Emma Dabiri Race, Representation & Beauty

Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian PhD researcher in Goldsmiths, and teaching fellow in the Africa Department at The School of Oriental African Studies. She also works as a commercial model. Thandie encountered her when she read an article Emma wrote for The New Statesman earlier this year. They struck up a Twitter chat, and the rest is history – as written by @TheDiasporaDiva. Welcome to her 21st century world.

I recently got caught up in an online debate about a black celebrity who has completely transformed her face, arguably to make it look more European. While the jury was out as to whether or not she should have had plastic surgery, the conversation was largely framed around whether or not the surgery was successful. Ultimately this was judged by whether or not she had achieved that elusive, subjective, and most coveted of assets, “beauty”.

I was struck by the sensation that something was very wrong with the whole picture. Why do we continue to allow our options to be constrained within such a tyrannical framework, whereby a woman’s worth is calculated by the way she looks? Why don’t we push for a redefinition of what is important?

Regardless of the outcome of the surgery, I think it is unlikely this celeb will be satisfied. Insecurities are rarely vanquished by indulging the processes responsible for creating them; If anything they are multiplied.

Even achieving the perfect face – whatever that may be – is no guarantee of happiness. After all, how many beautiful women are besieged by paranoia and doubts about their own self worth?

Changing your face is not the issue. What is required is a tackling of root causes. Maybe we should all ask – in the perennially wise words of TLC- who am I (or anybody else for that matter) to be in a position to make you feel so damn un-pretty? And why is it so important?

Don’t get me wrong. Of course making an effort with your appearance can be fun, and make you feel good, and that can be empowering. But too much emphasis on the way we look is also terribly oppressive.

We know that too often what is deemed as looking good is imagined far too narrowly. That is why regardless of race, we are seeing the same hairstyle, the same makeup, hell increasingly, the same face, on women, black and white, from Lagos, to LA, London, and back again; the homogenisation of what a woman is supposed to look like – largely imagined through some sort of Kim K femmebot.

Ultimately it’s more than the issue of ‘looking good’ that’s at stake.

While we can spend all the time in the world ‘improving our looks’, a little bit of that time might be more valuably used, considering the emphasis that is placed on how we look overall.

I think that it is crucial that we attempt to interrogate our relationship with the visual. For too long I was trapped in an unhealthy relationship with myself, and my looks, and regardless of what I actually looked like, it wasn’t pretty.

I now understand, and can say with conviction, that I am, (we all are) worth so much more than our weight on the scales, our dress size, or the number of guys that might, or might not, fancy us. It sounds obvious, but getting there was quite a process. For too long these were the criteria with which I calculated my own self worth. Sadly it’s an all too familiar tale for too many young (and not so young) women.

Am I crazy to feel that my value should not be determined by the width of my nose, the length of my legs, or the size of my boobs?

What about the content of my soul? That vast and complex, eternal landscape, not visible to the eye? How are these features to be known, in an ocular schema that disavows that which cannot be seen?

As a person who has experienced being bullied due to their appearance, as well as being celebrated for the very same features, I am painfully aware of the hypocrisy that exists around looks, and the penalties and dubious rewards that accrue from succumbing to the seductions of the visual regime that holds us in its thrall.

In my early teens I was very much the awkward black girl. I was always overlooked for my white, skinny, mousey brown-haired friends. Nobody asked me to dance at discos. When playing spin the bottle I willed the bottle never to land on me. I couldn’t bear the shame I felt for the poor misfortunate who might be dared to kiss a creature as monstrous as me.

In addition to the usual pressures on a teenage girl, mine were compounded by race. My hair – goodness my hair.

And my arse! Why did it stick out like that?  My thighs, why, why couldn’t my thighs have a gap between them like those of my friends? Why was I such a physical freak? I didn’t see other black women so I didn’t know why my bum and thighs were the (gorgeous) shape they are.

But although as women we are conditioned to seek it at all costs, being considered attractive is not without its costs and complications. Certainly, it is not always positive. There came a shift for me at around age 15.  I guess I was just growing up, but the attention I got from boys increased dramatically.

I remained crippled by the same self doubt, but in many ways I now had what girls are taught to desire –  the attention of boys. However, this attention was often characterised by a disturbing undertone. I heard gleeful re-telling’s of the look on a parent’s face when their darling son ‘brought home a black girl’ as their date for the debs (an important Irish rite of passage, marking the finishing of school). Unfortunately, I didn’t want to be someone’s act of rebellion.  Or complaints from disappointed blokes who’d fancied me from afar, got to know me, and couldn’t understand why “ I wasn’t more Jamaican/American” (insert black culture of fetishisation).

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So it was complex. I wanted to be seen as pretty, I craved the validation (an empty and shallow place to barter for your humanity, but how many of us succumb to it?) yet at the same time I was incredibly uncomfortable with the attention I got. I was always made to feel conspicuous; under scrutiny, an object to be examined. In his famous train passage, Fanon explores the psychological effects of subjection to the white gaze, upon the black subject-

“Look, a Negro…Look at the nigger!…Mama, a Negro!”(1986:112).

My Great Aunt & Uncle looking fly in Nigeria in 1954

I remember, vividly, a flood of grateful relief upon first encountering these words. As an isolated, ‘mixed-race’ or black individual, in a predominantly white environment, you become a cipher, a representation of a coming anarchy. The barbarians have breached the gates, and you are the manifestation of all the images, fantasies, fears and desires that have been absorbed by a population fed a steady diet of racist discourse. You are constantly under surveillance. You become achingly aware of your every gesture; your movements, your very posture, are at all times under analysis. Mundane details, the minutiae of your daily routine, are a performance for public consumption. While, I could not articulate this at the time, I experienced the suffocating weight of such an existence deeply. Here are some best longest lasting foundation for oily skin.

I felt like some kind of experiment, or sideshow freak, and I eventually became incredibly paranoid and self-conscious. It got to the point where I was extremely uncomfortable with people even looking at me

In her 2004 essay Irish and White-ish, Angeline Morrison discusses the particular tone of Irish racism:

“The vast majority of racist insults had some kind of sexual overtones…this is a specific character of Irish racism”… The sexuality of immigrants, particularly but not exclusively, black ones, “has long been represented as exotic, taboo and dangerous”(p.9)

As a teenager I lost track of the amount of times pink, middle aged men sidled up to me, “ I like a bit of milk in me coffee”, or just a muttered “I love black girls” accompanied by an expectant look. So while I was perceived as attractive, it was complicated by race. I certainly wasn’t the same as the respectably pretty girl next door – there was something horrible and fetishistic about it. Racialised in this way, I was situated at a complex intersection – simultaneously valuable and worthless.

My Paternal Grandparents in Nigeria, early 1950’s

Other worlds existed beyond Ireland. When I was 18, I went back to Atlanta, where I’d spent my early childhood, to visit cousins on my dad’s side. It was one of my first experiences, since being very little, in a predominantly black environment.

I was beyond excited! However, I was also well versed in black history. I knew all about slavery, Jim Crow, racism, segregation. Surely these black Americans would dislike me with my visible white ancestry. I mean white people seemed to hate black people for no reason I could decipher. Surely African-Americans, having been victimized by whites for centuries would legitimately hate their oppressors? I learnt that largely this was not to be the case. Certainly there was not the vitriol from black to white as existed vice versa.

What I was completely unprepared for was the colourism that flourished within Southern black communities. From someone who had prayed every night to wake up with ‘normal’ hair, suddenly in the Georgia context I was catapulted into a realm reserved at home in Ireland, only for blue-eyed, blondes.

The contrast between being seen as ‘dark’ in Ireland and ‘light’ in America was huge, but ultimately, I found this favoritism depressing. I was young and for a while was flattered by the attention. It was a powerful contrast to experience being perceived in such a different way, but at the same time I quickly realised there was a rot at its core, and that the answers to my psychological wellbeing were not to be found in this perverse hierarchy of value and worth.

It may be so that in this particular context I was higher up the food chain but I knew how easily and arbitrarily I could be ranked very differently.

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It’s so important that light-skinned people do not buy into this divisive system.

Such processes, rather than elevate us, as some #teamlightskin’s might believe, actually oppress us all.

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They reinforce a structure that places whiteness at the top, and condemns everyone else to a losing game, scrabbling for the crumbs from the table.

I don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed in the US but I will say that in my experience, black cultures generally have a far more positive attitude to body size, and I think that alone would have had a great impact on what happened next. I returned to Ireland and the European scopic regime of beauty. When I was 19 I remember being called a fat nigger. I was out in a bar in Dublin, and a guy literally just spat it at me as I walked past.

I thought, right I can’t do anything about being called a nigger, but nobody will ever call me fat again. I’m not sure if I had an eating disorder but I certainly had an unhealthy and obsessive relationship with food.I weighed EVERYTHING I ate, and never consumed more than 1,500 calories in a day. I wouldn’t eat out, or at other people’s houses.

I steadily lost weight, and as I became thinner and thinner, the attention from (white) men increased. I felt like I was erasing or purging myself of my conspicuous features, my bum, my thighs (I never achieved the elusive gap though, I’m not made that way). The thinner I got, the less racialised I felt. It was almost as though subconsciously I’d been conditioned to think that I had to lose weight to apologise, or compensate in some way for the fact my blackness. Maybe I felt I needed to take up less space in the world. Its probably unsurprising given that as a teenager ‘friends’ often remarked that it was a good thing I was pretty. Because of that, they assured me, I could (almost) “get away with being black”!

It feels strange now to reflect back upon that time. It’s taken work and a recalibration of mind but I am largely liberated from the bullshit.  My body is not an apology! In a society where 91% of women are reportedly unhappy with their body image it was refreshing to hear Sinead O’Conner recently retort  “I love my glorious appearance”! when she was asked what she least liked about her looks. I was struck by how rare it remains to hear a woman respond to this all too frequent question in a body positive way!

 Personally, the different spaces I’ve occupied have revealed the whole beauty game to me for the charade it is.

The fact that I have been treated so differently by society based on my weight, whether a white celebrity has (or has not yet) popularised full lips, or the value that my complexion affords me in a given context really saddens me, but it has taught me a lot.

I try to view events in my life in terms beyond good and bad, as I feel such thinking limits our capacity for both happiness and personal development. Rather I try to understand my perspective, as one that has been forged from everything I’ve experienced, and I want to share that with other women who might be going through some of the same things I did.

For me its crucial that we work towards dismantling the patriarchal structures that set women’s value as calculated by something as ridiculous as the dimensions of our bodies, or the alignment of the bones of our faces.

The current system needs a radical overhaul, but maybe our discontent shouldn’t stem solely from the fact that one type of female body is being celebrated over another. We might want to reconsider the fact that as women we continue to be judged according to superficial and meaningless criteria.

While representation remains important (I simply didn’t see women who looked like me growing up) we should remember that white women are far better represented than women of colour, yet remain objectified.

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 Is this ‘egalitarianism’ the best we can hope for? The right to be objectified alongside white women? The right to have black women’s bodies, represented according to the same tyrannical dictates that white women’s generally are? To be force-fed images of black women’s bodies that preach the gospel of an unachievable feminine ‘ideal’ that causes untold havoc on all those little girl bodies that will never be able to look like that? As black women we are often doubly sexualised by society, so the stakes are extra high.