“Go where you’re celebrated, not merely tolerated…” Ain’t that the truth. It’s one of those ubiquitous motivational quotes that do the rounds on Instagram, but for Black women in Britain, they’ve been taking this sentiment to the airport — jetting off to countries where their beauty is more often than not celebrated. “I’ve been in Jamaica for three days,” tweeted London-based journalist Gena-Mour Barrett earlier this year. “The sun is shining, everywhere I turn is another family member my grandma insists I’m related to, everybody’s body type is exactly the same or similar to mine, and I’ve been moved to more times in 3 days than probably 3 years in the UK,” she said. She adds: “A man said “yuh body set good” and it cured my body dysmorphia. England who?”
It’s by no exaggeration to suggest that for some Black British women the feeling of being desired can only be found by way of a British Airways flight, and in countries where Blackness, in all its variations, is the beauty standard. The narrow ideals of beauty in the UK, a place where Black people make up 3% of the population, haven’t been helpful to Black women’s overall self-esteem. A 2015 UK government body image study found Black British women feel their beauty is “invisible”, “demeaned” and “criticised” in this country, and “only celebrated if they are closer to the ideal” with “lighter skin” and so-called “good hair.”
This is only exasperated by limited representation in media, advertisements and celebrities. Take ITV’s Love Island, which returned this week, a reality dating show that often serves as a microcosm of the chaotic dating scene young people in the UK experience. The series is typically a mess for all involved. Yet specifically for Black women watching, there’s fear of the same recurring storyline: Black women not being desired by male housemates for yet another year. As one person tweeted ahead of the show’s return. “Love Island is a reflection of the UK tbh. How Black women are stereotyped and desired outside of the show is the same as in the show.”
By now, we’re all aware that representation matters but, as three Black British women explain to Unbothered UK, some of us are tired of waiting. Instead of holding out for appropriate representation in the UK, these women travel to places where their physical beauty is highly desired and celebrated. While travel is a privilege not everyone can afford, for those who can make the trip, the experiences can be soul-soothing.
Oghosa Ovienrioba, digital creator and influencer, London, UK
“I grew up with a lot of white people, I went to a majority white school and I lived in a majority white area and the political party that had a really big stronghold in that area was the far-right British National Party — so it was very racially hostile. As a result, it triggered my low self-esteem. I kept on finding myself in very toxic friendships where I would keep comparing myself to the girls around me. I believed I wasn’t pretty enough because I didn’t have Eurocentric features. I would always lift up my nose to see what I would look like if I had a nose job. I also had natural hair as well because my parents didn’t really believe in relaxing hair. I got a lot of hate in school from both white people and Black people because anti-Blackness is so universal. This was in 2005 and 2006, way before the natural hair movement and before YouTube. It was very, very negative. But eventually, YouTube and my social media platforms as well as the natural hair movement really helped me in terms of embracing my natural hair and self-acceptance.
“Even though I’ve travelled to places like Bali, Portugal, and Brazil, I’ve only travelled to two majority-Black countries, Nigeria and Ghana. I was in Nigeria for almost two months — I went to the mainland, Abuja, then I went to Benin where my dad is from — and I felt like I lived there. One of the first things that struck me was that I never had to explain how to pronounce my name. That was huge! I’m half Edo, half Yoruba, and Oghosa is an Edo name and actually pronounced ‘o-wa-sa’. That really struck me. In terms of featureism and colorism, it was very refreshing to be like, wow, I’ve been lied to [about beauty], including this idea of the stereotypical Black woman’s body shape. In Nigeria, all the women looked different. They all have different body shapes, and a lot of the women look like me. There’s just a mix. I always felt living in England that I had to live up to that ideal of the figure eight physique with a big bum and a tiny waist; this ridiculous idea of what a Black woman is supposed to look like. My visit really emphasised that we’re not a monolith and there’s no one look that is worthy of being desirable.
“England can kind of sometimes make you feel a little bit ignored. Not all the time. But sometimes. [Travelling to Nigeria] was good for showing me that Black women can be the main character. The trip definitely made me feel more connected to my culture, but [in] a Black majority country in general there’s a sense of peace that we really should get to experience every day. Obviously, you still have the ramifications of colonialism in Nigeria, but the effects of white supremacy, those little things that you have to deal with every single day in the UK — the microaggressions, the stares, the ‘how do you pronounce your name? — you just don’t have to deal with it [in a Black majority country]. There’s a sense of peace and belonging that occurs when you travel to these countries. It’s a shame it’s so expensive because I would be doing it all the time.”
L’Oréal Blackett, Unbothered UK editor, Manchester, UK
“The women in my family have often told me that I needed to leave the UK for the sake of my self-esteem. “You wouldn’t be able to walk in the Caribbean!” they laugh, warning me that going to either one of my ancestral countries, Barbados or Antigua, would elicit a lot of male attention — whether I wanted it or not. The elder women in my life walk with the confidence of fine-ass women who know exactly what they’ve got going on. This England, and its beauty standards, can’t challenge how they see themselves. They’ve always wanted me to feel the same.
“I’m a third-generation Caribbean immigrant who grew up in Manchester, UK. I was one of the few Black girls in my northern catholic high school and bullied relentlessly for the way I looked. My mother kept my hair in neat stylish braids yet my teacher described them as “rats tails” that needed combing, the boys in my class would flick my full lips, and the first boy I ever liked ripped a bobble out of my hair so my micro braids fell around my face. “You look more mixed-race with your hair down,” he said. For my entire teen experience, the Blackest parts about me were the parts that were mocked the most.
“These comments have followed me into my adult life. Even though now my image is mostly praised, I know I could be more confident; in my natural hair, in my features, in myself. Every day, I mentally confront the insidious anti-Blackness of the bullying I faced as a kid.
“This year, I travelled to Cape Verde, an island off the West Coast of Africa. As soon as my foot touched the sand did I feel my confidence raise by 100 points. As I toured the island, women told me they liked my outfits and the way I styled my hair wrapped in a colorful scarf, like the other African women on the island. Looking around seeing every single Black woman, of all shades, builds, abilities and styles, with natural hair, made me regret not wearing my ‘fro big and proud. Every hair salon I passed was a textured hair salon (obviously), and I embraced that feeling of normality that a seldomly feel in the UK. You’re not an afterthought there. It was so affirming. And, then there was the male attention… In the UK, I hate — no, detest — being approached by men but in Cape Verde, I was politely wooed by men who told me I was [insert over-the-top synonyms for pretty, like dazzling], then humbly apologising to my partner at the same time.
“We’re often told that we shouldn’t place emphasis on our physical appearance but in Britain where we’re often not considered the standard, it is entirely affirming to be in a space where we are appropriately seen for just how beautiful we are; in all our variations. We shouldn’t have to leave the UK to feel like this. But I’m glad to fully, deeply and confidently know that in this big wide world, I am beautiful.”
Tia De Gannes, Musician, Wolverhampton, UK
The UK dating scene as a Black woman is very hard, especially as an openly bisexual Black woman. I only recently started dating men again over the last few years and I lost a lot of confidence, in terms of how to carry myself and how to authentically be myself. I don’t know whether it’s British society that plays a part in forming the Black male gaze, but, in my personal experience, I think Black men abroad, especially in the majority-Black countries are more open-minded.
“I’ve always been big, even as a child and I got used to it, as I became passionate about fashion and I always dress well. Before I started travelling to the Caribbean as an adult, even in Black-majority cities like Washington D.C in the US, I wasn’t used to men coming up to me and telling me I was attractive or commenting on the fact that they preferred my size. I’ve never had that in the UK at all. It’s not always accepted in British society to be big and there are definitely still a lot of qualms about the plus-size community here as well. Yet when I go abroad my friends always say when I walk into a room people know it. In Jamaica, they’ll call me “fluffy” or “big gyal” but it’s always followed up with ‘oh but we like that!’ Even in places like Turkey, they’re like, ‘oh my gosh, you’re a beautiful goddess.’ It’s like they see me for me beyond the weight.”
“Over the last 18 months, I’ve developed a strong understanding about myself and I know I don’t need to wait for a man or change myself to make a man feel comfortable no matter how much I like them. My friend and I have made this pact now that we’re gonna just start dating internationally because I just think that Black men abroad, because they’re always surrounded by Black people — more so than the dynamic here in the UK — they’re more rooted in Blackness and that they’re more appreciative of Black women. It’s a big commitment to date internationally but also, it’s instilled almost a resilience in us that reminds us that we don’t have to settle because there are men out there who do appreciate Black women.”
This story was originally published on Unbothered’s UK edition.
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