Big topics right..
This article might come as a shock to anyone who knows me, I’m not the most vocal on social issues and most of the time I simply keep my opinion to myself.
It’s black history month, plus one of the most fascinating times of the 21st century so far when it comes to race relations and the representation of black people in pop culture. It’s climates like these that get you thinking about who you are and how you fit into the world. You start to wonder if maybe people think of you as different from how you see yourself, you start to feel disconnected from your own sense of identity, you can start to wonder if you have the right to feel that you belong to a certain nationality, race, religion.
For me, beauty is a huge part of my identity, as a little girl I idolised and still do, movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. I went to vintage clothing fairs, I bought books on makeup, I read about the different ideas of beauty across cultures and time periods, I was utterly fascinated by the power of beauty, the mystique and allure of cosmetics. I wanted to understand how a nation’s idea of beauty reflected the people in it, from Cleopatra to the Ottoman sultans’ harem to Diane de Poitiers and the gold elixir of youth that cost her her life. Women renowned for their beauty and what’s more their obsession with it, have ruled and influenced and orchestrated events on the world’s stage. You can deny it as superficial, but there’s no doubt that deeply ingrained into our human psyche is the attraction to beauty, the longing to be around it, the desire to be seen as beautiful.
Here are some stories of women famed for their beauty, that have fascinated me throughout my life:
Nicknamed Roxolena, this woman was born as Alexandra Lisowska in the town of Rohatyń, before being captured and transported to Constantinople, where she was selected for the Sultan Suleiman’s harem. Beautiful, witty and smart, she was renamed Hürrem and swiftly became Suleiman’s chief consort and later, through her own persuasive campaigning, his legal wife. She bore the Sultan five children, and worked on his behalf on many matters of foreign relations
I watched Elizabeth Taylor for the first time when I was about eight years old, I remember feeling like I had been cast under a spell. Who was this gorgeous woman, and had a queen really existed like this, so full of beauty and passion that she intoxicated any man who came across her. I started bathing with milk- as much as it angered my poor mum, and reading everything about Cleopatra that I could get my hands on. Of course the reality is somewhat different to the Hollywood epic, it’s likely that Cleopatra mesmerised men with her boldness rather than her supernatural beauty. Cassius Dio calls her “a woman of surpassing beauty” who was “brilliant to look upon.” While Plutarch says that “her beauty… was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” Although we’ll never know how beautiful Cleopatra was, and indeed perceptions of beauty have surely shifted massively since those times, this fascinated me just as much, it seemed there was a way to give the effect of being devastatingly beautiful, even if you were not. Regardless of her physical appearance I’m sure most can agree that Cleopatra probably had an undeniable personal magnetism, the regality of a leader and the mind of an intellectual, who knew many languages. I’m sure all of this contributed to her appeal.
Diane De Poitiers
Diane de Poitiers was Henry II’s mistress, she was much older than him, but so youthful that they are described as looking the same age. According to records, she was called ‘fresh and loveable’ by a member of the royal court. She has been immortalised by many sculptors and painters, Jean Goujon used her as his model for the goddess Diana, the sculpture can be seen in the Louvre. She took care of herself by swimming in the river next to the Chateau d’ante, horse riding and hunting. Diane was incredibly smart and politically aware that she wrote many official letters on behalf of King Henry II signing them, HenriDiane. She was well known to be one of the king’s most influential and powerful allies, when Pope Paul III sent the new Queen Catherine jewellery, he also presented Diane with a pearl necklace. She took the prestigious position of Duchesse d’Etampes in 1553. But the gold elixir she drank daily and accredited with her beauty, had already begun to poison her.
Growing up mixed race
I’m mixed race, but growing up lots of people have simply called me black, and I’m happy to be referred to this way.
Kids are mean to each other sometimes, and although most days were good, I still remember being told that I couldn’t be pretty because I wasn’t white on several different occasions. When you’re only little, it can be harder to think for yourself.
Here’s a really great video that Buzzfeed have produced about Colourism. Colourism isn’t necessarily the same as racism, it can occur between people of the same ethnicity. It generally follows the rule that light skin is superior and that having dark skin makes you less beautiful and more likely to adhere to a whole range of negative stereotypes. I think the experiences of people in this video are relatable for people who have ever felt ugly because of the way they look, or secretly been hurt by comments others have made about their appearance and desperately wanted to change to fit in.
I think it’s the same for lots of kids who grow up as a minority, who live in a place and go to schools where they’re one of only a handful of black or Asian kids. You can feel like a bit of an outsider, not quite belonging but also disconnected from your own culture, whatever that might be. There have been moments when people have said something negative or racist about black people and they’ve forgotten I’m there. It’s times like this that knock your confidence because you can start to wonder if that’s really what people are thinking about you.
Growing up, the comments changed, they weren’t so explicit, but every now and again you come across some one who’s a bit prejudiced, a bit narrow minded, a bit insensitive, who treats you a little bit different and doesn’t even realise.
As much as I tried to fight it, the little remarks I’d heard growing up definitely affected the view I had on myself, and if I was having a day where I felt under the weather, or was experiencing teenage awkwardness about my body and my looks, it was easy to feel like maybe what I’d heard was true.
And then the internet happened
Social media gets a lot of hate, we’re always being told about the negative affects it’s having on us, but honestly, there are so many amazing opportunities that have been created. You can talk to people across the world, and hear someone’s story in a personal way that you would never be able to otherwise. My world has changed now, becoming part of an online community has helped open my eyes to the beauty of being a black woman. Without bloggers and youtubers I wouldn’t know which shampoos and conditioners to use to properly care for my type of hair, which is such a liberating thing.
Here is a really extensive useful guide about growing out natural hair, something I’m in the process of. A few years ago chemical relaxers were still popular and there was virtually no information whatsoever about growing out natural hair. Now, thanks to bloggers and youtubers like Melissa Denise, I’ve learnt enough to be able to grow out my own natural, healthy curly hair. Sales of chemical relaxers have declined like crazy, and women of all ages are embracing the hair they were born with.
Beauty used to be a defense for me, a way to paint on a new identity but now I can embrace who I am, now beauty is about just being myself.
Every day I see black girls absolutely slaying the game and it makes me feel so happy to see confident beautiful black women of all shades embracing who they are and refusing to be stereotyped.
Here are some gorgeous gals gracing my timeline:
The Atlas of Beauty
I’ll leave you with The Atlas of Beauty, a project by Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc who travels the world photographing women. Her project is a great example of the celebration of diverse beauty, it doesn’t idealize one type, it says ‘beauty can be found anywhere’. It represents women from all over, not just the western world which dominates the media. It’s untouched, and features women of all ages. The most beautiful thing about these women, is arguably the way they seem so grounded in who they are, often in natural or little makeup, sometimes in traditional national dress.
Noroc has said,
My goal is to continue and take photos of women from each country of the globe, making “The Atlas Of Beauty” a mirror of our diverse societies and an inspiration for people that try to remain authentic.
Maybe in 50 years all women from all around the world will dress and act the same. I hope my project will remain a witness of my era’s cultures and traditions.
Now I can say that beauty is everywhere, and it’s not a matter of cosmetics, money, race or social status, but more about being yourself.
Global directions make us look and behave the same, but we are all beautiful because we are different. In the end, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is always somebody else.
When I photograph a woman I talk a lot, I try to to make her feel special, proud and unique. I can get along in 5 languages and this helps me a lot, but in some countries, talking becomes body language.
I prefer to photograph natural faces, without a lot of make-up, and to capture that moment of sincerity and serenity that is so specific for women.
I think her project is so inspiring and so important, you can see more photos and read more about The Atlas of Beauty, here.