Twelve years ago, when I moved to Japan, a neighbour treated me with a basket of omiyage, or welcome gifts. It’s one of the infinite unspoken customs of complex cultural communication for which Japan is so famous. In the basket was a series of Shiseido lotions, hand creams, soaps and perfumes – a relatively generous gift to offer a complete stranger, even a neighbour – I thought at the time. After a while, I began to notice that my hands had taken on a noticeably lighter complexion, nothing gaudy – but something mildly reminiscent of Mickey Mouse’s white gloved persona. After a process of elimination, I stumbled through the ingredients listed on the hand cream tube (written entirely in Japanese) and came across the culprit – glutathione, an ingredient prominent in skin-lightening cosmetics.
If that wasn’t enough of a reason to get my black ass into gear about my Japanese lessons, then nothing was. (I’ve since ninja-blocked a number of skin-lightening cosmetic brands across Asia.)
Navigating the rapidly changing beauty canon as a perpetual traveller is a natural hazard of the lifestyle, but doing so as a highly visible woman with dark skin proffers up an endless variety of hurdles that white women hardly even consider. Not only is the standard for what is culturally considered “beautiful” constantly changing, it does so in a way that continues to revolve around a Eurocentric standard – no matter where in the world you happen to be.
And Australia had the most excruciating beauty standards of all. Tanning was a national past time, a phenomenon that I heard an Australian comedian later describe as ‘socially acceptable black face.’ I lost count of the number of times I was questioned by white Australians asking me why I was so religious about applying sunscreen, or the number of times I explained to them that it was because my grandfather died of melanoma.
“Hmm – I didn’t think black people could catch melanoma,” one person said to me.
“It’s skin cancer – not a bloody football. Anyone can catch it,” was my response.
Women weren’t the only ones subject to this expectation. Every man I dated did the same thing – with the exception of armpit hair, a stubborn taboo that transcended all demographics, sexual orientations and religious backgrounds with equal amounts of disgust.
While I had always subscribed to some manner of bodily grooming in the past, I quickly learned that dating in Australia meant removing every follicle of hair below the neck.
Every four weeks or so, I laid on my back, wrapped my arms around the backs of my knees, and let someone baby power my bum like a newborn, then lather my lady bits in sticky hot wax until my smoothness saw me practically slide off the table. Though I didn’t mind, there is an indisputably alien quality about being waxed to a phallic, luminescent polish.
But women weren’t the only ones subject to this expectation. Every man I dated did the same thing – with the exception of armpit hair, a stubborn taboo that transcended all demographics, sexual orientations and religious backgrounds with equal amounts of disgust.
During an Australia Day barbecue on Elwood Beach, I wore a summer dress that that put my lazy (read: single) underarm waxing habits on full display. A gay friend of mine with extremely hairy armpits (and hairy everything else) raised his hand to his neck to clutch his proverbial pearl necklace and said “My goodness, hun. What’s going on here?”
Australian men, I found, were subject to other completely unrealistic and damaging standards of aesthetic beauty. While health and fitness has always been a regular part of Aussie discourse, I observed a conversation that revolved less around health and wellbeing and more around sculpted aesthetics.
Tanning was a national past time, a phenomenon that I heard an Australian comedian later describe as ‘socially acceptable black face.’
One of my ex-flatmates kept small vials of anabolic steroids in the fridge, which he sold to keep himself afloat because his depression prevented him for holding down a steady job. One day we were discussing it, and he stated that he simply felt like if he didn’t look at certain way, he wasn’t a man.
How can any culture claim to be ‘body positive’ without addressing the grim discrepancies that shame people into not only feeling this way, but being unable to speak out about it to anyone who can offer support?
Since I moved from Australia to Berlin nearly two years ago, I have experienced a whole other meaning to the term ‘body positivity’. Not only are a range of body types normalised on TV and film, but beauty isn’t a concept that stops applying at a certain age threshold. During the summer, public nudity is a norm and people of all ages, shapes, sizes, hair saturations, and muffin tops are encouraged to participate. In fact, the German word for excess fat around the waist is hüftgold – which literally translates to “hip gold.” I haven’t waxed my armpits in nearly two years, and I haven’t caught lice. My abs went away and the world didn’t end. My vagina is covered in hair and nobody’s taken a weed whacker to it…yet?
But fetishisation is a health hazard in daily German life. So are Nazis. Being a black woman, I naturally find myself the target of both of these more often than I would like.
I’ve learned a lot about beauty over the years, but the only thing I’ve learned worth retaining is that its definition changes constantly, and mostly in a way that doesn’t consider blackness in any meaningful way. That’s why I no longer internalise anyone’s definition of that word. I just operate under the radical idea that I always was, and always will be – beautiful, in any form I deem fit.
…and as long as I read the labels to any new skin products before applying them, it’ll stay that way.