Do a quick Google image search for the word “beauty” and the images that pop up on your computer screen provide a shockingly limited definition of the word. Nearly every photo you see will be of someone white. That’s why efforts like the Twitter account PoC Beauty are aiming to expand the narrative of who is considered attractive.
The Twitter feed posts images of diverse women and men of color from all around the globe. PoC Beauty’s anonymous founder, a 21-year-old social work student, says she created the account to provide “a place to discuss our issues, celebrate our beauty, and recognize things we need to change, like colorism.” Since its inception two months ago, PoC Beauty has grown in popularity, boasting nearly 4,500 followers and thousands of shares.
But the attention has had a downside. The PoC Beauty page has experienced relentless trolling by people who view it as racist for not featuring whites.
Fans of the account have challenged the trolls. “White people who get mad at @PoCBeauty for only posting PoC, please take a look at every magazine for women and have a seat,” tweeted Twitter user Farwa Ali Zaidi.
“The major issue with the account is that we don’t post non–people of color,” the anonymous founder says. (She declined to reveal her name for fear of harassment.) “We’re often accused of hating white people or being racist when that’s not the case. No one bashes the snowbunny or white girl Wednesday accounts. Why can’t we have a space?”
That space is sorely needed. Three years ago, Satoshi Kanazawa wrote an article for Psychology Today arguing that black women were the least-attractive in the world. Relying on data from a study on adolescent health and behavior, Kanazawa concluded that black women had “more masculine” physical features than their counterparts because “Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races.”
When the article hit the Web, Kanazawa was roundly criticized by his colleagues for his pseudoscientific look at beauty. But his premise—that black women and other minorities are less attractive than their white peers—is deeply ingrained in Western culture, where blond hair and blue eyes is usually seen as the beauty ideal.
Earlier this year, Oscar winner and People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman” honoree Lupita Nyong’o gave a moving speech about embracing her “dark beauty.” Nyong’o, who became a style icon during awards season, spoke about receiving a letter from a fan who said seeing the Kenyan actor prevented her from wanting to bleach her skin.
“I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight,” the young woman wrote, according to Nyong’o. “I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
That fan’s story is not unique. Though Nyong’o was being heralded for her beauty and grace, she recalled her younger years, when she wanted to look more European.
“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned,” Nyong’o told attendees at Essence magazine’s annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon in February. Nyong’o said her perception of her skin color changed when she saw South Sudanese model Alek Wek splashed across the pages of fashion’s most venerable magazines.
“She was dark as night. She was on all of the runways and in every magazine, and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful, and that made it a fact,” Nyong’o said. “I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful…. When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny.”
While Nyong’o saw herself mirrored in Wek’s midnight skin, far too many young people of color grow up without having their likeness affirmed, or even appreciated, by mainstream society.
Before People hailed Nyong’o the “Most Beautiful Woman,” just three of the previous 25 honorees had been black. Moreover, according to a lawsuit filed by a former People editor in August, only 14 African Americans have graced the mag’s 225 covers in the last four years. That’s one reason publications such as Essence, Ebony, Latina, and Audrey, which cater to minorities, still exist.
“We need spaces where we know our beauty, culture, and opinions are valued, validated, and honored,” said Vanessa K. Bush, the editor in chief of Essence. “As we learned with Lupita’s speech at [Black Women in Hollywood], many of us still struggle with self-acceptance. We [Essence] provide a touchstone that both lifts us up and keeps us grounded.”
Though Nyong’o stumbled across Wek in the pages of fashion magazines, print publications aren’t the only spaces people of color see themselves. Increasingly, social media platforms and other digital spaces have given rise to a generation of young people who are cultivating images that are only cool and affirming. Sites such as Carefree Black Girls, Desi Beauty, Street Etiquette, Brown Boy Genius, Haute Muslimah, Melanin Matters, theNuBlk, Pretty.Period, and PoC Beauty are all aiming to provide a broader perspective.
PoC Beauty is doing its part to connect folks of color and highlight their beauty and creativity. Despite the pressure from trolls, the founder says her page has had a unifying effect.
“I hope we make people feel more represented, and I also hope we make people think,” she says. Her favorite moment so far? “Someone told me [the page] makes people of color feel like family.”