I did a double take along with the rest of the world when Lil’ Kim posted new pictures of herself post-plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures. The problem? The rapper is nearly unrecognizable from her former brown-skinned self: She has surgically altered her nose and entire face, bleached her skin and bleached her hair, rendering her appearance less outwardly African-American and more European-American.
This is nothing new. Colorism, a facet of racism and anti-blackness (recently seen in the hate Blue Ivy Carter received for her natural hair), renders black and brown people, especially women, hateful of their non-white looks and features. Colorism is why I hear things like “all dark-skinned women are ugly” and “I only date light-skinned women.”
Colorism is also responsible for black people often (unconsciously) preferring or deferring to European standards of beauty, like white and light skin, straight or otherwise not kinky hair and the like.
Skin bleaching specifically has a worldwide market, with folks from India to South Africa to the United States buying into it. And the people who bleach their skin do so because they find lighter skin more beautiful and because they believe (rightfully so) that there are more opportunities for lighter people. This is often referred to as an outward expression of internalized self-hate. Racism and hate for the features of we who are black and brown force many of us in varying ways to change our appearance to feel better about ourselves.
I personally equate skin bleaching with the chemical processing or “perming” of kinky and coily African-American hair to straight hair. My opinion is not a popular one — I know that many people who do not consciously hate themselves perm their hair — but it’s deeper than just an individual preference. Until coily hair is treated equally to straight hair (not viewed as unprofessional, or disallowed in the military, or listed as a dress code violation in schools), we simply cannot afford to ignore any expressions of anti-blackness in regard to hair, in the same way we equally view skin bleaching as an obvious facet of how racism and colorism lead us to hate ourselves.
More important to Lil’ Kim specifically, she has a young daughter, Royal Reign, who is nearly 2 years old. What will Lil’ Kim do, say and feel for her daughter when she starts to look more like Kim, which is to say, a larger nose than Kim’s post-surgery nose, darker skin than she had prior to bleaching and dark, curly hair?
My parents did everything they could to make sure I loved myself the way I was. They told me my thicker thighs were what made me great at all the sports I played. They told me my brown skin was beautiful and protected me from the sun. And now that I am an adult, I’ve stopped perming my hair, because I want to be able to feel beautiful without going through hours of a perm burning my scalp or hours of installing a too-tight, sew-in weave (hair extensions).
Quite simply, my views on what is beautiful — specifically that I do not have to uphold any European standards of beauty to be beautiful — were a learned behavior, but an important one for my self-worth.
How will Lil’ Kim explain to her daughter that it is OK to be black — and that beauty and blackness are not a contradiction — when she has extracted every black feature from herself?
I don’t have any answers, but I hope this opens up a broader conversation about what we darker-hued black and brown women go through and how not all of us have unlearned self-hate.