Brown Girl Trauma: I Can’t Wear Make Up

In every version of Cinderella, there always that scene where the fairy godmother transforms our dear heroine into a princess and sends her to the ball to find her prince. I’ve always been fascinated with the “ugly duckling turned regal beauty” transformation, but I was especially obsessed with the 1997 version starring Brandy Norwood and the late Whitney Houston. In Brandy’s portrayal of Cinderella, she was the perfect princess, she looked like me and she was beautiful. I didn’t realize it at the time, but to a 9-year-old fifth grader who lived in a city with mostly white people, seeing that version of the movie was life changing.

I’ve always had a very difficult time with the perception of my own beauty. For a while, I wasn’t entirely sure if it was because I was in a wheelchair or because I was black, but a year after seeing that film when I moved to an even whiter place: a small suburban town in Alabama. The fact that none of my friends were girls who looked liked me became even more apparent. Some part of my preteen brain thought that I could change myself into the Brandy version of Cinderella and finally be beautiful, that what I looked like wouldn’t matter anymore. And I was going to do that with makeup. It seemed like the perfect magic potion that was going to provide me my own ugly duckling transformation. I had grown up with sisters and grandmothers who had lighter skin tones, and people seem to always compliment their beauty, their smiles, and their eyes but it was rare that I was complimented on whatever beauty I possessed. This was the beginning of my understanding of colorism: the idea that those with lighter skin are treated better than those with darker skin.

The first time I ever wore makeup, outside of lip gloss or lip balm (which was still sometimes slightly controversial, the idea of being “too grown” was sort of synonymous with make up to my mom), it was met with disapproval. I was really into makeup but mostly because my friends who I always thought looked prettier than me wore it. They were also white and it didn’t occur to me that their beauty standards weren’t the same for black girls. People who looked like my friends were on the magazines I read more than girls who looked like me. In my small, still-new-to-me town, I didn’t know other black girls who wore make up. One afternoon, before going home from school I decided to try on a friend’s eyeshadow. It was the Powerpuff Glitter Stick kind, when I got off the bus my mother looked at me and whispered in my ear, something to the effect of  “Why are you wearing that? You look like a streetwalker!” I was crushed. In my 11-year-old, slightly depressed head; she had just called me ugly during a time when I had already stopped looking in mirrors because I knew I’d never see anyone beautiful.

My mother, who also had dark skin, never really talked about beauty. I can vividly remember her referring to her looks as not being “pretty” or “beautiful” but “average,” even though I thought she was beautiful. I didn’t want to be average, I wanted to be beautiful—and in my opinion my mother, sisters and even brother were, while I was left out. My mother had never really talked about makeup either, except to tell me that she gave up on wearing it because she accidentally poked herself in the eye with eyeliner. 

Eventually, I stopped trying to wear makeup, as every time I tried, I felt I was attempting to put makeup on a pig. I grew older and realized my shade was harder to find than that of my friends—even though most of my friends were now black women, they were still lighter than me. I didn’t wear makeup to prom, graduation or award ceremonies in college. I could only hear my mom’s everlasting negativity. Today, I still have troubles with makeup, but thanks to the encouragement, love and persistence of a close friend or two who happened to have mean makeup habits, I no longer avoid mirrors or refer to myself as a farm animal. Though, I’m sure my mom doesn’t realize that her words were so sticky, I’m still trying to get detached from the dangerous flypaper her words took form as. I still have never seen my face completely made up, but that’s not too far behind, thanks to makeup lines like Colourpop who display their products on a variety of skin tones, and to the announcements of yet-to-be-created makeup lines aimed at darker skinned girls by celebrities. If fifth grade me knew this, maybe the black version of Cinderella wouldn’t have been needed.

image courtesy of Unsplash

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