Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro writes about how the beauty of Black women is portrayed in popular culture…
Watching Love Island for the past few weeks has been entertaining, to say the least. However, for me, this entertainment has also seen the unravelling of a lot of memories of the difficulty of navigating the dating world as a Black woman. As a Black woman, your sense of beauty is measured under the western beauty microscopic lens. Unless you are white, blonde, and have blue eyes, then your chances of finding a partner in the western world are slim to none.
Through pop culture, literature, film, music videos, to name a few, Black women are portrayed as unhinged sexual beings who need to be tamed. Examples of literature are present in colonial texts like Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness(1899), movies include Boyz n the Hood (1991), 12 Years a Slave (2013). It is most visible in the Hip Hop scene with artists like 50 Cent and his song Candy Shop (2009) which has the clear message of how ‘sex sells’ in particular Black women’s bodies. They need to be tamed in regards to the wildness of their Afro hair, their dark skin which is considered exotic, and the personality traits that are categorised as loud, promiscuous, sassy, and fierce.
These attributes lead to a quest to be tamed to insert control and re-categorise Black women in line with western beauty standards. Their wildness is perfect for an exciting fantasy game. But this fantasy is short-lived in the face of being asked to consider Black women’s humanity, beauty and personality outside of this sexual fantasy realm.
In the fantasy realm, Black women are constantly fetishised, which acts as a disguise for dating preference. Writing for Forbes, journalist Janice Asare defines fetishisation as “ the act of making someone an object of sexual desire based on some aspect of their identity”. In a predominately white society, being a Black woman sees the stripping down of one’s humanity to a mere sexual object; an object to appease the male gaze.
Blackness and beauty
Every year on Love Island, the Black female contestants are the ones that are always picked last. This year’s series has been no different and yet I still naively watched the first episode on the edge of my seat, hoping that Kaz Kamwi, this year’s Black girl from Essex, would not fall victim to this societal racism. This predictable move of the female black contestant being chosen last was immediately on display, especially in the wake of BLM, where Black people have talked about racism being in all layers of our society. On online platforms, predominantly Black viewers went to express their disappointment while some white viewers were quick to dismiss this racial overtone.
Seeing Kaz being overlooked because of her Blackness stirred up emotions I had tried to keep deeply hidden. Growing up in Ireland, a predominately white society, I have first-hand experience of this racial reinforcement, of Black women not being considered beautiful, and the devastating effects it has on young Afro-Irish women’s sense of identity, belonging and acceptance. Everywhere that you look there is this reinforcement of how western standards of beauty are the accepted norm.
One of my earlier memories of coming face to face with this false expectation of western beauty standards was when as a teenager I started wearing make-up. I remember going to my local pharmacy to buy make-up, only to leave devastated and embarrassed because they did not have a foundation to match my skin tone. I was told by the staff that they did not have darker foundation shades as there was no demand for it. There is no guarantee that you will find a foundation that matches my black complexion in pharmacies to this day. Yet, Ireland considers itself diverse and progressive.
Within the western discourse, the ‘Third World Woman’ is described as a monolithic being. This image is central to our television screens thanks to shows like Love Island. The reality show reinforces these negative stereotypes of all male participants’ preferences aligning with western discourses which stipulate that whiteness is the ideal beauty, while blackness is something that is admired from afar, but not desirable. A prime example on this year’s Love Island was in the opening scenes when the islanders are describing their types and Jake Cornish states, “my type, all I ask for is blonde, blue eyes,” and this is the same momentum that has been seen throughout the remaining episodes. When new boy Danny Bibby entered the villa on July 15, he chose Kaz for a date which immediately made people question his motives. Throughout the date all he talked about was liking Kaz’s vibes and energy, never once describing her beauty. However, while describing the other white female contestants (Lucinda Strafford etc), their beauty was the first thing that he described.
Once again Kaz’s beauty was overlooked and brushed aside. Black women throughout history have been described as erotic, wild, savages, highly promiscuous. According to theorist Homi Bhabha, stereotypes are “the masking and splitting of official and phantasmatic knowledges to construct the positionalities and oppositionalities of racist discourse” (34). The stereotypes that are projected onto Black women makes it an almost impossible task to see their beauty when placed beside their white counterparts. Instead, the stereotype of Black women being promiscuous is reinforced and admired by some from afar but when it comes to picking a partner like they do in Love Island the Black female contestants time and time again are overlooked.
Singling out Black female contestants on national television is constantly justified under the lens of dating preference. Yet what the audience fails to recognise is how these dating preferences are laced with colonial racial ideals, where women with blonde hair and blue eyes are the ideal partners, as they fit the western beauty standards. This dating preference, therefore, sees the Black female contestants placed in the role of the ‘other,’ a role that they can only escape by being voted out by the audience. The categorisation of Black women as the ‘other’ as opposed to western beauty standards is a distinctive feature visible in earlier periods of trans-Atlantic slavery, colonialism, and now part of our present reality.
You’re pretty for a black girl
Stereotypes which project Black women as highly promiscuous and hyper sexual beings have been around for centuries. This projection becomes more apparent when observed under the fetishisation lens. Through this lens, black women are described as fantasy and something out of the ordinary. Theorist Homi Bhabha explains this characteristic with the example of the Black skin. The black skin is seen “as the key signifier of cultural and racial difference in the stereotype, is the most visible of fetishes.”
During the first episode of Love Island, viewers overlooked the damaging impact on other viewers, young Black/Brown women who were watching Kaz Kamwi being picked last. They refused to understand the unwanted memories that it may have stirred up amongst viewers who are all too familiar with this experience of being seen as less worthy on the mere basis of having Black skin. Instead, viewers went online and complimented Kaz Kamwi in a limited and demeaning manner; pretty for a Black girl. This backhanded compliment assumes the acknowledgment that Kaz’s beauty is limited, as she is only considered as desirable and pretty when judged in the Black category, but would immediately be an afterthought if put in comparison with the white women contestants.
This backhanded compliment is something that I have never understood. Far too often on nights out, white women have no objection to coming up to me to compliment my dark complexion and afro-hair, while making sure that I stay in my lane because, after all, I am only pretty for a Black girl. This frustration is even made worse when interacting with the male gaze, as they have no shame in stating to my face that for a Black girl you are ‘actually pretty’. They view it as a compliment, because in some sick sadistic way they can see past your Blackness and can see your beauty.
Hyper-sexualisation of Black women
Far too often, Black women are categorised under the lens of solely being sexual commodities. Through this description, their humanity is stripped and they are just viewed as sexual entities. Caren Holmes writes that “Black women have and continue to be sexually sought after for their assumed hyper-sexualised body and behaviour, which has been essentialised throughout history by the oppressor” ( 8).
This description was on full display in a Love Island episode last month. On July 19, the long-awaited challenge, ‘Snog, Marry, Pie’ aired. This challenge is a fan favourite where the contestants are split into two groups, where they have the option of picking a fellow contestant to snog, marry or pie. The excitement surrounds who the contestants decide to snog as it’s always between the person that they are coupled-up with or someone they have a slight crush on. This year’s episode saw Kaz Kamwi, who up until this point had been friend-zoned by all the boys, as she did not fit into their preference, was the one most sought after. This challenge created the perfect atmosphere whereby the boys in the villa could play out their fantasy by kissing Kaz yet returning to their ideal partners (blonde and blue eyes). This episode was a difficult one to watch as a Black woman; that uncomfortable nature of watching all the boys get giddy about the possibility of kissing Kaz. I knew the underlying undertones of this excitement. They would leave the villa and proudly brag about how they kissed a Black woman, and it was something beyond their wildest dreams.
In that episode, we saw hints of racial fetishisation play out. Caren Holmes notes “Racial fetishisation continues this pattern of cultural and racial essentialising in efforts to control black female bodies and sexuality” (8), while Homi Bhabha states “sexual fetish is closely linked to the good object; it is the prop that makes the whole object desirable and loveable, facilitates sexual relations and can even promote a form of happiness” (31). The fetishisation of the Black body is a distinctive characteristic traceable back to the trans-Atlantic and colonial periods, and these attributes are trickling into today’s realities.
Society still refuses to understand how fetishisation and stereotypes of Black women are all interconnected to modern-day racism. It is something so evident for the individuals who are all too familiar with this anxiety, of navigating the dating world and deciphering people’s true intent. Young people who do not fit into the false myth of western beauty should not have to go through this emotional turmoil when trying to form their sense of identity. No one should approach the dating world with dread, and fear of being stripped of their humanity and objectified, just on the mere basis of being a Black woman.