Pretty Hurts: How Lupita Nyong’o is Healing the Beauty Game

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She was made of black mother-of-pearl,
made of dark-purple grapes,
and she lashed my blood
with her tail of fire…

~Pablo Neruda, The Fickle One

Lupita MiuMiu2#beautyheals, to regram an elegant and wise Rebecca Walker hashtag, and nowhere is this more evident than in the current obsession Black women are having with the startling and luminous images of our girl, Lupita Nyong’o, that have flooded the representational sphere this awards season. With everything from a campaign for high-end fashion house Miu Miu underway and an uncounted number of fashion spread features and entertainment industry shout-outs, to the onslaught of love letters and crazed social media fandom, Nyong’o’s sudden, fervent ubiquity points to the fact that we are not the only ones thirsting for a gorgeous, earth-black, African descended beauty revolution. She sits, center stage, poised to interrupt the global pageantry of the Hollywood film industry. As far as we’re concerned, there are no other contenders. In the beauty and talent game, she has won everything except, as poet and scholar Tony Medina reminded us in a recent Facebook post, the Super Bowl.

It is an American racial paradox that Lupita’s rise to beauty stardom was on the back of the character “Patsy”, the brutally raped and generally downtrodden bondage woman in Lupita 12 YearsSteve McQueen’s film, 12 Years A Slave. But her Oscar-worthy portrayal of wretchedness in that spectacular role was a small price to pay for catapulting her into the pale-skinned, hair-weaved, anaretic Western beauty consciousness. In the case of Lupita’s casting, McQueen’s use of the conventions of the “neo-slave narrative” – whose role is to fill-in the oft-excluded emotional ravages of slavery to appeal to the sensibilities of northern white abolitionists – served to demonstrate the pain that white ideas of beauty have always inflicted on Black women. This portrayal is a reminder of how the systemic dehumanization of Black women was implemented, and helps us to imagine the origins of the story of our “ugliness.”

Over the years, we’ve had our cultural obsessions with dark-skinned African descended men (Sidney Poitier, Wesley Snipes, Djimon Hounsou and Idris Elba come to mind). This is to be expected within a culture in which Black male sexuality is both fetishized and feared and dark skin speaks to both desire and deathwish. Notwithstanding, Black women in the representational sphere have, almost exclusively, been considered desirable only when we are portrayed as half-white or otherwise obviously mixed-race versions of ourselves (Halle Berry, Paula Patton, Zoe Saldana, Thandie Newton and Rashida Jones, to cite modern examples). Which isn’t to say that mixed-race or lighter skinned Black women aren’t beautiful and worthy of admiration. Not at all. It is to say that the oversaturation of light-skinned images of Black women – a product of racial ideologies that structure ideal beauty along a hierarchy that positions white skin at the top and dark skin at the bottom – has contributed to the devastating erasure in the conceptual realm of romance, beauty and love consciousness in the West. We suspect that this conceptual erasure is behind the lack of desire or interest in Black women on dating sites, the abysmal percentages of Black women being “chosen” for marriage, the way that mainstream corporate hip-hop is allowed to depict us and, once again, the devastating rates (60%, yall!) of sexual assault and abuse visited on Black girls before age 18.

We believe that representational trauma has a real impact on the psyches and self-esteem of Black women and girls, and in the last decade, it seems that every intervention we’ve seen in the realm of empowering Black female beauty has been countered by its opposite. Consider:

  • Oprah putting her face on the cover of her own magazine every month has been countered by Essence Magazine being bought out by Time Inc. who now, all but refuses to feature Black women with natural hair on its cover;

  • A biopic of our beloved Nina Simone is misrepresented by the casting of Zoe Saldana in the title role;

  • The hype around the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun insults us with the casting of Thandie Newton as the thick-bodied, brown-skinned protagonist;

  • Kerry Washington’s spectacular African features in Neutrogena ads are undermined by a blonde-weaved, photoshop-lightened Beyonce emphasizing her “mixed-race” skin for a L’oreal campaign;

  • Carol’s Daughter, catapulted into the stratosphere by black- and brown-skinned girls from Brooklyn to Seattle, publically declaring that only light-skinned, mixed-race women were appropriate spokespersons for their brand; and

  • Michelle Obama’s regal beauty challenged by powerful white male political commentators who are allowed to ridicule her weight, her height and the size of her backside as if she were on an auction block and with hardly any backlash.

Even now, on the cusp of an archetypal transformation for Black women in popular media, Vanity Fair, that bastion of all things Hollywood glamour, still doesn’t get it. In a recent photo shoot featuring Nyong’o, the magazine countered what appears to be this moment’s universal admiration for dark skinned beauty by portraying her as several shades lighter than her actual skin tone.

In misogynist patriarchies, hierarchies of female desirability are established to maintain the status quo. For decades, researchers have presented compelling analyses that support this so let’s not pretend that the racial pecking order ain’t real. Even scholar and MSNBC talk show host Melissa Harris Perry revealed the ways that she, as a light-skinned, mixed-race Black woman, has been seduced by the power of colorism:

“Because I’m light-skinned, and cis, and straight, and have a white parent, and have access to all kinds of privileges from birth, my bet is that I have been seduced by power….my bet is that my proximity to whiteness has allowed me over and over again a level of racial naiveté and a willingness to believe that if I could just get the right white folks to give me cover, that it will be OK.”

Remember the Alicia Keys/India Arie debates of 2002 around their grammy nominations and how mainstream media manufactured a feud between the women based on the presumed privileging of Keys as a light skinned, mixed race Black woman? Or Ariegate 2013 – the scandal over Arie’s lighter skin hue on the album cover for her single “Cocoa Butter?” Black women are reminded of our place in the hierarchy when we see our favorite Black girl actresses, models, musicians and pop culture icons transformed from dark haired, round bodied realness to blonde, airbrushed, skin bleached cyborgs that maintain tired representational ideals of ‘light is right’ and ‘black get back’.

This issue of colorism for Black women has had some devastating impacts, particularly in terms of our relationships to one another, and we can’t let our fear of disrupting Black girl solidarity prevent us from talking about the reality of colorism and its effects. Here are some recent social facts to consider:

  • Researchers at Villanova University compared skin color and sentencing patterns of over 12,000 African American women in North Carolina prisons and found that light skinned Black women received shorter sentences than dark skinned Black women;

  • A 2006 study published by the Association of Psychological Science found that the more “stereotypically Black” a defendant is perceived to be (and dark skin color was one of these characteristics), the more likely that person was sentenced to death;

  • Economists have found that light skin yields a 15% greater probability of marriage for young Black women and the presence of more educated and higher-earning spouses for married Black women; and

  • Kiri Davis’ powerful documentary A Girl Like Me presents young Black girls’ stories of colorism and recreates the classic “doll test” created by psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark showing how, even among the post-segregation, post-girl empowerment generation, young Black children still privilege whiteness over Blackness.

One way to heal the fissures created by a global white supremacist beauty mandate is, of course, to increase portrayals of gorgeous, dark-skinned Black women in the representational sphere. We have to come up with creative strategies to heal our trauma around beauty and to create new versions of ourselves to celebrate and love. In the same way that Sweden has, for example, implemented a new rating system that considers the portrayal of women or that writer Inga Muscio documents the prevalence of rape culture in film, we must figure out ways to ensure that we aren’t triggered by images of us as abysmal creatures from the white imaginary.

naomi Sims

For us, Lupita is a veritable coup in the psyche of the American propaganda machine. As part of a legacy of ‘Black is beautiful’ imagery evoked by the likes of Cicely Tyson, Nina Simone, Naomi Sims, Grace Jones, Alek Wek and Lauryn Hill, she is in the tradition of Black transgressive resistance to the limitations of dominant cultural representations. Our hope is that her image not only generates new conceptual options of beauty for our 21st century Black girls, but that she ignites, in the spirit of the late cultural critic Richard Iton, a black fantastic that strikes at the core of a system that excludes dark-skinned black women for the preservation of a racist, sexist and heteronormative status quo. 

Photo Credits: Visual Optimism; HuffPost Black Voices; CraveOnline; Arta Chic

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When Keeping It Real is Not Enuf: A New Years Meditation

Ani Meme_2

At the top of the new year, Real Colored Girls have taken a moment to reflect on the metaphysics of realness, that is, how realness operates in the world and what, exactly, makes us so real. This year, one of our meditations will be around making distinctions between and within the multiple levels of realness that RCG engages in our pop culture political commentary. We’ve prioritized these levels of reality as: the Realest, the Really Real and the mere Real.


For us, the Realest represents the power structures that control the processes of creation and dissemination of Black women’s images that impact how we are perceived within the human cipher. The goal of our work is to disrupt the systems that construct and reiterate the stereotypes that make it possible for us to be interpreted, for example, as a deadly threat (in the case of Renisha McBride) or infinitely molestable (the alarming rates of sexual violence against Black women come to mind). The Realest is concerned with the ways in which hegemonic* archetypes of Black women exist in the cultural imaginary.

RKellyThe Really Real is pronounced in, for example, our relationship to the Black communities defense of and/or continued acceptance of R. Kelly, or the way in which mainstream capitalist hip hop’s persistent degradation of Black women in its lyrics, videos and misogynist ethic has become, by now, an accepted cultural phenomenon.  The Really Real is so because it is extraordinarily painful on both the material and psychic levels, and we see the daily impact of the degradation of our innocence, sexualities, bodies and self-esteem on both the girls and grown women in our ciphers. Moreover, we believe that there is a direct parallel between the way that black women feel about ourselves and our participation in the political processes that govern our lives.

The Real are those things that exist and impact us but, more often, they happen at a distance. This distance can be practical, physical, virtual, emotional and/or spiritual. Examples of the Real, in terms of pop culture issues impacting Black women, include:

  • whether or not Saturday Night Live hires a black woman for their show;

  • when white feminist bloggers like Meghan Murphy start an all-out Twitter war with women of color by belittling our cyber feminist activism and crying foul when we call them out for their bad racial politics; and

  • the brouhaha around Ani DiFranco’s wholistically wack organization of and subsequent sorry-not-sorry “no-pology” for the white women’s feminist song-writing retreat she scheduled to take place on a slave plantation.

Although these issues are real we find that they reflect race and engage Black women in ways that center whiteness, white narcissism, white denial, white guilt, white pathology and white uses of power. All issues deserving of critique, but not necessarily ones behind which we’ll throw the full weight of our intellectual and creative deconstruction.

Our creative energies are directed toward the ‘reinstatement of Black women to our original archetypes’. This intention is what distinguishes the ‘more real’ from the ‘less real’ for us.  We’re not as much interested in bickering with white women or demanding that they or anyone acknowledge our pain, our beauty or our humanity. Our realness is located in subverting the systems that construct the dynamics of privilege that allow anyone to get cray then whine for forgiveness and unity when their shit gets called out. The amount of energy exerted in responding to the racial foolishness of white folk, in particular, is a reminder that we cannot continue to ask “how high” when they say “jump” on some crazy race bullshit – let them do that work. There is a critical mass of white anti-racists who have the capacity to call folk out on their problematic race shit. RCG calls upon Black folk to discontinue operating on the level of the mere ‘Real’ as this takes us away from the ‘Realist’ creative work of visioning new ways of living, being and healing.

From the bad behavior that some in our community be savin’ on, to the Ani debates, to white feminist fuck ups in general and the entire kitchen sink of white folks centering themselves in ways that don’t do anything for anyone: these are not the questions we are asking in 2014.

Photo Credit: Albert Sanchez via Mother Jones;;

* Click here to learn more about our use of the term “hegemony.”

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Ratchet Me This: How Do We Ride For Pleasure In a Pimp Culture?


First things first: we are not talking to Jamilah-come-lately. If you ain’t been boycottin’ R. Kelly since Aaliyah was 14, if you even needed to see the piss tapes to persuade you further, if Kevin Powell’s BK Nation petition was your entry into this conversation, you ain’t got the answers.

Second: if you’re trying to engage in an analysis of Black women’s sexuality, without acknowledging the role of pimp culture in your framing, you ain’t been doin’ the education.

‘Pimp culture’ is the umbrella under which we map the interlocking systems of oppression that create the material conditions under which Black women experience bodily and psychic harm. Vestiges of the gator-wearing, fur cape-lined pimp show up in our private and public spaces and we feel the brunt of his solid gold cane in our experiences of mass culture apparatuses. Pimp culture employs white supremacy, misogyny, racism, homophobia and the dogma of rugged individualism to physically and psychically undermine our sense of self, diminishing our capacity for self-determination.

Pimp culture is in line with other terms used in anti-violence discourse – sexual violence, culture of violence, rape culture. Yet, in the Black feminist tradition, we use the term to center the unique experiences of Black women and signal the specific forms of knowledge that we bring in understanding the depths of physical violence and psychic trauma on individual and societal levels.

By Jess Pinkham _DSC9539.NEFCollectively, these forces show up as, for example, the vicious maligning of nine-year old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis who was “jokingly” called a cunt by a major news media outlet. The sexualized verbal battery of a Black girl child, on the public stage, in her moment of glory, was an act of psychic aggression meant to humiliate Black girls and women, while underscoring that in pimp culture we are primed to be sexually exploited even in our most innocent moments. The language used was an attempt by pimp culture to turn a Black girl child out as a sexual spectacle, reminding those of us who are grown that we don’t own the mechanisms of our representation, nor do we have the allegiance of anyone in power who will ride for us.

Many of the comments on our first blog, “The Problem with BeyHive Bottom Bitch Feminism,” along with dialogues in the Twitterverse, support the idea that we should celebrate the presentation of sexual pleasure by Black women, especially when it’s done inside of marriage. In an effort to subvert the politics of respectability, some Black feminist hash-taggers have relied on strategic amnesia that discounts the reality of the material conditions of our sexual lives. To wit:

Whenever we consider Black women on stage, we also consider the auction block. When we think of public displays of Black female sexuality, Saartje Baartman isn’t far from our minds. When Black women voluntarily show “the actual inside[s] of [our] vagina” to an audience of strangers and peeping Toms, the torture of Anarcha Wescott takes center stage. Sexual violence is not a joke. We breathe these histories alongside our freedoms, which interrupt any fantasies of an ahistoric sexuality and make us suspicious and critical like a mutha.

Real Colored Girls are serving notice: game recognize game, and we are not here for corporate entities to consume our bodies, shit them out, repackage and sell them back to us as avatars for the music industrial complex. RCG are committed to defining healthy, loving, kinky, freaky, juicy, queer, bi and hetero sexualities for Black women. We are most concerned with publicly taking care of Black women’s sexuality by addressing historical and present trauma and arguing for the creation of a cultural environment in which it is safe for us to express ourselves sensually and sexually.

A cadre of Black feminists and Black women sympathizers (those who don’t proclaim to be feminist but ride for Black women) are calling for a “pleasure principle” that creates space in pop culture for Black women to express empowered sexualities. Any set of propositions that seeks to determine the fundamental basis for our sexual expression must consider the structural conditions under which said propositions are engineered. Pop cultural texts are produced inside of this context, and failing to acknowledge that in your analysis limits the work of dismantling the structures of pimp culture. Twerk it out.

Real Colored Girls encourages the communities of folk engaged in recent discussions about this work to move beyond Bey and consider what this moment has triggered around the presentation of Black female sexualities. Beyonce seems to have mastered the impossible, given the realities for most Black women in the U.S. – taking charge of her cultural production. Close reads of her recent and past work from writers Emily J. Lordi and Daphne Brooks invite us to consider the complex challenges for Black women artists. Even though Beyoncé is suspiciously sexy and joyfully raunchy, it would take a contortionist to situate her performances as a safe & empowered representation of Black women’s sexualities. Beyonce is a product of the hip hop generation – she woke up like that. In contracting with pop culture to distribute feminism, have we diluted the struggle of our Black feminist foremothers? For RCG, this is about the political economy of culture – how global corporate structures are not the context for transformative revolutionary action, and we shouldn’t look to them for our politics.

Our dream is for a revolution for Black women and our sexualities. As Mother bell exhorts, living out this dream requires us to do,

…the critical project of openly interrogating and exploring representations of black female sexuality as they appear everywhere, especially in popular culture.

Real Colored Girls are willing to ride for our radical politic, while acknowledging our privileges as artists and academics. We promote an oppositional consciousness that imagines radical spaces for sexual expression – physical, virtual and spiritual – which is risky and not without sacrifice. We call upon the lives and recorded texts of womanists and Black feminists as scripture and theory in the flesh.

roll-callAudre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Barbara Christian, June Jordan, Michele Wallace, Harriet Tubman, Patricia Hill Collins, Sojourner Truth, M. Jacqui Alexander, Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, et. al.

bell hooks cautions that Black women,

…haven’t as a group really carved out different ways to live our lives.

This is an amazing opportunity to do this work. In the spirit of loving Black women, we invite interventions that construct a post-capitalist imagination in which to dream ourselves whole.



Photo Credits: Bridge to Freedom FoundationTrey Anthony

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The Problem With BeyHive Bottom Bitch Feminism

Beyhive Booty

In Pimp Theory, a “bottom bitch” is the one in the whores’ hierarchy who rides hardest for her man. She’s the rock of every hustler economy and her primary occupation is keeping other ho’s in check and gettin’ that money. She isn’t trying to elevate the status of her sister ho’s. She isn’t looking to transform pimp culture. The bottom bitch is a token who is allowed symbolic power, which she uses to discipline, advocate for, represent and advance the domain of the stable.  In pop culture, she represents the trope of the chosen black female, loyal to her man and complicit in her own commodification.

In hip hop vernacular she has emerged as the “Boss Bitch” or “Bawse”, titles you’ll hear used liberally across urban/pop discourses – from the streets to rappers to the hip hop, basketball and ATL housewives.  What she represents is an appearance of power within a structure of male dominance, but in reality this “power” is merely vicarious and not a positional power in and of itself.

Admittedly, bottom bitch is an unfortunate metaphor to use for framing conversations about Beyonce, but when you’re married to “Big Pimp’n” and his cameo on your new self-titled album, coined a “feminist masterpiece,” is all about how he gon’

Catch a charge, I might, beat the box up like Mike…

I’m like Ike Turner

Baby know I don’t play, now eat the cake Annie Mae

Said, eat the cake, Annie Mae

you leave us no choice. When elements of the feminist community rise up to applaud your simplistic, pro-capitalist, structurally violent sampling of feminism, the metaphor becomes even more relevant. Moreover, we’re concerned that the capitalist ethics of mainstream hip hop has seduced feminist allies into flirting with bottom bitch feminism in their silencing of those who would critique Bey and the systemic violence she represents.

To this we ask: Is a feminism sponsored by the corporate music industrial complex as big as we can dream? Is the end game a feminism in which the glass ceiling for black women’s representation only reaches as high as our booties? Can’t we just love Bey as an amazing corporate artist without selling out the hard won accomplishments of our black feminist and womanist foremothers?  Can we not love her for the gorgeous and fierce mega pop star she is without appropriating her for some liberal, power feminist agenda?

These questions asked, we do understand the terror and mistrust some black women may feel when confronted with representations that reflect us to ourselves as brilliantly beautiful.  We also get the impulse that these same women may have to criticize and destroy such images. But this is not that. Our critique of Bey as a feminist doesn’t come from a place of fear. Indeed it may even be more a critique of the black feminist blogosphere. Our real fear is of a bourgeoning cadre of institutional gatekeepers of “appropriate” black feminist politics going in hard with their facile analyses, shaming and silencing black women with alternative reads of B.

Real Colored Girls are not here to promote or co-sign the idea that to critique Bey’s “Flawless Feminism” is to hate black women.  We reject the idea that love for the folks equals blind loyalty. Our deep and abiding love and respect for the ancestors will never permit an image of feminism wrapped in the gold chains of hip hop machismo.  We ain’t throwin’ no (blood) diamonds in the air for ‘da roc, no matter how many feminists you sample over a dope beat. We’re smarter than that. We’re worth more than that.

Insisting on a rank and file consent and approval to these ‘terms of engagement’ is a form of bullying and in the spirit of Audre Lorde we remind you that silencing dissent will not protect you.  We feel strongly that it is our duty and imperative to engage multiple perspectives in the marketplace of ideas, supporting open discourse, lest we find ourselves guilty of policing one another into a dishonest respectability.

Our work is not done. Beyhive Bottom Bitch Feminism does not replace nor is it even in the realm of the critical work of black women writers and artists across the discursive spectrum, as some folks have proclaimed across social media. As womanists and black feminists, we have a responsibility to bring it with our cultural work which we will infuse, at all times, with an ethic of care and responsibility. The coontocracy of assimilationist corporate negroes is in full effect, riding for patriarchal capitalist agendas and having us believe that somehow Bey’s success is a step toward some dystopic vision of progress for Black women. There may be empowerment for some folks but by and large it is a false hope steeped in capitalism and individualism, supporting the escapist desires of rampant pornographic consumerism.

This essay does not come from a place of ‘who gon’ check me, boo?’. We would like to invite dialogue, conversation and a multitude of perspectives. We’re thinking that our next conversation will be about how Beyonce has opened the door for further discussion around black female sexuality. We’ve been feelin’ this quote by bell hooks from her essay “Selling Hot Pussy”:

When black women relate to our bodies, our sexuality, in ways that place erotic recognition, desire, pleasure, and fulfillment at the center of our efforts to create radical black female subjectivity, we can make new and different representations of ourselves as sexual subjects. To do so we must be willing to transgress traditional boundaries. We must no longer shy away from the critical project of openly interrogating and exploring representation of black female sexuality as they appear everywhere, especially in popular culture.

What are your thoughts?