Baratunde Thurston – Men on Beauty

Post by ThandieBaratunde headshot

The wonders of Twitter allowed me to meet Baratunde Thurston. I came across his best selling book ‘How To Be Black’ last year – and drank down every page with thirsty pleasure. It’s satirical, insightful, provocative and hilarious. A must read for everyone – even (and especially) if you’re not black! One thing that struck me was the beautiful way he writes about his mother; a single Mom to BT and his sister in 80s Columbia Heights ‘DC. It got me wondering about the effect this powerful, positive female role model (Baratunde lost his father under tragic circumstances when he was very young) had had on his view of women in general; and his relationship to them now (he clearly cherishes and has huge respect for the women in his life). Kay and I have been wanting to open up the question of how society perceives women and beauty, by including thoughts from men.  So, (drumroll) here is our first specimen! Thoughtful, cool, wise and unafraid – Baratunde Thurston answers our (and hopefully your) questions about… Men on Beauty.

1. Do you remember the first time you found someone ‘beautiful’.

I was probably six years old. My mom had a friend named Melanie, and I thought she was the coolest human being and just lovely all the way through. She was really kind and had the sweetest smile, and I remember thinking, “She’s sooooo beautiful!” I never told anyone about this first crush of mine. See what you got out of me already, and we’re just on the first question.

2. Can you describe why you found them beautiful?

I probably should have read the questions ahead since I answered most of this above. However, I’d add that my memories are mostly non-specific at this point. This was 30 years ago, so what I remember mostly are the positive feelings associated with her presence. Also dimples. She definitely had amazing dimples.


Baratunde on his way..

Her father passed away later on during my childhood, and she gifted his camera to me along with the leather bag he used to carry it. This was a massive offering. Her dad was a photojournalist, and I was honored to receive something of his, knowing how much she loved him. That camera opened up a lot of doors for me, and many years later during college, someone stole it. I actually cried at the loss, realizing how irreplaceable the object was and feeling guilty for having left it so carelessly open to theft.

I’m not saying I found Melanie beautiful because she gave me a camera. I’m saying that the absolute generosity she showed in granting something so meaningful to someone so young really touched me.

3. How important is physical beauty to you and why?

In terms of a romantic partner, it’s pretty important. I react to chemistry and part of that is physical. I’ve definitely paid more immediate attention to people I’ve found attractive, though I’d love to say that doesn’t happen. I’ve got this mental model of people I should be interested in, but it’s often undermined by raw attraction based on physical beauty.

In terms of people I spend time with or respect, physical beauty is much lower on the list.

In both cases, if we can’t hold an intelligent conversation, we’re doomed. There’s got to be an intellectual beauty to hold my attention over the long run.


Baratunde & his Mom Arnita

Arnita Lorraine Thurston

Arnita with fro

4.What do you find beautiful about your mother?

My mom had the greatest smile and laugh. She was really silly and funny. She could work cowboy boots like nobody’s business and had her own strong sense of style.


Arnita Lorraine Thurston (Mom)

She carried herself with confidence and could give you a hard time in a spirit of playfulness rather than meanness.

I found her ability to improvise to be extremely beautiful.

That might mean how she crafted her professional career. It’s also in how she just made things up in the kitchen. She would never ever follow a recipe all the way through. She got the gist of what the recipe called for, but then she’d be like, “I’m gonna add peanuts to this” when “this” was a pasta dish.

Strong move, Ma. Strong move.



5. What do you find beautiful about women now that you are an adult?

In physical terms, curves are a good thing as is at least some melanin though not a requirement. A smile is everything. The right smile will stop me in my tracks. In everything else terms…a sense of humor as well as someone willing to challenge me and give me a hard time is so lovely. Confidence is beautiful. Smarty smart smart smartpants.

If you can dance, it’s also a lovely dimension. There’s so much beauty in a woman who can express herself confidently and playfully on a dance floor.

6. Do you think women’s looks have become more or less important in our society?

Probably more even though the factors by which a woman is measured have expanded broadly with women working, getting higher levels of education, etc. I think the influence of mass media images has kept pace with or even outpaced the seriousness with which society values a woman’s intellect. We’ve got some pretty loud declarations from entertainment to media in general screaming, “Your looks are like super duper important!”hillary

In the same conversation about someone like Hillary Clinton who’s done so much, we’ll not skip a beat and judge her hair or wrinkles or some other physical attribute. We go from Benghazi to bangs in a heartbeat.

7. If you had a daughter who did not possess what society perceives as beauty and felt insecure about this, what would you say to her?

First, I’d encourage her to feel great love toward herself for as many reasons as she could find. Self confidence is based on so much more than appearance or physical ability, so I’d see it as my job to help her find things to love in herself and make sure I expressed that love as well.

I’d also try to remind her that beauty is such a subjective thing. Even as a particular standard is mass-marketed, what people find attractive is so up to how they receive the world. Some people just love the stick figure look. Others are down for the nerdy, big boned type. Not possessing society’s mainstream standard of beauty does not mean people you find beautiful won’t also find you beautiful.

It could even be an advantage because people who fit the mainstream mold have to put up with a lot of unwanted attention and people focusing on them for reasons they might not want.

8. If your daughter attracted unwarranted attention from men because she was perceived as beautiful, what would you say to her?

Oh my goodness. I really need to read these questions! Look at that segue.

I’d apologize on behalf of men. As a man, I’ve fallen into the reactionary trap of judging a woman (positively and negatively) based solely on looks. It’s never on purpose, but it happens, and I’d want my daughter to know that sometimes guys are just shortsighted idiots.


Michelle Yeo & Zhang Ziyi in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’

After that I’d try to train her in some kind of Jedi mind tricks to help her sort out the jackasses from the truly good men (or women if that’s her thing) paying attention to her.

I’d also make sure she was well trained in Krav Maga, Taekwondo, and whatever they used in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon . Actually, all my daughters will be ninjas regardless of their physical appearance. It never hurts to have a ninja in the family.

In fact, my older sister, Belinda, is a great role model for badass womanhood. She runs a donation-based yoga and tai chi studio in Lansing, Michigan, and I’m pretty sure she can defeat enemies with her mind.


 9. Would you like to see a wider variety of women in the media (age, ethnicity, physicality) or do you like it just the way it is?

Definitely more variety. I think it would be good for me and the rest of the world. When you look just at the people on television reporting the news and realize they all pretty much look the same, you can’t help but wonder what news might be like if we actually selected for something crazy like skill in interviewing or research or investigations. We’re selling ourselves short by focusing so heavily on images. We might have solved the whole global warming thing by now if we paid more attention to smart people who weren’t necessarily young and “pretty.”

10. Does the media represent women in a way that you see them? If not, how?

Not even close. In my travels and day to day life I see women who are much smarter, sharper, and more interesting than those commonly portrayed in mainstream media. My closest female friends run their own companies, consult for major organisations, have children, and can dance up a storm. They read and write interesting books. They’re hilarious!

The media should probably just hire all my friends all the time. That would help everything.

Follow Baratunde on twitter

How to Be Black 2Baratunde toddler


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