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All about Black Beauty Standards

I grew up, a White small country girl, in apartheid South Africa – a place where by far the majority of the population is Black. One vacation I came home from boarding school to be greated by Violet who wrapped me in her big black arms, and chortled with delight, “Utyebile kakulu ngoku!” In English she was telling me that I was very fat now. I was devastated – after all, I had gained weight but I desperately wanted to be thin. It would take me years to realize that Violet was complimenting me – her black beauty standards were very different to mine.

Part of the beauty standards in Violet’s rural Xhosa culture of the 1970’s when she passed this comment, is that ‘fat is beautiful.’ To be large in her culture was considered desirable and beautiful. It meant: you were healthy, you didn’t have AIDS. It meant you were fertile, sexy and womanly enough to attract a good husband – one who is wealthy enough to provide well. It meant you were wealthy enough to eat well.

What I remember most about Violet (and the other Black women who I came into daily contact with) was that they never questioned that black is beautiful – they weren’t immersed in a mainstream Western media that seems to rank skin colors and body sizes as supposedly more valued and worthy the whiter and skinnier you are.

How can any one skin color, or one body size or shape determine a person’s worth? Why would our great Creator create any one race or culture to be more Sacred than another? That’s all just nonsensical beauty standards made up by misguided humans.

I can still clearly see Violet’s ebony skin – it had a glow to it that was almost iridescent. And when she smiled (which was often) she had this row of startling white teeth all without the latest teeth whiteners. They say beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder – I loved Violet’s blackness. White wouldn’t have suited her. I loved the way she walked, tall and proud. She could balance a bucket of water on her head and walk as gracefully as a dancer.

And she made me laugh – like the one time she came across me sun-tanning and teased me about how I liked black so much that I was trying to get the sun to help me. And when I started perming my hair and she asked me why I wanted curly hair like hers.

Here’s what I think is so sensible about rural Black African women. Firstly, they don’t have scales they hop on and off of and that determine their mood for the day. They don’t swarm to shops bursting at the seams with the latest one-0-size-fits-all fashions. They don’t have mirrors that lie telling they are fat and ugly. They don’t spend hours on magazines and tv that continually bombards them with the message that only a certain shape of thin is beautiful. Their beauty standards are far more realistic.