I’m Done Changing My Black Style To Suit The Demands Of The Ignorant

By Aja Barber

Finally, I’ve begun embracing my own internal fashion and beauty preferences, growing more comfortable than ever in my identity.

W e live in a world that frequently denies black women their femininity. Unless we’re working from a place of Caucasian features — a thin nose, light skin, or straight hair — and choose to dress in a manner that is overtly feminine and delicate, people are quick to denounce us as “less classically beautiful.” If you’re a black woman who doesn’t always choose to wear makeup, you may have even been called “sir” by a non-black person. If you wear your hair natural or cut close to the scalp, I’d bet money you’ve been mistaken for a boy before. In these cases, the stereotype of the “strong black woman” can definitely work against us.

It feels as if people don’t think glib comments aimed at us will sting — or maybe they just don’t care that they do.

Because black women are not equally represented in the mediums that define the standard of beauty in our white supremacist society (magazines, television, films, etc.), our beauty is often overlooked. Or, worse, our features and popular styles are suddenly “discovered” when they adorn the bodies of white women (plump lips, bantu knots, cornrows — I could go on forever). It all means that often, when you may feel your most beautiful, much of the world is predisposed not to see you that way unless your style has been co-opted and accepted by white culture — and even then you’re still denied your just pudding.

This narrow view of beauty has wide-reaching repercussions — including the very perpetuation of this limited paradigm. Take, for example, high-profile celebrities — like, specifically, tennis superstar Serena Williams. Not only is Serena one of the greatest living athletes, but she’s also a beautiful woman. Yet she still fails to receive the same endorsement deals as her lesser-skilled white female competitors. Serena Williams could rock diamonds as beautifully as the next tennis star — but very rarely does anyone pay her to. Maria Sharapova, who, notably, is “willowy, white, and blonde,” hasn’t been able to realistically compete with Williams for years, and yet she rakes in millions of dollars more in endorsement deals.

What society perceives as beautiful influences who we see represented in media — which in turn continues to shape our collective norms. It’s a bleak cycle I’ve bumped up against my whole life, and yet, finally, I’ve begun embracing my own internal fashion and beauty preferences, growing more comfortable than ever in my identity.

Because black women are not equally represented in the mediums that define the standard of beauty in our white supremacist society, our beauty is often overlooked.

This the story of how I started buying men’s pants again (they are cheaper and last longer) while learning to embrace my natural hair. It’s a story of realizing that I don’t have to dress in a way that makes it easy for ignorant people to categorize me. It’s a story of learning how to communicate that people’s judgments on my gender and sexuality are unwanted.

It’s a story about my new suit of armor.

I became aware of people questioning my gender (and even sexual preference) from a very young age, and the issue has not ceased since. Even as a child, if I wasn’t dressed to the nines in my mother’s handpicked church dresses, I felt a sense of othering from the other little girls in my elementary class, from the boys, and even from the adults.

“Are you a girl or a boy?” is a question I’ve been asked far too often. It always happens when my hair is in braids, pulled away from my bare, brown, make-up free-face. I’ve also been called “sir” when I’m simply wearing a hat.

High school was the time in my life when I struggled most with my identity. Embracing the hips and thighs that sprang up overnight was one thing. Figuring out how to dress them in a way that felt most comfortable to me and projected the message I wanted to share with the world — all while paying for the clothes this required with my meager babysitting budget — was quite another. I never had enough money to get exactly what I wanted, and the options I was given by my mother seemed completely inadequate for my tastes. So from age 14 until 18, I was perpetually disappointed by my own appearance. Sometimes I shopped in the men’s department because the trousers there fit me well, but I was never confident enough to really own the looks, despite admiring other women who could.

As a teenager, the part of me that just wanted acceptance was hurt by a society that often failed to recognize my beauty. You can say it a million times and there will still be people who don’t understand that representation matters. I wanted to be able to wear low-slung jeans and plain tanks with my hair pulled back, like Kate Moss, without anyone feeling that it was appropriate to question my gender.

When I arrived at college, the era of super-tight Triple Five Soul girl hoodies was upon us, and I wore mine until it fell apart. Despite loving my friend’s oversized men’s Triple 5 Soul hoodie (the men had the colors I preferred), I would never buy one of my own because I knew that with my broad shoulders and C-cup breasts in a men’s sweatshirt, some ignorant person would make me feel awkward.

Entering my twenties and having a little extra income, I threw myself into fashion. Coming from London and working in the fashion industry made me realize that style will always be my first love. But instead of following my natural inclination toward all things drapey and unisex, I pursued feminine pieces and tight jeans. A small collection of designer dresses still sits in the back of my closet; I own more heels than I will ever wear in a lifetime. I bought all of this to prove that I was the very image of femininity in my 20s, to show the ignorant that despite my broad shoulders, flat nose, and afro hair, I was indeed all-woman.

I remember going for a job interview at a network that I used to work for and my dad looking at my flowery dress and cardigan and making the quip, “You do realize it’s a job interview, not a garden party?”

He didn’t understand that this ensemble was my armor against a world where even Serena Williams was often treated as lesser.

Slowly, societal bright spots have begun to emerge.

In the last 10 years, with the help of First Lady Michelle Obama and music and style icons like Janelle Monae, we’ve witnessed a swift change in the fashion landscape. As if overnight, sculpted arms and graceful strong shoulders not only became fashionable but praised. Suddenly black female icons like Queen Latifah were getting CoverGirl contracts.

Each time Monae wore a gorgeous suit to a formal event and received mainstream praise, it felt like some sort of victory. Here was a woman who liked her menswear and received make-up endorsements at the same time. Further, Lupita Nyong’o, a woman who always wore her hair natural and cut close to the scalp, was suddenly on every magazine cover; I never got sick of looking at her luminous face. While natural hair is still not always embraced in the more conservative workplace, seeing it on fashion magazines and in the spotlight is certainly a sign of progress.

Seeing these women and their fashion choices represented sparked a realization: I was sick of overcompensating for the way the world failed to view my femininity by wearing heels and dresses. Seeing these other black women be so unapologetically black in their style of dress, and the freeness in which they flashed their toned arms, encouraged me to free myself of some of society’s weird gender norms. I’ll always love heels, but wearing them as a default when I wanted to be taken “seriously” had gotten seriously old.

My transformation began simple enough: with a haircut. My entire life, I’ve had more hair than I could manage; I think of my hair as mostly being a burden, a thing that weighs me down. And before I decided to cut it, I was spending huge sums of money on salon appointments that lasted for hours on end (and often left me with a chemical burn or two). As hair care is my least favorite activity, I decided to go natural and do a big chop in my own unique way.

I was sick of overcompensating for the way the world failed to view my femininity by wearing heels and dresses.

I walked into Arthur Christine, and left with half my scalp shaved, feeling 10 pounds lighter, mentally and physically. What I felt in ridding myself of that excess hair cannot be put into words. To embrace a hairstyle I had wanted since the early 2000s, which spoke to both my feminine side (long on one side) and my androgynous side (shaved on the other), felt like I had finally done the right thing — for once I was leaving the salon fully satisfied, with zero chemical burns to boot. I never knew someone could be set free from a haircut, but after that small change . . . I felt emboldened to embrace all the other fashion choices I had skipped out on for fear of judgment from others.

As someone with rather large feet, wearing men’s shoes was always something I considered, so I dusted out the $2 men’s oxfords I had purchased from a thrift store many moons ago. Next, I started buying men’s pants again. But this time with confidence. Today I am proud to say that most of my favorite shorts come from the men’s section, where they run cheaper than women’s, last longer, and have that much-loved slouch I so desire.

The world has barely scratched the surface of embracing black women in all our forms of beauty and style. But for me, once I pinpointed that it was the world that didn’t know how to embrace the beauty of black women in all our forms, I was able to truly define my style in a way that felt more true and honest to myself.

Just don’t ask me if I’m a girl or a boy. It’s really none of your business.

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