Finding Beauty in a Booty

In an excerpt from Brothers (& Me), Donna Britt writes about trying to accept her looks.

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Donna Britt and her friend Shawn Hutchens (Little Brown)

From Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving: 

We think of "black history" as the triumphs and challenges of past centuries -- slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement. But history is more intimate than that, as much about yesterday as 1965. Because every woman frets about whether she'll be embraced or rejected for her looks, black women's history can't exclude our feelings about our beauty -- or our perceived lack of it.

In Gary, Indiana, in the 1960s, my girlfriends and I in junior high knew that boys mattered most in the world. And what did boys want from girls?

Fine-ness. Beauty is tricky for every girl. But for African-American girls when black was just being acknowledged as beautiful, the complexity felt downright calamitous.

In seventh grade, I was bussed to a mostly white high school for "racial balance." Each morning, black girls boarded the bus whose best features seemed luckier than mine: 

Shawn had satiny skin. Sharon had gorgeous legs. Gayle's hair was a wavy waterfall. 

I had a big butt. 

An ass is an asset too primitive for sonnets and too sexual to sentimentalize -- especially when sex is the scariest thing in the world. Or so the yellow dress -- whose swingy skirt barely hid the obstreperous rear beneath it -- taught me. That morning, I'd put on the dress and felt like a Disney princess with whom a boy might topple into love. Walking to school, I saw an appropriate-aged youth approaching. I smiled. He smiled back. 

Then he patted my behind. 

I froze. The boy kept walking, but his message was clear: My "beauty" was a booty -- a coarse attention-grabber that brought out the beast, not the best, in guys. It would be decades before Sir Mix-a-Lot's seminal rap, "Baby Got Back," and proudly "bootylicious" babes like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez acknowledged what guys' reactions showed me every day: 

The Root 100 People's Choice Awards  
Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM