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:
My big behind had as much impact as other girls' more lauded eyes, hair and breasts. But in the 1960s, flattering, body-focused adjectives — stacked, voluptuous — were bust-related. My most noted feature never rated public mention, so having a great ass by black standards seemed shameful.
Yet I couldn't help noticing: The half-dozen Caucasian features Negroes had been brainwashed into worshipping didn't include small booties. I knew dozens of boys who admired "redbone" black girls whose long locks and golden skin resembled white girls'.
Not one preferred a tiny white-girl butt.
Was a well-rounded rear the one African feature so profound in its effect that even racism's scalpel couldn't excise it? Or was booty-love like real estate: Location, location, location? Irrevocably tied to sex, black women's generous lower-body upholstery gives them a nature-provided cushion for life's most powerful act.
But I was 13. Longing to offer boys the sweetness of my face and heart, I was stuck with a butt whose swaying — literally behind my back — shouted all manner of luridiness.
I mean, wasn't it bad enough that I was already grappling with black girls' hair issues? For kinky-haired black girls in the 1960s, fighting, taming and despising our hair was a full-time occupation.
I realized this at Emerson, where I marveled at the fearlessness with which white girls swam and showered during gym class — and then proceeded wet-haired to class! Black girls routinely wore two swim caps into the pool, and showered with head coverings impenetrable enough to pass federal HazMat requirements. We'd seen photos of "Afros," proud, nappy halos worn by formidable women in distant, major cities. But in our real world, most girls had two painful options still in use today: A press-and-curl or a perm, both offered at the local "beauty parlor" where "beauticians" had ultimate power over their clients: Life-or-death — or cute-or-ugly, which was the same thing.
For a press-and-curl, my beautician swathed me in plastic, washed and dried my hair, and set a heavy brass "pressing iron" over an open flame. When the comb smoked, the beautician grabbed sections of hair, greased them and — as I sat stiff as a mannequin — pulled the comb through to straighten them. Next, she fired up a clattering curling iron, creating rows of curls she combed into a style that lasted as long as I avoided rain, humidity or sweating. Fidgeting resulted in a black forehead burn, and a week of inventing hairdos that hid it.
Perms held other risks. The beautician applied gobs of harsh chemicals — amusingly called "relaxer" — to my hair, combed it through and calculated how long she had before the increasingly hot glop on my head ignited. Dashing me to the sink, she'd wash the stinging goop down the drain — hopefully without clumps of my hair clinging to it.
Six weeks later — or two with a press-and-curl — I endured it all again. When I griped, Mom offered her favorite black-hair maxim: "Beauty knows no pain."
Except for the psychic kind. Life shrinks when water is your enemy. The briefest rain-shower could flatten your perm, making you resemble the sodden ghoul that emerged from Naomi Watts' TV in The Ring, or morph your press-and-curl into a pickaninny's mop. No wonder huge numbers of black women never learned to swim.
Worse was knowing that making your hair pretty — or even acceptable — was so difficult that your "gift" of beautiful hair was inauthentic. Like my decidedly African butt, my hair was one more thing that suggested something was immutably wrong with the beauty I offered the world.
In truth, black girls' hair wasn't all that got pressed. Day after day, doubts were pressed into our consciousness about whether we could be beautiful.
Millions of us have yet to excise them.
Reprinted from Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving, by Donna Britt. Published by Little, Brown and Co.