UnPretty: My Personal Battle With Vanity and Insecurity

by Kimberly Foster (@KimberlyNFoster)

At what point does something you enjoy become a source of your own imprisonment? We classify many things as addictions, but not until recently did I ever consider I might be battling one of my own.

I am a daughter of consumerism. As a quintessential girly girl, I love clothes, makeup, and hair. (Yep, I buy my hair, and I whip it back and forth with pleasure.)

Hoarding these things has been a key component of my identity since I was a kid. As I grow into my feminism, however, I have begun to recognize the pitfalls of how closely I'm bound to my physical appearance.
I am a feminist. I consider myself an advocate for the basic right of women to exist with dignity in the world, but lately I question if my personal embrace of the Beauty Industrial Complex, that is the cultural systems and practices used to craft a singular, unattainable notion of beauty, seriously negates the messages I espouse. The personal is political, and I consistently feel twinges of guilt about the ways in which my choices contribute to the oppression of women.

I understand that I alone could never dismantle the oppression matrix that keeps women crawling back to makeup counters, nail shops, and clothing stores in order to look their "best." After all, my addictions are yet another byproduct of our patriarchal culture. But by purposely tailoring my appearance to the most accessible beauty standards, I fear that I am further marginalizing the women who cannot or choose not to conform to these norms.

The notion struck me as I was playing with a group of 7 and 8-year-old girls earlier this summer. One of them named Anna beamed up at me with a bright smile.

"You're pretty," she said. "How did you get so pretty?"

It was an innocent moment. One I'm sure most women would shrug off, but the little girl's simple question brought back a flood of memories.

The women in my immediate family are connected by our humor and our vanity. As the youngest child, I grew up watching my mom and older sister fuss and fret over makeup application and outfit selection. Seeing the confidence ooze once they were all done up left a mark: worthy women were well dressed and well mannered. I followed suit, and by 6 or 7 had fully adopted their ways. But that turned into, what I will admit, is an unhealthy obsession with my looks. I started wearing lipgloss and press-on nails at 9, foundation and heels at 12, and by the time I entered high school, I had graduated to full drag. Nails done. Hair Done. Everything did.

And I've been that way ever since. I enjoy being ultra-femme, and I take pride in walking out the door knowing I will probably be the best dressed person in the room. I often consider slowly dialing it back: shorter weave, less makeup, flats maybe. But I'm still not ready to give up the lifestyle.

I know I'm overcompensating. From the time I was in school, I rarely felt physically attractive, but I regularly garnered praise for how I was perfectly put together. The boys ignored my existence except to point out the size of my behind while the girls fawned over my styles. That still sticks (as most of our childhood baggage does).

Now I'm wedded to the glam. My makeup is my war paint. Once I put it on, I am instantly empowered to step into the role of a cool, self-assured woman.

I will never be the pretty girl, and that's ok. Thankfully I have other talents, but It feels good to be noticed. Would Anna have made that comment without my accoutrements? Probably not. For me that's a scary thought.
Black women are no strangers to invisibility. We all want to be acknowledged, and constantly getting overlooked is hurtful and demoralizing. Pushing back against the forces that tell us we are unworthy with outlets like this is my life's goal. But I'm still working on me.

I'll be the first to jump on anyone who comes at the gorgeous natural hair sistas, but I always get confused stares after my rants. A single glance at my waist length weave seems to betray my true allegiances. The fact is that in many ways my own idea of aesthetic perfection ignores Black beauty and my West African heritage. That is difficult to admit, but that is the space I currently occupy.

In my perfect world, no woman would feel tethered to the superficial. My biggest fear for my future daughters is that they will inherit their mother’s curse.

I am a young woman, and I continue to grow and learn. I have time to shed this skin, but right now I'm a willing prisoner.

Kimberly Foster is the Editor and Publisher of For Harriet. Email her at Kimberly@ForHarriet.com with comments or find her on Twitter.

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