find more about her work on her blog, Kiltissime, and in her podcast about Scotland in French, Ecosse Toujours.
Most people want to believe that their appearance, and most importantly how their appearance is perceived by others, doesn’t really matter. “What matters is what’s inside”. It is true, but for women especially, how bodies are perceived matters a great deal.
It’s difficult to talk about body image without talking about race. As a black woman, I sit at the intersection of several judgments. My body is judged as a woman: whatever I wear, however I behave, my body is seen as an invitation for comments of sexual nature or any sort of contact which, more often than not, amounts to assault. As a black person, my body is either seen as dangerous (hence the police and medical violence against black bodies), savage, over sexual, primitive. Moreover, being on the chubby side myself, I could add a hint of fat phobia to the mix. Trans women, queer women, women with disabilities, also have issues of their own that I can’t write about because I have never experienced them.
Here’s one example from a few years ago. In 2015, I decided to stop wearing lace wigs and wear my natural hair every day. I had only decided this because I was in a stable relationship of over a year, felt safe, and thought that my now husband would still love me with my very own hair. But I can’t count the times when I cried looking at myself in the mirror, especially when I started putting on weight. “I’m already black with natural hair”, I thought. “I can’t be fat too. That is too many barriers. Or I’ll need to go back to wearing good, European hair.”
The primary thing that we ask women and girls as a society is to be pretty and beautiful. We are urged to buy a multitude of products to enhance our appearance following fluctuating beauty standards that will remain unattainable for the vast majority of us, no matter how much we spend, diet and exercise. If we pay too much attention to our appearance, we’re called shallow. If we don’t, we’re called tomboys. This is a general rule for women: whatever we do will never be good enough.
From that, derives a lower sense of self-esteem. From a very young age, girls are taught to criticise their own bodies, compare theirs with others, creating the perfect conditions for self-hate. I remember feeling fat from primary school, even if I absolutely wasn’t! But that wasn’t my main issue. Only recently have I been able to articulate that my main problem with my appearance was that I was black… and until very recently, only white girls and women were represented as beautiful.
For a lot of non-white girls and women, it is hard to feel good in their own skin when nowhere they are represented as being beautiful and successful. Western beauty standards are incredibly exclusive: a tan is required but being brown or black is frowned upon (hence skin whitening products), wavy hair is great but frizzy, coily hair needs to be straightened or relaxed with expensive, damaging products, African hairstyles are only worth celebrating on white TV stars, and big lips, big bums are alright on a white woman, but provocative and ugly on black women. You don’t need to look any further than dating to see how ingrained these beauty standards are: black women, as well as Asian men, are the groups considered as the least desirable on dating apps. Stereotypes play a huge part in this too: Black women are portrayed as being too angry, too loud, too aggressive. In fiction, books or cinema, you very rarely see a Black woman who is the object of a love pursuit. She’ll always be outside of that realm: a desexualised best friend who listens and cares. Fiction creates reality: only with better representation, and giving a voice and a space to non-white women to create and articulate what could be, will we be able to have a positive impact on body image.
The exact opposite of over sexualisation is true: Black girls and women are over-sexualised and suffer from fetishisation. I can recall several times when it happened to me when I was a child. I was terrified, humiliated, and sadly, I wondered what I had done to give some men the impression that they could make inappropriate comments to me.
Either way, desexualisation and over sexualisation are dehumanising.
Only as an adult am I able to understand precisely why I have always had a difficult relationship with my body and my appearance. It is no wonder body image has such a toll on young people’s mental health and general wellbeing. But it is extremely confusing to grow up with all these elements impacting you, not understanding why they exist, and where they come from. All western nations have a history of sexism and racism, coming from the time of slavery and empires, where nonwhite women’s bodies were seen as a commodity, something to be used and exposed as wild animals.
We might think that we have moved on from it but:
- Skin whitening still exists, and whiteness is still promoted as the ultimate beauty goal.
- In some professional and school settings, afro hair is still seen as being untidy and unacceptable.
- Non-white women and girls are targeted by a particularly vicious form of racism from a very young age. Hearing “you’re pretty for a black girl” and being explained how I look like “burnt toast” was common from my childhood to my twenties.
This needs to be deconstructed and challenged everywhere: in schools, at work, in public and private spaces. Nowhere should it be tolerated to say, write and publish derogatory comments on women’s bodies. This isn’t free speech if it’s about using your platform to further oppression.