For the State of Black Beauty, ELLE.com chatted with six Black icons to hear how they define Black beauty and how they see themselves in the space—in their own words.
Black beauty, what it means to me is Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” It’s loving your hips, your nose, your hair. It’s embracing all of the cultural attributes that are in your faith, in your voice, in your mannerisms, in your past, and what makes you different from everyone else. It’s also making peace with the parts of you that are strong, confident, but also vulnerable and the parts of you that sometimes need help. It’s all of it. It’s embracing fully, absolutely, who you are.
I wish I knew that who and what I am was enough—that who I am is just perfect. If someone would have told me back then, I would’ve maybe thought that was conceited. I would not have seen that as confidence. I spent so much time trying to erase and re-imagine myself as someone else—Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, any person at any given time. I wish I had known that the palette that God gave me was enough. I wasted years. A lot of that had to do with quieting the outside noise, especially with social media. You can’t measure life by material things. I feel at the end of the day, my worth comes from my authenticity.
The thing about our beauty industry is, it was an extension of our culture where historically, Black beauty and Black femininity have been at the bottom of the totem pole. We were chattel. I feel like the beauty industry was an extension of that and what made it worse was growing up with the internal hatred that happens within our Black communities.
Men and women not liking the darkest women. The paper bag test. I certainly was on the other side of that as well. I got it two-fold. Then I saw someone who was a physical manifestation of positivity, of the value of worth. Seeing Ms. Tyson, that beautiful, dark-skinned woman with thick lips and the Afro and the sweat glistening off of her was transformative.
What inspires me, especially now at age 54, is the power of legacy. I understand the power of images and that’s why it really played a huge part in me even joining L’Oréal Paris. I love the Age Perfect Moisturizer. I mean it literally looks like my skin. I love it. But I knew how important it was to Black women, to see me as the face of a beauty brand, and speaking those words: I’m worth it. Looking at me because, believe it or not, there are people who never see that physical manifestation of worth.
Worth is when I came out of my mother’s womb, August 11, 1965, in St. Matthews, South Carolina, end of story, period. Exclamation point. There is nothing that I had to do. Nothing. I didn’t have to do anything to barter for it, to bargain for it. I am worthy and knowing that, gradually, I’ve really come into who I am. I’m better than I’ve ever been.
It’s been a long journey, is what it’s been. It was getting married and accepting love from a good man. It was becoming a mother and constantly having to affirm to my daughter that she is beautiful, her brains and her heart are beautiful, and have to believe it myself. It’s getting older and recognizing that I don’t have a lot of time to waste feeling like I was born in the wrong body. I don’t have the time.
In the scene in How to Get Away With Murder where Annalise takes off her wig, that moment was important for me because I wanted to show Annalise as a woman, as a human being. I feel a lot of this Black beauty narrative is about image and message, more so than truth. It’s about putting an image and a message out there of perfection, of perfect beauty and perfect hair, in order for us to send a message that, yes we are beautiful. What we have to do now is show what it means to be human. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not acting, that’s not art. That’s what that moment meant to me, to show you that I am this complicated human: As you are.
I feel that who I am in private, even without my makeup, my mess, my failures, my joy, my imperfection, my complexity—all of that is beauty. It is in the words of Toni Morrison: “I want to feel what I feel, even if it’s not happiness.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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