The moment you feel seen is powerful. For many Black women, that feeling is few and far between. For the State of Black Beauty, we asked four writers to recall the instance in their life they felt SEEN in media. From Janet Jackson to Eartha Kitt, here are love letters to our Black Beauty icons who made us feel a little less invisible.
The year is 1997. I am 10 years old, lanky and trepidatious—about myself and the space I occupy in the world—growing up in Boston’s inner city. I’m fortunate to have a matriarch-led familial nucleus that constantly affirms my Black skin, hair, and being as beautiful; loving words and images of Pam Grier floated around the background of my childhood. But like so many Black girls during the haze of adolescence, it’s my friends’ opinions and unfiltered words that leave a heavier imprint on my sense of self.
As a fifth-grader attending a suburban middle school 45 minutes away from the insular Black community where I live, my complexion is the deepest, by three to four shades, and curls the tightest, by two letters, than anyone I spend the majority of my day with. Engulfed in a world of silky straight blondes and loose wavy brunettes, my braids and voluminous curls feel otherworldly. Despite the best efforts of my mother and grandmother, my definition of beauty is relational, my self-worth built on the opinions of middle schoolers and teen magazines who other and fail to realize the beauty of people who look like me. Navigating the throes of fifth grade is a minefield until the winter of ‘97.
At my younger sister’s purple-themed birthday party, my oldest cousin slips me the perfect piece of reflective square plastic. I’m immediately mesmerized. I stand in the middle of the living room with both hands gripped on the compact disc like a steering wheel, staring at the red and orange ringlets that mimic my own curl pattern. There are no words sprawled across the front, or even an identifiable face on the CD (my first ever). It’s not until I flip it on its side that I read The Velvet Rope or Janet Jackson. The only shred of familiarity that swirls around my head is Janet’s appearance in the infamous Jackson 5 movie, which played on an endless loop on my living room TV. I hadn’t yet been captivated by Control or Rhythm Nation.
The deep auburn cover gives me the instant, involuntary impulse to undo the three elastics that hold the tightly wrapped bun atop my head—my style du jour for its ease and ability to help me blend in with my classmates—and shake my coils free. There was someone young, talented, and famous, with hair as big as mine. With so much confidence, they didn’t even have to show their face on an album cover.
My world was rocked.
In the following weeks, as I worked my way through the tracklist of floaty, flirty vocals, deeply oozing base, and electronic down beats, Janet’s essence captivated me. These songs about friendship, love, and self worth were unlike anything my pre-teen self had ever heard. I blushed listening to Ms. Jackson wax poetic about her sexual encounters, good and bad, with both men and womxn. Even when the subject matter didn’t land, the confidence did. Before, I lacked the confidence to define my self-worth and definition of beauty. After The Velvet Rope, I easily renegotiated it.The carefree assuredness woven into each song on the album was my antidote. Each time I listened, I felt more and more comfortable being my full self around my white classmates, until it was the only way to be. I swapped my frizzy curls for a slicked bun and switched out Chapstick for lip gloss that accentuated my fuller lips Black beauty icons like TLC were to be adored instead of those propped up by my classmates.
More than two decades later, I still slip on The Velvet Rope when I need a shot of confidence or infusion of sexiness. I often joke to friends and family that it was this album that molded me into the confident, self-assured woman I am today. And while I may be being facetious (kinda sorta), the album certainly pressed upon me invaluable lessons that still resonate deeply, even at 33. Ms. Jackson showed me the importance of defining beauty—my own and that of the world around me—by a definition I create. Most importantly, that confidence, with a healthy dash of carefree joy, is the best beauty product of them all. And now, I apply it liberally everyday.
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