by Michelle M. Alexander
Beauty, for women, is complicated. It creates and destroys, it empowers and enslaves. Actress Marilyn Monroe was a very intelligent woman, an avid reader who was wooed by and married to famous men, yet she was typecast by her beauty and was hindered from expanding her repertoire of roles because of her looks. Her beauty made her rich, but it also made her poor as well.
For this article, I interviewed women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. What was clear was that while they all acknowledged the importance of physical attractivness, they all defined true beauty more in terms of internal characteristics as opposed to external characteristics. Amaya, of New Mexico, a famous performer of belly dance and Zambra Mora (a dance that combines flamenco with belly dance), defined beauty as the glow, the warmth and the energy a person radiates. Rotrica, an attorney, defines beauty as being, talented, humble, and selfless so that these qualities are reflected on the outside. Khuzama, an award-winning dancer, shares,"beauty is 100% based upon your experiences, your face, eyes, body types all go to the interpretation of beauty".
Our girls (and boys) have to meet increasingly impossible standards of beauty. The inability to meet those standards can result in low self esteem and an altered sense of self. What is even more damaging is that the beauty standard is defined by predominately one set of racial characteristics. Blonde, blue-eyed, white, and thin has been the beauty standard in America and most of the West since from their earliest beginnings. What does this say to girls who are various shades of brown, red, yellow with dark hair, eyes and variable shapes and sizes?
Having traveled extensively, it is refreshing on many levels and perhaps indicative of the ethnocentrism I have been exposed to, to be pleasantly surprised to see advertisements featuring women of color abroad.
In response to the question, "if you had to give beauty a color from the spectrum, which one(s) would it be?", Amaya shares, "golden. . . because I think children of mixed bloods often turn out in this delightful golden hue". Rotrica says, "for skin color, tan to darkest, dark". Interestingly, both Khuzama and Rotrica listed purple as their favorite color.
It took J-Lo and the Williams sisters to change the standard to being more shapely, muscular and more curvy in the hips and posterior. Those in communities of color have always appreciated a more "substantial woman". Growing up, I always heard the quote, "Don't nothing but a dog love a bone". On a visit to Jamaica, I was startled to have a 19-year-old young man tell me how sexy I was at a time when I weighed more than I cared to. It gave me pause; it made me reflect on how "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is more than just a saying, it is a living reality. Why did I not see and glory in that same beauty that young man saw in me?
Most respondents to the questionnaire said they do not feel beautiful about themselves all the time. Only Amaya said, "Yes, I do . . . most of the time. I feel I am different-looking and that is my 'beauty specialty", but attributed her shift in perception of beauty to being a wise, mature woman. "When I was a young girl, I felt being like Doris Day or Sandra Dee or a blonde ballerina was the utmost in beauty. By the time I turned twenty-one, Joan Baez, Cher, and other women showed up on the public scene. I could relate to their ethnic looks. I also thought only young people could be beautiful. And now that I am sixty-one and can think outside the box, I see unique beauty in almost everyone around!"
Age and maturity can be the catalyst for the paradigm shift in perceptions of beauty. Young women try hard to assimilate and be the same when they are pre-teens to avoid negative comments and treatment.
Girls in high school not only have pressure from their peers, but begin to deal with interactions with the opposite sex and the lethal mixture of sexual self-awareness and personal self awareness, all layered with the demands of beauty in our culture. Women in their twenties and thirties have the demands of college, marriage, children and career, all the while having to look their best, often without any real attention paid to feeling their best. I have found personally, that it is when women reach their forties and fifties when they question what has been put upon them, reject the standards, and set their own.
My father said to me once, "When your mother was young she was pretty, now that she's older, she's beautiful. My mother at the time was in her early forties and I didn' have to ask what he meant, I could tell by the tone of his voice and the look in his eyes.
Other women, when asked what images or persons that come to mind, when they thought of beauty were most often, mothers, grandmothers followed by celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Dorothy Dandridge, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Halle Berry, Queen Latifa, Selma Hayak and Lucy Liu. For me, it was significant that Michelle Obama was cited by many respondents as it has been many years since women would have listed the First Lady as being beautiful. Many women today are too young to remember Jackie Kennedy who was also cited as an example of beauty, grace and class.
I am encouraged by the women who list their mothers and grandmothers as beautiful, because the choice of the women who have shaped their lives speaks more to internal beauty and the honoring that sees the beauty in wisdom, in strength, in perseverance and most importantly in love. My own grandmother was funny, strong and a dynamic presence in my life. She went to cabarets and dressed well, was an excellent seamstress and a strong disciplinarian, but loved all her grandchildren unconditionally. I still have some of her clothes and always feel elegant when I wear them. I carry the elegance and carriage of another time and carry Alice Butler's spirit with me when I am in her creations.
One of the benefits of being a bellydance teacher and an image consultant is that I get to directly impact how women feel about themselves. I teach women to come in and dance to music and shake, shimmy and love themselves. I get to be MiaNaja and free myself to create dances, perform, wear beautiful costumes and lead women in my two performing groups, the MiaNaja Oriental Dance Ensemble (MODE) and the Raks Divas. I am privileged that for over ten years, I get to help every woman in my classes to become the sassy, sensual person she is inside, to free the inner beauty, and translate that energy into beautiful dance. We need to put away the toxic dysfunction that we are programmed to believe and feel about ourselves.
We need to see beauty in all colors, all sizes, all shapes all hair types, all skin shades, all of what makes us who we are. We also need to value beauty internally as well as externally. As Rotrica states, "Beauty starts as something internal and can be seen by others if manifested externally." I agree, let us be the manifestation of our internal beauty.
Michelle M. Alexander aka MiaNaja, holds a BA in Journalism from Howard University, has a tele-communications business, and practices law when she is not shimmy-ing and writing. She conducted a survey on women's opinions on beauty for VisibleWomanOnline. You can contact Michelle at: email@example.com.