All Black Beauty Should Be Celebrated
By Sydney Montgomery
This week, ABC premiered The Bachelorette with the series’ first Black Bachelorette. Rachel Lindsay, fan favorite from last season’s The Bachelor, is smart, funny, and successful. She’s celebrated as being an excellent combination of beauty and brains. My mind, however, kept coming back to one thing throughout the 2-hour season premiere. Rachel Lindsay has a tooth gap. A tooth gap that was mentioned, and celebrated, during the episode. Growing up, I had a large gap between my two front teeth, as many African-Americans do. As I got older, it quickly became my least favorite feature, convinced it made me look less professional and “flawed” by conventional beauty standards. Last year, I finally got orthodontic work done to close the gap, and while I don’t regret the decision, as I feel it has given me increased confidence and self-esteem, seeing Rachel Lindsay, a beautiful and successful civil litigator celebrated for her gap, definitely made me pause.
Being a black female, I’m often too aware of the whitewashing of beauty standards in America. These are the beauty standards that uplift straight teeth, straight hair, small waists, and long legs. There is, however, a narrative that comes with that critique that implies that my personal desire for straight teeth and straight relaxed hair stems from an internalization of white beauty standards in favor of my own natural Black beauty. The critique posits that more representation of Black natural beauty (hair, teeth, body types) would lead more Black girls to shirk off the oppression of white beauty standards and have greater self-worth and appreciation for their own features. Many in the Black community believe that relaxers for straight hair are in direct contrast to celebrating black beauty, and to truly celebrate your blackness, you must give up that “creamy crack,” go natural, and never look back.
While there is definitely validity in these critiques, I do not think they are universally applicable. I love my straight hair, and not because I do not value my kinky curls, and I love my straight teeth. That said, the lack of representation of women with teeth gaps and kinky curls still constitutes an erasure of who I am and who I’ve been. Just because I choose to wear my hair straightened does not mean that I do not interact with, and experience my natural hair daily. I interface with my 4C hair every night when I wrap it in a satin scarf to protect it; it is part of every bi-monthly trip to the hair salon, and every snow day, rain day, and pool day experience. My kinky hair is an integral part of my identity, but it is rarely seen on the screen.
Instead, however, mainstream television and movies have increasingly cast actresses like Sophia Wylie (Andi Mack), Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games, Everything Everything), and Tracee Ellis Ross (Blackish), with natural hair in the spotlight. The irony is that this “natural” hair most closely resembles a Type 3C curl that is common among lighter skinned black women. As such, the mainstream media narrative has subtly switched from straight hair is beautiful, to this natural hair is beautiful. Most dark-skinned women have a kinkier Type 4 hair that is still absent from the big screen. Even beauty ads by Shea Moisture, a historically Black natural hair care line, have been criticized for showcasing a light skinned girl with Type 3 curls as a stand in for all natural black girls. Even though I choose not to wear my hair natural, the erasure of my natural, in favor of what society deems my natural should look like, still cuts deep.
Rachel Lindsay is breaking barriers as a black woman being nationally celebrated as a symbol of beauty and desire. To have a black woman with a tooth gap be the subject of courting, competition and longing complicates and challenges typical American beauty standards. One day, I hope the same celebration of black beauty extends to child stars with 4C poofs, and women with all variations of kinky, curly, twisted, and knotted hair styles, because all Black is beautiful, and to showcase some textures and skin tones, while ignoring others, perpetuates rejection instead of moving towards acceptance.