Growing up in predominantly white institutions and neighborhoods, my family and extended family were pretty much the only other Black people I interacted with, and they were my inspirations for everything. As a Black woman in a world where the mainstream culture is so dictated by Eurocentric standards of beauty, I saw my sisters as role models for self confidence. Their rituals became mine and kept me from feeling alienated in the world of beauty, which so often ignores Black women and shuts them out. At home, we mattered. At home, our questions and concerns did not go ignored.
It started off simply. The first time my older sister told me a beauty secret, I felt like I was in on a whole new world. After every shower, I would slather my body in cocoa butter lotion, only to end the day with dry skin. How could I make it last, I wondered? How could I be smooth and golden all day? My sister let me in on the secret. She pulled out a bottle of baby lotion, and told me to apply it to my wet skin immediately after showering, and then put on lotion. Yes, it doubled the length of my ritual, but I haven’t looked back since. From then on, my sister became a trusted authority on the ways of the world. But, at the time, I was too young to realize how much more she would give me than a tip about moisturizing.
I started noticing my differences as a Black girl more acutely in elementary school. At school, we wore uniforms. Not only were we outfitted in full blazer-and-tie regalia, but we had to wear plain black shoes indoors, plain white shoes for gym class, and not have any distracting jewelry. The only hint of individuality to be found was in our hair. For years, I wore my hair in cornrows or plain black box braids. They were simple, they were easy, they didn’t draw too much attention besides the occasional question of: “Do you do those every morning?” (The answer is no, Black women do not braid hundreds of small braids into their hair every morning, protective styles just last a while.)
When my sister hit high school and was inevitably bursting to express herself, she started experimenting with her hair. Each braid was a strand of intricately weaved black and red extensions, or sometimes a mixture of blondes and browns, and one time even a full head of purple so dark you could only tell when it hit the light. And when it did, I was amazed. Experimenting with hair color had never seemed possible for me. All the depictions of Black women with colorful hair I saw in the media were stereotypical and unfavorable. But here was my sister, someone who I loved and who wanted to be like, and who was unashamed and bold with her hair. Since then, I’ve had blonde hair, burgundy red hair, silver hair, and yes, even that coveted dark purple.
That first feeling of fearlessness showed me how to be brave, but more than anything, it cemented in my mind that my older sister would be my beauty inspiration. I’d long since accepted that I would never look like most of the adolescent girls on TV that I was supposed to aspire to, and even the few young, Black celebrities seemed to have straight hair and lighter skin than mine. But my sister was the epitome of attainable Black beauty, and my younger sisters and I fell in line to imitate her. Watching her come into her beauty as she grew up allowed me to embrace my own. Her confidence gave me permission to find some for myself. And knowing that I filled that role for my younger sisters inspired me to do the same.
As we got older, our concerns changed. What was the best way to fade hyperpigmentation? Was it normal to have dark knees? We spent hours trying out home remedies and reporting back to each other, parsing out the fables from the truth. As we’ve grown, the process has become more sophisticated, but it hasn’t changed. We text each other questions instead of typing them into Google. We send each other pictures on our best skin days. I can’t imagine what my relationship with my hair and my skin would look like without the mentorship of my older sister and the community that all of my sisters and I have found together. But I am grateful I had them—wrapping my braids for me at night, oiling my back where I couldn’t reach.
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