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What Is Beauty? – It’s a Status: it’s Reaction and it’s Interaction

In trying to figure out exactly what beauty is, I found that first I needed to understand who it was for. All roads seemed to lead to an external confirmation of the outward expressions of oneself. Everything from beauty pageants to the show “Ugly Betty” alluded to the idea that our societal working definition of beauty, however vague, cannot be defined internally. You can’t be beautiful unless some else thinks you are. More than that, it’s not enough for it to just be known; beauty must be stated or reacted to in order to exist.

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A. So say others think I’m beautiful but I myself don’t agree. People smile wider when they see me, people go out of their way to make me more comfortable, people take every opportunity they get to offer their confirmations of the success of my physicality. Does the beauty exist then? And now since I’ve experienced what it’s like to move through space with the social status classified as beauty, what then? Most likely I will enjoy how it feels to be treated with an elevated regard from others. I will probably enjoy the compliments and in turn make an effort to maintain those features that garner those compliments, I may even make efforts to “fix” everything else so that other features will also become compliment-worthy. Now I start to second-guess why I did not think I was beautiful in the first place – only sometimes. For the most part I still maintain that I am nothing more than a vessel for improvement and each improvement I make provokes more and more positive reactions. These positive reactions give me confidence to approach and be approached because I have repeatedly received confirmation of my social status from others. Now something happens. I get sick, I oversleep, I’m stressed to the point of visible deterioration – something happens that makes it so my outwardness is below the usual standard I hold myself to, it may even still be above the standard of my former unimproved self, but whatever the case may be, it is a deviation. Just as quickly the warmness fades, the smiles disintegrate, compliments are replaced by others scrambling to offer excuses for appearing as less than the usual beautiful person that they have come to expect, if not require. It’s almost as if I have offended people in some way. It is like having a warm blanket ripped of my arms on the coldest day of the year. I never want to commit this transgression ever again, I just want my blanket back. So I recover or reemploy whatever regimens it takes to return to my former version of a version of myself. Without this I do not feel whole and I do not feel safe; I’m either vulnerable to the crisp chill of the world or a slave to the word “beauty”.tumblr_mxrgypYMVa1qlsrn9o1_500.gif

B. Now, say I think I am ugly. Others do not react to me accordingly. I get an average amount of compliments and nothing said or done to the contrary. I still think I am ugly. I see no room for improvement and so I do not try to improve. No one is bothered because the little I do is acceptable to them. They may even envy the obvious effortlessness, I may even receive even more praise because of this. The fact that I do not agree with them is not out of the ordinary, I may even be praised more because of my modesty. All the while my view of myself remains unaffected, but I still move through space socially classified as beautiful and possibly proceed as in A.

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C. Say I believe I am ugly and others believe so as well. There is no warmness, no smiles, no compliments and I am well aware of the reason why. Others write me off as inwardly unpleasant and unapproachable because that is how they’ve deemed my outward appearance. I’m greeted by unpleasant looks when approaching others. I see the familiar looks ranging from disgust to indifference whenever I walk into a room. Now when meeting new people, I anticipate them not wanting to be around me for very long. I do not look into mirrors for very long. I fear that when others are whispering around me that it is actually me they are whispering about. Even if someone does say something positive about my looks I do not believe them; I think they are lying to make me feel better, or worse, poking fun at my unsightliness at my expense. All social interactions begin to feel like this regarding other aspects as well. It’s possible that I choose a likable aspect of my personality to over-compensate for what I lack appearance-wise and play out that caricature of myself like a theater puppet in order to feel comfortable in social situations. It is possible that I have endured so much mistreatment because of undesirable appearance that I have become aggressive as a defense mechanism. I greet others with all the hostility I expect to receive so that instead of allowing others to find me unpleasant because of my appearance, they find me unpleasant because of my sourness. It is also possible that I detract myself from social situations altogether, wanting to be myself but not finding many who are interested in myself if my visible self is not appealing. And so I have two choices: strive to present a better physical self in order to gain enough approval to be my internal self and proceed as in A. or become a socially detached or overcompensating slave to the word “ugly”.

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D. Now let’s say that I think I’m beautiful, and no one else thinks so. Then what? If no one ever calls me pretty, if no one ever compliments me in any way, if no one ever acknowledges my outward self as something even slightly pleasing to be in the presence of, does that self-proclaimed beauty exist? Am I allowed to claim that status in society if I am not reacted to as a holder of that status? Is it enough for me to award myself the title being beautiful but to not experience the privileges that it would otherwise entail? In some ways it is because I am not deemed beautiful socially that allows me to be unconditionally beautiful in my own opinion; my beauty is contingent on a knowing and a feeling that is internally self-actualized. Still, on some level I am forced to be aware that my status as I move through space is less than that of someone who is considered beautiful because others react to me that way, but still, I choose to interact as though I am unfazed by that fact. Is this because I want to challenge others to see me the way I see myself? If so, if their minds remain unchanged is it a waste? Or do I do this as a means to try and transcend the working definition of beauty altogether? Reclaim it as something other than the world’s reaction to someone’s physical elements but instead as an internal attitude and a way of moving through space, as a force swimming fiercely against the current, a slave to neither beauty, because I’ve never been granted this status in order to fear its revocation, nor ugliness because I’ve disallowed myself to interact with others according to how they react to me.

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Ideally we all believe that we are beautiful  and are all reacted to as such but we all know that that is not usually the case. Many of us probably experience a mixture of one or more or all four scenarios at once or experience one or more these scenarios at different points in our lives. Some people feel like A. with makeup on and like C. without it. Some people might feel like C. in middle school and become B. after high school and D. in senior adulthood. It all varies, I guess.

So why didn’t I write a scenario where someone feels beautiful and is reacted to as being as beautiful as they feel? Frankly, because I haven’t the vaguest sense of what that’s like.

What is Beauty?

Beauty is an ideal sought after worldwide. People both live and die for beauty. For some beauty is tangible and for others it’s more abstract, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is regarded in one way or another by most living beings. In fact, to disregard beauty and its importance almost always has to be a conscious choice, whereas to praise the elements and characteristics that are deemed the most desirable to whomever it may concern is implicit; it’s just a way of life.

Why is beauty so important to us?

That’s a root I’m sure many of us would like to dig up, at least anyone who has spent as much time considering it as I have, but I feel that the answer, or answers, to that question lie in the definition(s) of beauty itself.

I’m attempting an eight part segment to attempt to explain all the definitions of beauty as I’ve pondered them in my poster-clad dorm room while eating French Fries and drinking Arizona. I’m neither an expert nor am I a sociologist or an anthropologist or anything of the sort, I’m just someone who’s been wondering things and wondering if people are wondering the same things I’m wondering.

Think of this series as more of a discussion than anything; interaction and feedback is more than welcome so long as it is constructive.

B.I.T.C.H. part 2

Because

In order

To be

Considered whole, I must only be

Half myself and find a way to dispose of the rest

 

Because

I prayed to be thinner more

Than I prayed to live longer despite the

Curse promised for those who do not

Honor thy father and mother

 

Because she

Insisted upon making me everything

That I

Could never be: waif-like, obedient, and

Happy to be nothing more than a wife to be

 

Because nothing

I could ever

Think or do

Could ever disappoint

Her more than the way I looked

 

Because

I regretted

The way my appearance

Caused so much pain and

Heartbreak in her

 

Because the

Internalization of self-loathing

Turned all the blood between us into

Callousness in the name of brutal

Honesty

 

Because the most

I can achieve with

The woman who gave me life is

Cordiality at best and

Heavy silence for the sake of self-preservation

 

Because

I learned from her, not only how

To obsess over

Calories, but also

How to kill someone with words

 

Because a bitch

Isn’t

The worst thing that you

Can call me,

Honestly

-Chido

 

Image Source

 

The Trigger Warning: Where my issues with my body image began

***TW: numbers associated with weight loss are mentioned

One of the hardest choices I’ve ever made was the decision to leave my small town in Delaware and my family and friends to go to university and pursue my dreams in New York City. The distance may not have been too great but the differences were abounding.

Adjusting to my new life was rough for many reasons: being away from home for the first time, missing my close friends and feeling the pressure to make new ones, and, of course, the new pace and attitude of the city.

All those reasons I predicted and expected; it didn’t make them easier to deal with but at least I knew what I was up against. However, other issues arose that I am only now starting to fully comprehend. At that point I was attending Parsons at the New School for Design and anyone who has ever been there knows that the students attending that school are largely Asian and White. I was one of only four black people that I met during my short time there which, besides being surrounded by so much talent that I felt I didn’t measure up to, made me feel like I didn’t belong there. I felt as if they were just trying to level out the demographics or something, like there was a quota they had to meet for some reason even though it is a private school. I later learned is called Impostor Syndrome, but I still to this day do not doubt that my accusations could be true.

Another representation issue I encountered was the overall lack of fat people. Every time I walked into a classroom, I felt like the complete embodiment of the proverbial elephant in the room.

Body image has been something I have struggled with since as long as I can remember, as is true for many of us I believe. My struggle traces back to puberty when my body was stripped of all neutrality. I started to develop noticeable curves and gain weight in some areas where there wasn’t as much fat before (i.e. my thighs and my ass) and before I even noticed these things myself, everyone else around me did. On one hand I was sexualized by male family members and classmates and on the other hand I was socially demonized by female members of society, including my mother. All of a sudden life went from being a carefree and oblivious child to becoming a woman whose main responsibilities were achieving thinness and becoming a woman that a man would want to marry one day while simultaneously doing nothing to attract male attention or stir up impure thoughts in the men around me, all before I even turned 12.

The unwanted attention from boys and men was the first issue concerning my body that I really had to face head on. As a 5th grader, I dealt with not only unwanted attention but unwanted physical contact from some of my male peers. Boys that I had considered friends just a year before, all of a sudden, became fixated on staring at my ass whenever I turned around, walked by, or bent over. Even worse than that was when they began to make a game out of copping a feel whenever they could. Not only did I feel unsafe to the point that I stopped going to recess, only went to the bathroom between classes when there were a large amount of people in the hallways, and tied a sweater around my waist every single day, I also blamed myself heavily. I thought that if I was thin and had a different shape, I wouldn’t have had to go through the harassment that continued for the entire school year and followed me until I moved to a new town and school district.

I want to note that my family and parents are African, specifically Zimbabwean immigrants and first generation Americans. Knowing this may also raise the question about the pressure I started to feel to become thin, outside of the sexual harassment. Typically Black people embrace thicker body types as the standard of beauty, especially Africans, but my immediate family did not see things this way, unfortunately for me.

Thus began my self-esteem’s downward spiral. Sometimes I thought I would try to diet but whenever I thought about dieting and how the only way I thought I could be deemed acceptable to the world was if I lost weight and became skinny, I would become really upset and do the opposite, which was to consult sugary snacks for consolation. At this point though, I started to become occupied by time-consuming school activities and countless crushes that prevented me from dwelling on too many internal issues. I was also, thankfully, surrounded by a positive group of friends that helped counteract many negative thoughts I had about my body so I was able to suppress them for the time being.

Graduation was bittersweet. I was glad to be out of the purgatorial hell-hole that was high school, but I knew that in 3 months, I was going to be leaving behind everything comfortable and familiar in my life. On top of being anxious awaiting the impending transition, I was mostly isolated from my friends the summer before starting college. Everyone was taking vacations, getting together their college dorm needs, working summer jobs, and otherwise occupying themselves with menial things just because we knew that this was the last time we could. The problem for me was that I hadn’t realized how toxic my home environment could be until then.

Within a month of being home I remembered exactly what I used extra-curricular activities to escape from. Being with my mother day after day constituted constant harassment about my weight and size. Every time I picked up a fork my motives and habits were verbally questioned. “Are you still eating?” “Do you really think you should eat that?” “You’re still hungry?” “Why is all the food gone already?” “I put food in your plate for you. No more eating tonight” These are but a few of the many quotes that began to perpetually circle around in my head.

It got to the point where I could not eat in front of her, or anyone really. I also reintroduced the concept of dieting into my life and it was the first time I really took it seriously. What got me was when I was told that I’m limiting my chances of succeeding in my career because I didn’t look the way a designer should supposedly look. Even though I knew the comment didn’t necessarily hold any merit, considering the wide range of outrageous appearances I know many successful fashion designers to have, I didn’t want to make my life any harder for myself than I already knew it was. So I went on a diet.

This diet consisted of a calorie counting app that I referred to like the Bible, taking multiple daily walks/runs, drinking about six bottles of water a day, getting on to the treadmill when I could, and sleeping constantly, fearing that being awake might make me think of how hungry I was. Using the app I programmed my goal to be to lose 30 pounds before school started in a month and a half. According to my weight and the goal I programmed, the app dictated how many calories I could intake and how many I had to burn each day. Many days I would eat under the amount of calories I was allotted in hopes of speeding up the weight loss process.

The first couple days were the most successful. I lost about 4 pounds in a week. I didn’t realize then that it was mostly, if not all, water weight. More days went by and the loss was less rapid. Then weeks went by and there was little to no change. I didn’t know how to deal with plateauing so far away from my goal. I still persevered anyway, telling myself that one day I’ll just wake and notice the transformation as if it were overnight as long as I stopped obsessing and kept persevering, so I decided to only look at the scale every other day.

By the time school started, I had only lost 10 pounds. I didn’t feel like I looked any different and the only difference I felt was utter emotional and physical exhaustion. In the last days before I started school I had made a tumblr account, for no reason in particular, but shortly after, discovered *thinspo (tw on link). It wasn’t long before I fell completely down the rabbit hole, lusting after thigh gaps, visible rib cages, and defined collar bones the way I used to lust after cute boys in high school.

Starting college, deprivation and self-loathing had already conquered my entire being, which made facing the other elements of my transition that much harder.

Don’t F**k With Big Belly Women

In the most recent issue of Oprah Magazine, there was a Q&A portion of an article where a reader asked “Can I pull off a crop top?” The reader was then given a response by one of the magazine’s writer’s which stated “If (and only if!) you have a flat stomach, feel free to try one.”

We crop top wearing big bellied women immediately proceeded to look down at our exposed stomachs and ask, “bishwet?”

This is definitely not the first time media, especially magazines, and society in general have tried to police the specific garment choices of fat women and it will not be the last time either. We’re repeatedly told to “Wear all black — it’s slimming!” or to “Never wear horizontal stripes!” or “Just don’t wear prints or bright colors in general!” Basically, we’re told to wear a burlap sack because there’s nothing worse that a fat woman can do than be seen, or worse, have her fat be seen, hence the emphasis on the “and only if!” part. It’s been made abundantly clear to us that many people would rather fat women just disappear. Well guess what? Not only are we here, but there is a new generation of fat women who are ready with guns blazing when our right to visibility is attacked by statements such as these.

Upon seeing the snapshot of the atrocious article, I immediately clicked where @oprahmagazine was tagged in the picture to see if there were any more responses to it. This is just a glimpse of what I found:

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TL: Tess Holliday (@tessholliday), #effyourbeautystandards TR: Lalaa Misaki (@lalaamisaki) BL: Courtney Noelle (@courtneynoelleinc), #deathtothemumu BR: Cynthia Ramsay Noel (@flightofthefatgirl), #flightofthefatgirl

Everyone from famous plus-size models like Tess Holliday (@tessholliday), the founder of #effyourbeautystandards, plus-size bloggers like Essie Golden (@essiegolden), the founder of #goldenconfidence, Roxy of @rrrstylings and Jolene of @boardroomblonde, featured by Plus Model Magazine (@plusmodelmag), to body-positive IG advocates, curvy tummy women, and even some women with flat tummies, geared up with their selfies to dispute the lies being printed about them (all via instagram). Even a new body-positive tag, which I can’t wait to use all day every day, came out of the outrage: #pullingoffacroptop (created by Sarah Chiwaya of curvilyfashion.com (@curvily)). And so I was inspired to join in on all the excitement:

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***

What many don’t realize is that when you say a fat woman can’t wear a crop top, you’re saying much more than just that. What you’re actually saying is that a fat woman doesn’t get to make the same choices about her body that a thin woman could. You’re saying that fat women don’t deserve to love themselves and their bodies and you’re saying that fat women don’t deserve to have their choices respected. Whether or not you find fat and rolls aesthetically pleasing to look at is irrelevant. Fat women’s tummies are not killing people, fat women’s tummies are not disturbing the peace, fat women’s tummies are not hurting anyone, but ignorance, bigotry, and bullying are. So the next time you feel entitled to comment on a stranger’s body and tell them what they can and can’t wear – don’t. And ladies, and everyone else too, if you feel good about yourself in what you’re wearing, which I know is so hard for most of us to do no matter what our size, you are f**king pulling it off!

I would also like to call this a HUGE win for tummy love. Even in the plus-size community, big-belly women are often slighted. There is not a lot of appreciation yet for giggly bellies anywhere, but this gives me hope that one day there will be.

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Has Africa Fallen Out of Love With Plus-Size Women?

Zion Tribe by Maelle Andre
motel-magazine.com Photography by Maelle Andre

It’s quite possible that I was raised by the only African mother who doesn’t believe that voluptuous body types are beautiful, but if I’m not, I blame colonization (as I do for pretty much everything).

Growing up, it was always hard to find the strength inside me to shut out the thousands of reasons both she and the media gave me to hate my chubby tummy, thick thighs, and round face, but from time to time I found comfort in knowing that the being tall, thin, and white was a eurocentric beauty preference. Being American (first-generation), that’s what I always had to consider, but, being African, it made sense to look to the elephant ear-shaped continent where I found that there are many more things that different cultures find beautiful, including big women.

Fast-forward about 10 years and you’ll find a world where technology is wholly accessible and social media is king queen*. Press play in 2015 and you’ll also find that African fashion has gained steady popularity, though it is still in an early adoption stage. As an aspiring fashion designer, the new-found Afrocentrism is extremely exciting for me. I and other African designers’, both aspiring and on the rise, only hope is that African designers and African nations will be the main ones profiting off the adoption of African fashion in the western world. Racism in the fashion industry is a huge issue that I will continue to explore in this blog, quite often I’m sure; however, I want to start by asking the question that my colleagues have not and probably will not ask: Why are African brands not making clothing for plus-size women?

African Print Turban by The Pretty Caps store on Etsy.com
African Print Turban by The Pretty Caps store on Etsy.com

Like the fashion-loving fat girl I am, the first thing I thought about upon realizing the doors being opened for African fashion, was that there were going to be more people in the industry fighting for, or at least catering to, plus-sizes. Call it wishful thinking or just plain naivete, but imagine my dismay to learn that most of the apparel designers’ sizes stop at size 10. The first thing I asked myself was, “Is this the new standard for Africans now or is this the compromise we have to make to succeed in the Western-dominated industry?”

Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs
Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs

Am I wrong to believe that in promoting diversity in the fashion industry, designers should also promote diverse beauty ideals? The same way that non-Africans who make collections “inspired” by African fashion without using any black models leaves a bad taste in my mouth, African fashion that is inaccessible in bigger sizes just feels plain wrong. Pop in any given African movie into a DVD player and you’ll see thick and fat women galore because Nollywood doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules—yet, but neither should African fashion. I implore African designers to take this opportunity to twist, bend, and turn the fashion industry inside out. Celebrate the fact that Africa is an entire continent full of beautiful black women of all different shades, shapes, and sizes, and bring that realization and mindset to the industry. It’s time to refuse compromise and break down the boundaries, especially since there is a HUGE market of women like myself who have nothing to wear and would love to know that there is a place in this world where fat, thick, and curvy women are not only accepted, but admired, that is, of course, if that is still the case.

***

Oh yeah, and please do it before the culture vultures in the fashion industry stick a dashiki on a size 8 model and not only call her plus-size, but say that they came up with the idea. You know that’s how it ALWAYS happens. For once, let us be the first to make money off our own ideas.

Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs
Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs

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