Black and White and Ideas about Beauty

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african children
at Farl

In this conversation, Mark asks Lerato about where she has been in Africa and they get talking about ideas of color and the mutilation of the body in the name of beauty.

M: So Lerato, which countries in Africa have you been to?
L: (laughs)
M: I’m sorry. You are trying to eat toast at the same time. I’m sorry. Is it good toast?
L: It’s very, very nice (laughs).
M: We’re just sitting here. It’s Sunday afternoon in an old Japanese house. We are sitting on the tatami and we are looking at a map on the wall and it’s an old map of Africa. It’s quite an old map. Ten years old maybe…and I think the map of the world has changed quite a lot. Which countries in Africa have you been to?
L: Um…Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi.
M: Malawi…
L: Hmm, and I’d like to go to Namibia next, to go and see the sand dunes.
M: Right.
L: And yourself, which countries have you been in in Africa?
M: I’ve been to Egypt. That’s in Africa isn’t it?
L: (laughs) Yes, it is. Why were you about to ask whether it counts or not?
M: It’s funny in the mind, there is a difference between north Africa and black Africa?
L: Well, they are all black, aren’t they?
M: Well, in North Africa I imagine the people are more brown and Arab…and…
L: Well, actually nobody is black. They’re brown aren’t they?
M: Everybody is brown.
L: Everybody is brown (laughs).
M: Have you ever seen anybody who was really black, like really black?
L: Yes, I have. Yes. Yes.
M : Where?
L : In South Africa, but they were from Nigeria, I think. A lot of people that come from west Africa sometimes Ghana, Cameroon, Gabon, they have very dark…
M: Skin?
L: …complexion. Yes, they have a very dark complexion. And then I think people closer towards the south and maybe towards the east; their complexion is a little bit lighter.
M: I like dark skin. I find it beautiful.
L: Well, I don’t know. I think everybody…everyone has a nice shade.
M: We all have, like, cultural baggage about color.
M: Mmmm…
M: In Thailand to be dark is looked down on, and for some people…
L: It’s like that everywhere. It’s like that everywhere. You know, I mean, for a long time, I am not sure if it is still happening now, but I know that around the eighties and the early nineties, there were these products that were produced by European companies and the target market was African women and it was like soaps and creams so that they could, you know, basically bleach their skin so that they could look lighter because it was perceived, the lighter you look the more beautiful you are, the darker you are the uglier you are. And I think in parts of India and Dubai people go to, you know, do plastic…cosmetic surgery where they get their complexion lightened.
M: Mmm…
L: I think in America also you find a lot of popular models and popular actresses that feature in movies amongst the black community, many people that have light skin, and very, very few of the women actually have dark skin. And if they do, they are usually cast in roles that are not very important in the movie. Like you wouldn’t be cast as a leading woman – or not that you wouldn’t – but it is rare to have a dark-skinned woman cast in a leading role.
M: Mutilation in the name of an abstract idea of beauty.
L: Mmm-hmm
M: It’s mutilation, isn’t it?.
L: It’s mutilation, yes.
M: And some people have the nose bone done, and the breasts.
L: And the breasts, yes (laughs).
M: And then when they get older these silicone pads (they put) in their cheeks and that, they can slip, and they can turn the face into a monstrous thing.
L: And you have to keep going back.
M: Mmm…
L: You know, I mean look at what happened to Michael Jackson when he tried to lighten his skin with all that cosmetic surgery that he did after his Thriller album, or around the time of his Thriller album. And look at the side effects that he has now. It looks like a, you know, a messed-up cake. His face looks like a messed up cake..
M: Yeah, it’s a shame.
L: And all because you hated who you were, because that’s denying who you are, don’t you think, in some way?
M: Yeah.
L: …to go to that level of changing who you are? You are changing some genetic stuff about you, aren���t you?
M: I think most people don’t really know who they are and they are clinging to something. This ideal of beauty, out of hope. It’s…the motivation is not bad, I don’t think, it’s just…it’s a shame that people feel the need to do that and they can’t just love what they have.
L: Mmm, I think so�…(sigh)…Excess (laughs).
M: Too much.

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