This week, Jamie Figueroa delves into what using beauty as a currency buys and costs.
There was no denying it. My mother was beautiful. Her black hair, hot rolled out of its kinky mess into long, loose curls; her bold smile, rimmed with red lipstick; curves carved into her torso; Jovan musk radiating from the back of her neck and the insides of her wrists; cleavage sneaking out from button down blouses; her brown skin an island of color among the milky homogeneity in which we lived.
I was not the only one who noticed. As we ventured into the rural towns of Ohio, I watched the reaction. Conversations ceased mid-sentence. Mouths dropped open. Women stiffened. Men melted. By her side, I could feel the weight of all those eyes, staring. She was the exotic other, transplanted to the Midwest from Puerto Rico.
“What is it?” she’d ask me when she’d catch me surveying the scene around us.
“The way they were looking at you,” I’d say, trying to pair my feelings with words and failing.
“What?” she’d repeat, her nervousness erupting into laughter. “What?”
I realize now, I was accusing her of the attention her beauty solicited, as well as accusing the men, in particular, for the way in which they visually consumed her. At a young age, I sensed something happening that was beyond skin deep, an agreement that I couldn’t name.
Later in my life, I realized her beauty was a currency. As a family, it was our greatest wealth. She often told me one did not need money to be classy. “Be considerate. Use your manners. Carry yourself with grace. Don’t speak your mind; it makes others uncomfortable. Smile.” Utilizing this behavior, along with her looks, she survived in communities that would rather not have had any brown-skinned people as its citizens. Still, she squeaked along as a small business owner, opening single-chair barbershops in all the one-stoplight towns we migrated through. She was an entrepreneur, both charismatic and powerful, wrestling with the odds that were stacked against her. She was resourceful, a survivor. She used what she had, a poster-child for the immigrant: “You Too Can Have The American Dream!”
But what supplemented the $10 haircuts (and the generous tips depending on the cut of her blouse, I’m sure) was an endless supply of boyfriends that provided both meals and necessities guised as gifts. There were the husbands, too, who temporarily threw in their economic weight. While her presence was stunning and afforded us opportunities, the cost was that she could never embody her multifarious self. There wasn’t room in the agreement. It was an impressive act of cultural conditioning. She internalized the culture’s messages of what it meant to be a woman and be beautiful and did her best to teach them to me, her daughter: Be nice, be quiet, be your prettiest self and if you can manage it, be charming. It will increase your value. Instead of drawing attention the obvious, that she was a woman of color, she submitted to the idea of womanhood and beauty that had her surrounded.
Twenty-five-plus years later, society provides many different examples of what it means to be a woman; however, the predominant role, the role that is guaranteed, has remained the same as it was when my mother was my age.
It’s easy to blame the culture—or my mother—for providing the story line and the pressure to capitulate, but honestly, I know she did the best she could. What takes more courage is to look at whom I’ve leased my authority to, outsourcing my definitions of both woman and beauty, and what it’s cost me.