The Conspiracy Against Black Beauty

or
How Barbie and Nancy Drew Participated in the Lie Perpetrated Against American Black Women

by Staci Celeste Shockley-Matthews

You were told since before you were born how precious, smart, beautiful and important you are. You didn’t walk until almost two, not due to lack of motor skills but because there was no need for you to bother to use the legs you’d been given, being carried around like the precious cargo you were often told you were. Despite “Beautiful” being the utterance your daddy used when referring to you, and even though your baby pictures from birth until aged five stayed plastered as advertisement in the Olan Mills photography studio window as examples of the gorgeous children they’d captured on film, something for you was off, just didn’t feel right, left you uncertain as to what exactly the truth was, and who was and was not telling it.

For a long time you believed your parents to be the ones misinformed. Not liars outright, but biased because they loved you and maybe their eyes did behold beauty when spying yours, huge and round on your small, oval face. A skinny, long-legged wisp with elfin ears may have matched their description of beautiful identically but elsewhere, out in the world, you knew based on what you saw, heard and experienced there weren’t many who shared their concepts.

The dolls you loved made it clear that beautiful was blonde. Beautiful had blue eyes. Beautiful had a tiny waist and tiny feet. Beautiful had skin like blush, pink roses and beautiful had hair down its back that bounced and flowed. Even Christy, the one Black Barbie you did own, came in a covered box unlike the White Barbie whose packaging had a clear, plastic front. You didn’t know until you got Christy home and opened her up that her hair was a tight, matted ball of fuzz that didn’t bounce or flow and could hardly even be combed. Her skin was so dark Black that her red mouth and white eyeballs looked clownish and not at all pixie-like. You remembered feeling cheated for the fraudulent Black Barbie that you’d been excited to own. Barbie, who represents the most beautiful can’t be Black! You’d thought.

The books you loved, Nancy Drew in particular, who you wished to be because of her quick wit, adventurous spirit, and parents who had enough money to afford maids, vacation homes and whatever Nancy wanted despite not having to work three jobs like your mother did, spoke of ‘darkies’ and ‘colored’ boys and girls being ‘unkempt,’ or ‘unusually civilized.’

This evidence worked against your parents for years, decades even. It shaped how you viewed yourself, your desires and friendships. It shaped what you believed to be fundamentally true about tall, long-legged, wide-hipped, thick-lipped, long-necked, high prominent cheek-boned, wide-nosed, nappy-headed, Black girls like you. You, none of you, not a single one, were beautiful. Had you actually been at least one magazine or commercial or billboard or doll baby or celebrity on television or in the movies would have told you so. You would have seen your Black faces prominently posed and desirable somewhere but you didn’t. Not once, not ever. Until one day you did.

On the cover of an Ebony magazine from February of 1966 you saw it. A headline that read: “Are Negro Girls Becoming Prettier?” It was 1989 at the time. You’d spent most of your life chemically straightening your hair and dieting to achieve a beautiful body, skinny and lithe, not at all like the curves your body was comprised of. The realization came forward in your mind like a storm moving across the horizon.

The women, grown women, being referred to as girls on that February 1966 Ebony cover were just like Black women you’d always known. Afros, skin like paper bags, copper pennies, sand, Earth and coffee, tall, curvy, long-legged, Black women. They were just like you. No one was becoming prettier, you’d always been, and what you realized that day in 1989 is that society knew it too, had always known it. It’s the reason why Mr. Johnson, Ebony magazine’s founder, had to phrase the truth as a question. Stating it as fact would have let the mainstream know we were on to them. It’s the reason why America worked so hard to make you believe otherwise. It isn’t necessary to undermine one who is already void, their reality makes manipulation unneeded. Your parents had not lied, they’d been filling you with an anti-toxin they knew you’d need to navigate the conspiracy without any permanent damage.

Now that you know the truth with the same certainty you know you will breathe with each inhale, you relish how much darker your skin gets in the summer when you’ve spent more time outside. You choose to color your mouth with purples, pinks and reds that make your full lips more prominent and kissable than God did when He designed them in the first place. You embrace those wide, full hips and feel pride in the role they played of effortlessly bringing two lives into the world; perfecting a walk that slings them just so, ensuring that onlookers are aware of the bounty that is you. And that hair. That tight, nappy, ‘unblonde’ hair. Hair that you’ve wished to be something else: more straight, more bouncy, more like a White woman’s, your entire life is proudly and naturally chemical-free. Soft, kinky, coiled locks that touch your shoulders create a halo around beautiful, Black you. They remind you of the lie you were force-fed and how thankful you are to be finally free to choose your own menu and to decide exactly how you’ll prepare and serve it up.

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