“I Hate That I’m Black. I Hate That I’m Ugly. I Hate My Nose.”
A young girl struggles to square her beauty with what she sees on screen
One day in third grade, I pulled a green slip of paper from my desk. In a dark, haunting ink, I wrote down all the things I hated about myself. I hate that I’m Black. I hate that I’m ugly. I hate my nose.
When I handed my mother the green slip, she read the words back to me like she was returning borrowed things. She had kept her ugly close to her once, a toothbrush she returned to twice a day, a common ritual for the women with our faces. My mother knew she could smooth the ugly out of me as she did with her own ugly. She showed me pictures of Angela Davis, bought records with Diana on the sleeve, staring a hole through the ugly in me.
My mother threw me these women, bones that called me to attention. But when I pressed my face against their faces, put my jaw to Angela’s jaw, I couldn’t make out the similarities, couldn’t find the same shine in my temples. I knew these women were supposed to remind me of myself, but there was an obvious disconnect between the Black girls presented to me as beautiful, and the Black girl written on the green slip.
The danger of representation is that it’s our reference for beauty.
When we talk about the importance of representation, we often start with children. Every child deserves to see a version of themselves on a screen—to point at, to call dibs on for a playground reenactment. Representation does the job of affirmation; it affirms the identity of the questioning child, the child in a predominantly white classroom, the child accustomed to different spaces.
When I came home from school to watch TV, it would have been valuable to see a cartoon of a Black girl in the suburbs eating grits for breakfast. I would have cherished a sitcom with a Black girl with blue hair, if only as a wink and a nudge, a nod to my quiet existence.
I was 18 when Black Panther came out, and like most Black Americans, I walked around with a glow. I had walked through my entire youth without a movie like it. I saw the movie for the first time in Atlanta, which made the whole experience Blacker than I thought possible. I wore my pride like an unconcealed weapon, walked with it until Twitter got quiet, until my mother stopped talking about it. The movie will always be a great example of the magic of representation, how it transfixes us.
I thought Black Panther would do the act of smoothing. I thought it could smooth the ugly out of me, still there, written on a green slip covering my heart. When I looked at Lupita Nyong’o, I knew I was supposed to find myself. I thought I was hidden somewhere in her too—maybe behind her ears or under the bridge her cheeks make. Though I looked hard, I couldn’t find myself in a woman so beautiful. There wasn’t room for the width of my nose in hers.
I explained this to my mother after watching the movie a third time: “To look like Lupita, I would physically have to rearrange my bones. There’s no use in trying to do that.”
A lot of the Black women in whom I am supposed to find myself have disposed the parts of themselves that look like me.
The danger of representation is that it’s our reference for beauty. Right now, the only reference we have for beauty is a white one. In our current standard of beauty, there is a white woman inside all of us we ought to dig up. There is a white woman waiting to show herself in our faces. When we catch her, when we let her show herself, then we have accomplished beauty.
A lot of the Black women in whom I am supposed to find myself have disposed the parts of themselves that look like me. Most of the Black women in the media do not look like me, and because I haven’t found that white woman yet, I have stopped looking.
Representation has to become more accurate in order for it to be more effective. Most Black women do not sit with shine on their cheeks, with thin soft noses, with impossible hair. A lot of Black women have calluses, eczema on their arms, years of work under their eyes. A lot of Black women sleep with bonnets, make their way with slippers on their feet. A lot of Black women wear larger than a D cup, make room for their breasts despite the rudeness of fabric.
However, when I talk about accuracy, it shouldn’t be confused with mockery. I don’t want representation to come from assumption; Black women should be writing themselves and should be choosing how their writing lives on screens.
I’m tired of having to justify my ugly to a world that’s not used to it. What’s frustrating about the one-note Black woman displayed in the media is that Black women already know how varied we are. It’s time for people to get used to my nose like I’ve had to get used to so many noses that aren’t mine.
I want to force people to look at me, to put me on their record sleeves. It’s not enough to throw us some beautiful, unattainable Black women. Those bones do not satisfy me anymore. It’s dangerous to compromise real representation for a sense of beauty. To relinquish the green slip covering my heart, it’s going to take a lot more than thin Black women with shine on their faces.
It’s time for people to get used to my nose like I’ve had to get used to so many noses that aren’t mine.
I want to see Black women on screen who don’t know how to lay their edges. I need sitcoms about Black women who know a few songs on the guitar. There need to be more Black women on the screen who are bald, who are unemployed, who have two or three jobs, who use food stamps. I demand more Black girls at the center of rom-coms who don’t have to sacrifice the curl in their hair. We deserve a TV show we can watch and immediately identify ourselves. There ought to be a segment on the aqua of Selah’s hair, how Ari’s curls changed after they shaved their head, the cardigan Sammy wears that makes his mother laugh.
When I consider the green slip and the ugly I still grapple with, I feel most confident in the audacity of writers of color. It would be wrong not to acknowledge how many Black writers are doing the work to give Black characters a complexity they deserve. I can’t expect Brad Pitt to know what to do with my nose in a script (and, quite frankly, I don’t want him dealing with my nose at all). That’s why my friends and I are writing: We can tell the tales of our own noses, write the scripts with our own vernacular.
Even then, pulling the green slip from my desk, I knew I had to write something down. Even in condemnation, I knew I had to write myself down.