1996. Damn, even in the mug shot Lil' Kim is pretty. Brown, smooth skin, nice eyes, cute nose. We all checked pictures of the petite rapper and concluded God gave her genes-with-benefits.
No longer. The most recent pics of Lil' Kim remind me of arguments surrounding the merits of plastic surgery and the freedom and right of some to choose to re-arrange their image. Those arguments do indeed exist, but for Generation X and Y in particular, it’s hard to look at the Queen Bee now and make them. We remember when.
Of course, Kim is a grown ass woman making choices, but Black beauty is more than facial features; it is a complicated, precious, powerful living history that includes intimate connections with violence—and is tangled with stories of rejection, privilege, love and lack, favor and hatred. Black beauty’s mirror has never just been our individual reflection staring back at us, it has been a history of a relationship with nations all over the world, their lens on our features and bodies, their opinion, their version of our beauty, how that version has changed and stayed the same over time–the mirror is our intimate revolution.
Lil Kim's transformation isn't new, nor is it news, but I ran across some recent pictures of her and was stopped in my tracks. Not because of any individual feature. But rather because I was looking at a face that was almost other-worldly, alien, unknown, unfamiliar, bearing no resemblance to a self of several years ago. No-one looks like this. Her bone structure—now unrecognizable, carved with seeming self-hate and accentuated with blush—a nose that could stab rather than sniff and eyes permanently on stare. This is hard. That’s why ‘emotional justice’ matters. It’s the term I created to deal with our legacy of untreated trauma that has tumbled down from generation to generation and manifests in all different forms. Black beauty is one of those forms.
Our reflection in the mirror reveals not just one single story, but so many. Our beauty is not a landscape, it’s been—and continues to be—a battleground. It’s where little girls come to wound and be wounded; it’s where boys come to inflict the keenest hurt and run away laughing, or rather suffer stings and stabs themselves.
And then there are the Pain Olympics. My pain hurts more than yours. Dark brown girls claiming invisibility often robs our lighter skinned sisters of any pain narrative because their complexion is often Hollywood chosen, leading lady luscious, and cover girl glorious. They walk with privilege so they couldn’t possibly have pain too, brown girls claimed that space, right? Of course, many cultures have dysfunctional relationships with their brownness. Check out India and the contemporary TV ads for ‘Clean and Dry’, an intimate wash that is actually a vaginal bleaching cream. Who bleaches their va-jay-jay? I’m an African Diaspora chick, born in London, with family in Ghana and now a New York dweller. Ghana kicked off the fight for political independence back in 1957, we rocked the Black power natural with pride, and yet we’re also part of a cluster of nations that lead the stats in bleaching creams whose ingredients could desecrate metal, cause skin cancer, leave knuckles black and skin pock marked. Issues, anyone?
We’re not supposed to talk about the reasons why we bleach our skin and change our features. We’re not supposed to articulate jealousy, envy, or hurt due to what we believe we have or don't have in the looks department. We’re not supposed to own those feelings, so we hide sometimes under the guise of self love, in narratives that glorify our African features, while quietly envying the chick who has the ‘other’ ones. Not all of us at all, but some. Yes, some of us have. We point out what’s wrong with sister girl with the perm, we remind her how much we love our hair, eyes, skin, nose, and we go to great lengths to remind a sister who doesn’t look like us that we’re natural. We as Black women of every hue and grade of hair go a long way to talk some ish.
We could do something else.
We could speak our whole truth. It may not be where we live now, but maybe it was at some point. Maybe we were the one bullied for our unique beauty or maybe we were the beauty bully. Maybe we went after the girl who we most wanted to be like and hit her the hardest with words and fists. Black women of all complexions talk a great self-love game, but actually we live more comfortably in a reflection of struggle; maybe we are a bit of all of this or none of it. Maybe we chose pain as our power, but not anymore. Stop a Black woman on the street, ask her about her beauty struggle, and I guarantee you she’ll share a nappy-haired horror story, a ‘pretty-for-a-brown-girl’ tale, or a soliloquy about episode in her life when wished she were darker—included as opposed to othered.
We can stroll down history’s lane all the way back to Hottentot Venus to find images of Blackness that captured deviant imagination, unwanted attention, hurt and horror. We can fast-forward through Hollywood’s images of chosen ladies to the latest image of Lil' Kim and stand transfixed by her bluest eyes and what feels so clearly like pain emanating from them.
The altar of re-invention is crowded these days— so many folk are worshipping at it.
I call this 'A Diary of a Mirror and Me,' our journey through trauma, transition, transformation, and hopefully triumph— that’s how we navigate towards emotional justice. Our growth, how we’re loved and by whom, and even who we’re rejected by, contributes in some ways to how we see ourselves, our mirrors. Our story is in our mirrors—our reflected selves of honest hurt— lover who chose us, and the one who didn’t, the mother who critiqued us or ignored us or lovingly called us those names that are not loving at all, the father who walked away or never claimed us. The mirror can be our friend or our loyal liar, it can be where we see who we want to be or project where we want to go.
The recent pictures I saw of Lil' Kim made me really wonder about the pages in her diary of her mirror. What happened to her sense of self between the first blade and these latest set of images? What does she see when she looks at herself? Who looks back at her? Who looked back at her before she succumbed to that first incision?
Who stares back at you?
Esther Armah is a NY Radio host, playwright, national best-selling author. ‘Emotional Justice Unplugged’ is her annual arts & conversation series. Follow her on Twitter: @estherarmah #emotionaljustice or Facebook: www.facebook.com/emotionaljustice
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NYC Radio Host and Playwright