Senior year of college, I walked into our assigned room and saw Diane Kruger. Well, my version of Diane Kruger.
My new roommate, Vee, was a tall gorgeous blonde from Germany, a tennis phenom, and, on top of it all, had a GPA that wavered slightly between a 3.99 and a 4.0. Over the course of that year, we went from strangers to allies against another roommate who monopolized our shared space and exhausted our not-so-shared food supply.
Recently, Vee and I caught up for dinner and I listened as she told me about a girl her brother had started dating. Searching for the right words, she finally said, “She’s very, uhm . . . she’s very convinced of herself.”
Listening to her say it, I knew what she meant. It wasn’t that her brother’s new girlfriend was cocky—just the opposite. She sounded very kind. And it wasn’t that she was conceited. In fact, she seemed humble even though she was gorgeous and accomplished as well. What Vee meant was that she carried herself with awareness and, though it is a simple note, finding that kind of woman is indeed rare.
Sadly, most of us women are not always, as Vee would say, convinced of ourselves. Further proof of this surfaced this week, when The New York Times’ Style section ran an article called, “Beauty Ads Make Women feel Ugly, Study Says.” The study at the heart of the article was conducted by the Journal of Consumer Research. Due out April 2011, the study found that women feel worse about themselves after seeing ads for cosmetics and fragrances.
The fact that flipping through a magazine can leave a woman feeling less than a supermodel is not a remarkably new finding. After all, Dove’s “Beauty in Every Size,” and even Proctor & Gamble’s “My Black Is Beautiful” campaigns were developed in resistance to the zero-sum standard of beauty that said all women needed to look, well, like Vee.
What set this study apart is that it found that even when the ads did not include an image of a person, women still flipped the page feeling a little bit less-than. This means that while marketers have been thinking up savvy ways to put diverse looking women into fashion and beauty advertisements, the figures in the ad are not what is causing so many of us to feel worse than when we saw them.
So what is it that leaves us feeling that we lack after turning through the pages of the glossies we love? According to the study, “advertisements displaying beauty-enhancing, rather than problem-solving products are likely to remind consumers of their own shortcomings.”
This has been the Madison Avenue game plan for years—feeding consumerism by creating a need, for women-assurance; slowly, they sell us more and more bait to cure our self-consciousness, instead of promoting self-awareness. While we need to continue our calls for diversity in the personalities lifted up from fashion and beauty brands, our self-esteem battle can never be resolved through the pages of magazines.
As women of color, we face a unique battle to remain assured that Black girls’ beauty is just that—beautiful, despite the overwhelming cultural trend that is trying to prove otherwise. However, women of color also have access to one of the strongest communal support systems—each other. Though it seems that Black women are always at the center of skin bleaching fiascos and question fashion shorts, there is a growing number of women who choose instead to uplift the beauty we innately posses.
The first time that Vee and I really talked beyond introductions was a night before midterms, when Amel Larrieux came drifting out of her iPod. And I’ll always remember the lyrics because they were ones I’d loved for years: “This is all I got.”
No race has a better handle on self esteem than any other race. Though there are drastically different narratives that have shaped Vee’s past and mine, we crossed paths as women confident in our strengths and our own present insecurities. It takes work to remain fiercely assured that your innate beauty is enough, but the climb is the great equalizer for all women. From catwalk blondes to petite naturals, we’ve all become too accustomed to feeling that we lack.
Even though she couldn’t find the word she wanted, I think Vee found the exact right ones. It’s time we as women, all of us, became entirely convinced of ourselves.