January 28, 2016


Young people of color deal with navigating their sexuality under the added pressure of oppressive European beauty standards

I grew up with five brothers, so the way I learned to show my affection for people was through insults and curse words. Standing in the cafeteria line in elementary school, I was playing around with one of my fellow classmates. He reached a point where he was tired of my disparaging remarks and, in a fit of rage, he called me “Blackie Chan.” I laughed because crying would ruin the tough persona I had worked so hard to maintain. But, it was at that moment that I realized my dark skin was a trait that could be made fun of.

For 19 years of my life, I thought I was ugly. I blamed my dark skin. When I was seven years old, the first allusion to my skin color bubbled up. “Blackie Chan,” this boy called me, with the grimiest smirk and the most devious eyes. I laughed at the insult and was relieved because at least I wasn’t the darkest girl in my grade. “Char baby” was reserved for her.  When I went to middle school, the darkest girl was called “Tar baby” instead. That wasn’t me. In high school, they threw away the theatrics and just called the darkest girl “ugly.” At least they got straight to the point.

Besides the odd schoolyard boyfriend I picked up in elementary school, I lived a largely celibate life. This was not by choice. Throughout middle and high school, I simply didn’t have any romantic prospects. Guys never had crushes on me. No one liked me in that way, and in those adolescent and teen years when I was doped up on schmaltzy Gerald Butler romantic comedies and Cary Grant, I craved someone with whom I could share an all-consuming romantic love. I wanted the first meeting to resemble Troy and Gabriella’s “Start of Something New,” the first date sitting on a table à la Sixteen Candles, the promposal an unabashed declaration of his love reminiscent of Lloyd Dobler with his boombox. But that didn’t happen to me in high school. Seeing all of my friends matched up and dating, I couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong with me. Not having a boyfriend was a sign of failure.

To be an ugly girl was the worst card to be dealt. Only pretty girls get the opportunity to be loved and to fall in love. I resigned myself to the reality that love for me would always be a hazy cloud hovering over my head, the ghost of my long-dead self-confidence.

Then I started college.  The mix of alcohol, freedom, and foolishness ushered me into an unfamiliar and reckless period in my life. For the first time in my life, guys weren’t an issue for me anymore. After the first time, hooking up with strangers lost most of its appeal, but I continued to do it because I finally felt complete. Spring quarter, depression dragged me down the rabbit hole, and after an incident with this guy whose face I still can’t recall, I had to reevaluate my relationship with guys.

Besides the token brown guy I had hooked up with to prove to myself that I wasn’t racist, all of the guys I had ever been with were white. None of them were nice. None of them were funny. None of them made me feel something. They were just white bodies who, through their touch and willingness to engage with my body in a sexual way, validated my worth.

In contrast to my darkness, their whiteness is ethereal. It is the standard by which society prescribes beauty.  All desirable facial features and ideal aesthetic models are rooted in typical white features. When it comes to beauty standards and expectations, whiteness is the proverbial Rome, and white men its clandestine emperors. I interpreted the acknowledgment and sexual acceptance from white guys as proof that I was worthy of love. Their touch endowed my soul with the beauty that genetics couldn’t give me, the validation self-love had never afforded me.

But, what I had thought was a year of liberation turned out to reveal an insecurity that I had pushed down.

The theme for this quarter’s edition of Blacklight is gender and sexuality. While discussing it, someone had mentioned that desire lies at the center of any talks concerning sexuality. I couldn’t help but think that if desire is at the center, then lust must, also, be put into the conversation.  Lust can’t be discussed without mentioning love, and love can’t be discussed without thinking about who gets loved. So, who deserves love? What bodies are deemed lovable?

Growing up, I received and internalized the messages of inherent ugliness that surrounds those with a darker skin shade. Feeling as though my body, coded as inferior and ugly, could never be loved, I reserved love solely for my imagination and my dreams. But reflecting on my first-year hookups, it’s clear that love was not buried in the depths of my dreams. Rather, every guy was an attempt to capture the love that I so desperately coveted. Every Saturday night, a challenge to prove that I am not ugly because ugly girls don’t get kissed. My fear of never being loved fueled every hook-up and desire I had my first year. However, instead of finding love for myself, I sought it out in white boys.

If I’ve learned anything from my first year, it is that white boys make the worst therapy. I conflated finding love with finding a man. And when it comes to popular talks about and media representation of love, it seems to always be conceptualized as an external display. Love as expression. To show one’s love to someone is to give them a hug or a kiss, or to be a shoulder to cry on. To show one’s self-love is to exercise or to look good. Love demands expression. My search for love was an expression and manifestation of my fears of loneliness, and, in my times reflecting, I learned that I had to learn to internalize my conceptions of love. I began to learn how to love myself instead of looking for others to love me. As a black woman, learning to love myself outside of the paradigms of whiteness demanded that I look inwards. Seeking love under the confines of European beauty standards and popular western notions of love never offered me any sense of personal satisfaction or security. There is no way to navigate those ideas when my gendered and racialized body makes those waters tempestuous. When one’s body clashes with the model archetype of the skinny white frame, the laws of attraction seem murkier.

Ada Alozie is a second-year in the College majoring in anthropology.

Editor’s note: Submit your ideas about the intersections of your race and sexuality or gender to blacklightuchicago@gmail.com for this quarter’s Gender and Sexuality issue.

Comments have been closed.