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Unseen in Plain Sight: Navigating the Unbearable Whiteness of Beauty Culture

By Perpetua Charles

One of those fancy-shmancy houses in the West End neighborhood of Portland, ME. Photo credit: Alexius Horatius
One of those fancy-shmancy houses in the West End neighborhood of Portland, ME. Photo credit: Alexius Horatius

Two years ago, my partner and I took a small getaway to Portland, Maine. To feel confident on this trip, I was going to need my best early spring outfits and my trusty travel makeup bag. At the time, my natural curls were cropped close to my head and, to be honest, the stylist had done the cut a little lopsided. Unbeknownst to me, I’d also been struggling with the effects of an undiagnosed GI issue. But it didn’t take long into our first afternoon there to discover that my makeup bag didn’t make the trip with me. Dread and panic set in. My partner, a white, straight, cisgender male, had trouble understanding why I was briefly spiraling over this realization. In the moment, I couldn’t find the words to explain what I innately knew. In a city like Portland, I was going to stick out. Without makeup, I was going to stick out even more.

In All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian, Rae Nudson explains that white people have historically used beauty standards they set up as a way to keep Black and Brown people from the social and economic capital that could come from being viewed as stylish or beautiful. This dates as far back as the mid- to late-nineteenth century, where formerly enslaved people were still considered and treated as last-class citizens. Nudson writes that skin color and other physical traits associated with Black people were visible ways to make distinctions between people, reinforce social and economic hierarchies, and maintain power structures that kept Black people out.

The next day, my partner and I visited the center of town. I had fun but felt insecure. I regretted leaving my hair creams and gels at home. If I’d brought them, maybe they’d have given me a fighting chance of looking “put-together” in a strange city, I thought. Without my makeup or hair products, I walked the line between enjoying myself and trying to will myself invisible.

Black women frequently struggle with two societal extremes: being scrutinized as though under a microscope or being ignored and looked past as though we were air itself. The more access a Black woman has to beauty products that match her skin tone and conform to beauty standards of the day, the easier she can move through society, hopefully lessening the number of microaggressions she experiences daily. As Nudson explains, Black women stand out, not because of our phenotype, but because the white supremacist structure we live in uses our visible traits to discriminate against us. I couldn’t fully enjoy my lobby-pop (it’s a lobster lollipop; you really had to be there) because of a nagging feeling that I wasn’t blending in.

Perpetua and the lobby-pop
Perpetua and the lobby-pop

Later that evening, my partner and I went out for dinner. I was a little self-conscious about my look, but after a day out and about with no incidents, I told myself it was okay to settle into the evening. Then we were seated in the back corner. We had to wait a very long time between visits from our server. We never heard the specials. Our food was lackluster. The tables around us were dutifully attended to but we had to eavesdrop to hear what the night’s specials were. When my partner offered feedback about our experience, our server was passively apologetic. We left the restaurant in search of more (better) food and a place where we could hopefully relax after that tense dinner. We found a bar with a live band. After choosing a spot near the back, I ordered a bite to eat while my partner went to the restroom. As he returned, I watched one white woman’s eyes take him in lasciviously, only for her nose to wrinkle in disdain when he sat next to me.

Now I was ready for the evening to end, and I was ready to get out of Portland.

Nudson writes that the “wrong” makeup can cause funny looks or lead to harassment, while the “right” makeup can be completely unnoticed and unremarked upon. In my case, I felt that the “wrong” makeup was no makeup at all. While my partner raged at the injustice on our way back to our Airbnb, I replayed the events of the evening in my head. Would we have had better service if I’d worn some eyeliner and blush? If my curls had been more defined? Did the contempt of the woman from the bar stem from seeing a Black woman with a white man? Would she have been less contemptuous if she could see a hint of gloss on my lips?

Probably not. And yet, I felt some level of responsibility for how the evening had gone.

There is something to be said for the confidence we’re all called to develop and practice so that we can feel secure in ourselves no matter where we are. Black women are especially encouraged to cultivate this confidence because we often can’t count on non-Black environments to affirm us. But again, when even beauty culture is rooted in white supremacy, we can still feel self-conscious, regardless of how many mantras of self-love we whisper to ourselves every day before leaving the house.

All the Fenty in the world may not have protected me from the microaggressions of that night in Portland. What it might have done was make it easier to wave away the ignorance of others. But as writer Jia Tolentino said in The New Yorker, “What did it mean…that I have spent so much of my life attempting to perform well in circumstances where an unaltered female face is aberrant?” That trip to Portland was an invitation for me to think about how I can use my bare face to resist the demands of white-dominant beauty culture. Could I challenge myself to wear makeup only when I wanted to, and to leave it behind when my face needed a break? Could I accept that others might think I’m tired or ill without my makeup and still feel free to live my life?

Nudson’s book came to me at the right time. The last eighteen months have been an ongoing examination of my relationship with makeup. If I wear a beautiful red lip stain and then step outside wearing a mask, do I even exist? As the Delta variant spreads widely and quickly, me and my fashion favorites may have to shut ourselves away after enjoying a few months of relative freedom. Thanks to Nudson’s engaging histories that illustrate the relevance and importance of makeup when planning to smash the patriarchy, I’ve gained a new perspective on what beauty culture is, why it matters to me, and what I want my relationship with it to be like going forward.

House in the West End neighborhood of Portland  ME


About the Author 

Perpetua Charles joined Beacon Press in 2015. She is a graduate of Florida Southern College and earned her MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College. Perpetua has extensive publicity experience in the areas of race and culture, memoir, education, and history. Some of her favorite things include the Lord, TV, Disney princesses, books, 90s-00s teen pop, and the color pink. Connect with Perpetua on Instagram at @princessperpetuaa.