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On Intersectionality, Desirability and Beauty Ideals

Intersectionality is a pretty important concept that I think isn’t discussed nearly enough outside of academia. Coined by American civil rights activist Kimberle Crenshaw, it essentially refers to the idea that multiple axes of oppression may interact to create a certain experience, that your identity is multifaceted and so because of these interacting identities, it’s difficult to be allegiant to one separately.

These identities include gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, etc. For example, I’m black woman and thus my identity as black, and my identity as a woman operate simultaneously to create a unique experience that means that my life is different from, let’s say, that of a middle class white man.. I’d like to emphasise unique experience because an intersectional approach to identity helps us see how one’s identity might take on different meanings in different contexts and essentially, that we’re all kinda different. An intersectional approach to feminism discourages us from making reductive generalisations and instead reminds us that there is no one way to be a woman. In this post in particular, I’d like to focus in particular on the intersection between gender and race.

Living in Nigeria, for the time that I did, meant that I became somewhat accustomed to not “standing out” because of my race. This isn’t to say that race only operates as an axis of oppression when you’re a racial minority because there are still wider conversations that could be had about colorism and normative whiteness that Nigeria and similar societies aren’t immune from. However, the transition from a school in Nigeria, to a relatively diverse British boarding school, to a predominantly white university meant that the intersection between my race and my gender became ever more pertinent to my experiences in these different contexts.

School socials were probably the first events for me to put the black in black woman. You’d have all the boys from some nearby school come round to our school and most of us would be not-so-secretly vying for their attention but at the end of the night, when the DJ put the slow songs on, it was never a coincidence that most of the girls left without anyone to dance with were ethnic minorities.

When you’re a black woman and you live in a society where beauty ideals don’t include people that look like you, it’s almost unsurprising when you aren’t considered desirable. I’m wary of generalising but it can place a different kind of pressure on black women to go further to be seen as desirable. You think that if your contour your nose a little bit more, show a little more chest and straighten your weave then maybe someone will notice. These are insecurities that black women are much more susceptible to than black men due to society’s emphasis on feminine beauty; but to be intersectional is not to reduce the category of “women” to a single monolith but instead to recognise, for example, that black women might be even more susceptible to these insecurities because of the way different axes of oppression operate simultaneously.

It’s already problematic enough how many socially prescribed beauty standards women are forced to subscribe to, and the burden that is placed on women and their bodies but again, these are also racialised. The prejudices that might make someone find a black woman less attractive than a white woman aren’t always prejudices that people have consciously or intentionally developed - they’re socially constructed. Where is it written that the whiter skinned, lighter skinned women are the most beautiful? Or that as a black girl your natural hair’s only beautiful when it curls but doesn’t kink? Or that thick lips are only cute on Kylie Jenner? When you think of society’s conceptualisations of the ideal woman, when are they not white? Do you see it now?

I don’t write this because I have some lifelong aim to be seen as desirable because that would be letting the patriarchy and its male gaze win. But the first time I spoke to someone about this, I realised quite quickly that I wasn’t being unreasonable or hypersensitive but actually there are many black women who feel similar social pressures and so this was a little insight into what living in that intersection means for us.

Intersectionality helps me understand how inevitably, my experience as a woman is racialised. How I am not just a woman but I am black and a woman. This short consideration of desirability and beauty, and the way that both are gendered, racialised and stratified in so many other ways, is only one example of where an intersectional analysis is particularly essential and useful. So I urge you, not just for the sake of black women, but for all the other people who exist within other overlapping axes of oppression, do your best to check that your feminism is always intersectional because what’s feminism if it’s not liberating for all women?

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