The first time I realized what standardized beauty was, I was seven. I turned on the TV to 18-year-old Britney Spears in a red latex jumpsuit, with blonde hair and blue frosted eye shadow. As I watched her sway her hips in the iconic Oops!… I Did it Again music video, a message was planted in my psyche: blonde, thin, and white is hot.
Over the next 10 years, this message was reinforced through Seventeen magazine covers, reality shows, and teenage soaps. And that crystal clear directive wasn’t absorbed by only me. Diaspora Co. founder Sana Javeri Kadri said she thought she was ugly when growing up, simply because she had brown skin and curves. Author Danielle Prescod developed an eating disorder while trying to resemble the actresses who were the love interests on and off the camera.
Looking back, I think I, too, would have second-guessed if I liked what I saw in the mirror, or lacked the confidence to audition for the lead roles in community theater, if I hadn’t seen anyone at all who looked like me and shared the values of my culture in music videos or on the red carpet. But thankfully, I did — her name was Selena Quintanilla-Pérez.
The “Queen of Tejano Music” singer — with full lips, wavy black hair, and hips for days — was graced with indigenous features and brown skin. She didn’t fit the mold of white America — yet she soared. Her warmth, charisma and humility wooed both Mexico and U.S. audiences, and seeing her popularity with both communities made me feel safe and excited to lean into my Mexican-American culture.
Today, as a mother to a little brown girl, I’m grateful to see that she has many women — like Selena Gomez, Zendaya, Yara Shahidi and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan — to help her feel represented and valued when she turns on the TV or radio. So, to celebrate the women who are making waves in industries that are built for white men, I asked five women to share which leading women helped them own their heritage. Here’s what they said…
“When I think about beauty, I picture a fight scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, where Michelle Yeoh sails through the air with a sword. Her hair is pulled into a loose bun, revealing her expression: dark brows, set lips, and eyes that kiss at the corners, like mine. When I first saw the film, I was 15 and mesmerized by her face: stunning, of course, but also fresh and open, lacking the thick film of makeup that might hide the wrinkles on her forehead or crease above her lips. I studied my own face in the mirror, wondering what it would be like to celebrate my own features. She gave me a map for self-admiration, which isn’t the same as self-love, but a step toward it. After watching Yeoh accept her Oscar for Everything Everywhere All at Once last month, I replayed her speech in my mind: ‘Ladies, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re past your prime.’ The most beautiful years are ahead for us all.” — Thao Thai
“In high school, I found the ways Rihanna embraced her sexuality really powerful. She didn’t let cultural stigma stop her from dressing the way she wanted. Back then, the way we treated teenage girls was completely warped. There was lots of slut shaming, and the burden fell on young women to dress a certain way to avoid getting called into the office and forced to cover up in sweatpants. Meanwhile, I was just trying to wear clothes I liked! Rihanna possesses this living-her-best-life-and-not-losing-sleep-over-anyone attitude that applies to beauty and fashion that I admire and emulate.” — Chloe Hall
“My childhood dance group danced to Gloria Estefan’s Conga, and I’ve been hooked on her ever since. She exudes a vibrance, confidence and joy in her performances — traits that I try to channel in my career. It’s incredible to see more women of color in the spotlight and the pool of representation growing.” — Priscilla Vega
“Zadie Smith is a writer I’ve crushed on since I read her 2000 debut novel White Teeth. Smith has spoken about not seeing herself represented in media while growing up, and how that actually gave her the freedom to express herself however she pleased. Similarly, I didn’t grow up consuming much mainstream media — print or televised — and I certainly didn’t see myself represented when I did. But I, too, found that freeing. I was able to spend less energy comparing how I fit in and instead carve a path that felt true to me.” — Sukhie Patel
“Issa Rae celebrates herself in a way I adore — she unapologetically shines bright in an industry that doesn’t make much room for Black women with darker skin. She’s also fashion forward — her 2018 Ebony Magazine spread will forever stay in my mind. There’s a photo of her wearing an ombré coat with her head cocked while she stares directly into the camera. It possesses a gentle power. She makes me feel like I can be many things: powerful and badass, soft and sexy.” — Abby Mallett
Who would you add to the list? Which Black, Latina, Asian, South Asian, Indigenous, Middle East and Pacific Islander women have inspired you? Please fangirl with us below…
P.S. “What 9 movies and shows with gay characters meant to me,” and raising race-conscious children.
(Photo of Zadie Smith by Sebastian Kim.)