Derek Owusu talks about the emotional challenges faced by British black men when it comes to Eurocentric norms of attractiveness

Until recently, it never occurred to me to wonder how black men feel about their physical appearance. Looks are something we generally joke about, cuss each other for or talk about lightly, skimming the surface but never discussing seriously. This all changed for me when I felt the most insecure I’ve ever felt. And, embarrassingly, it was triggered by the ITV show Love Island. Newly available on Netflix, I decided to binge watch seasons 1 to 3 and catch up with everyone about to settle in for season 4 — a season being dubbed a dream for white women who love mixed-raced men. Each series begins with a brief profile of each contestant–a bit of talk focusing on what they’re about and what they do. And then it’s the ‘Couple Up’. This is where I began to feel rattled. With all of the men lined up side by side, silent, grinning white teeth, waiting for the opportunity to step forward and offer themselves up to the women soon to be making an appearance, there was plenty of time for me to take in how good looking most of them were and how different I felt compared to them. True, these men were a hundred shades lighter than me, but that didn’t stop my mind, at that moment, from wondering why I too wasn’t born into an Adonis-like shell. Added to this was my recollection of season 3’s contestant, Marcel, who I became aware of without actually watching the series he appeared in. A dark-skinned man, it was a running joke on Twitter that he was somehow getting darker, or “turning purple”. For many weeks, no one stepped forward for him. Not until the arrival of Gabby did it seem possible for a dark-skinned black man to look attractive amongst a sea of white lads. But even after his long-anticipated coupling, social media speculated that it wasn’t Marcel’s attractiveness that had interested Gabby; it was the opportunity to win viewers over and secure the prize money. She was playing the game; Marcel was being used.

Thinking about all this I began to feel silly, looking in the mirror and scrutinising my face, my nose, my lips, my teeth, my skin. Was I took dark? My nose too wide, lips too big and prone to cracking? And do other black men ever feel this way? For this piece, I decided to find out by speaking to a few guys to ask what they think.

Growing up everyone has that moment when they suddenly become aware of their appearance, either through people’s reactions to it, compliments and criticism, or just because we’re fascinated by mirrors and spend a lot of time staring into them. For many of the men I spoke to, it was the comments that precipitated insecurities first. “When I got my glasses, I started noticing people were calling me Steve Urkel.” 32-year-old Joseph says. “I never found that funny. [It was] just another reason to throw me under the bus for not being a conventionally attractive child”. The Urkel trope is common in the black community, being used against “nerdy” black men who didn’t fit into the mould of black masculinity. As well as this, oddly, your appearance could be mocked for being “too” black in certain areas but not black enough in others, as 23-year-old Adrian explains: “I was made fun of because of the size of my lips,” he explained to me, “and because I was fair-skinned, I was called beige and big lips” remarks that made him wonder if he could change these aspects somehow.

Being acutely aware of your facial features is one of the gifts handed down to black communities via decades of racism and dehumanisation at the hands of Europeans. The mocking of facial features – nose, lips, teeth and hair- inevitably found its way into black families, with ‘light’ teasing becoming a sport exercised without any thought about its consequences. 26-year-old Alex remembers this starting from childhood  “When I was 10 years old, my dad always used to make comments about my nose… He meant it in a joking way but when he tried to make the same joke with my sister, my mum shut it down. It meant to me that they didn’t care about boys’ appearance being ridiculed.”

So many of us have been made to feel the same way, that our worth lies outside our looks – there’s no point worrying about trying to be attractive because we can’t be. That’s why it’s important we’re able to be open about how much comments on our appearance hurt, or how some days we too feel insecure, undesirable and ugly. As things are, this would be perceived as weakness, or “moist”.

It’s interesting to explore what goes through the mind when feeling physically unattractive, and which coping mechanisms are employed when it becomes too much to bear. Some are long term character diminishing reactions such as Raheim’s: “it actually got to a point where if someone did show an interest in me…my initial thought was, they’re not really attracted to me, I don’t believe you, so I developed no feelings.” And others were shorter, more immediate reactions such as Alex and Kwame’s: “if I could hide, if I could make myself smaller”, said Alex, “then I  [would]. I’d feel like crawling into the fetal position. If I could find a way to get out of the light…”. “On those days I just wish I could crawl into a ball”, Kwame continued, “and forget my face”.

The boys I spoke to rarely expressed these feelings or thoughts to anyone, and if they did, they were marred by obvious suppressions. The crippling feelings and insecure moments mostly stayed within them, without adequate expression to exorcise them, or loving words to heal them. “Men are not supposed to care about their appearance the same way women do. So how can I cry about feeling ugly? Seems weak, and everyone knows men can make up for it and attract people in other ways.

The consensus seems to be that we should use other assets to make up for facial shortcomings. After all, money can boost our wardrobe–or perhaps length and girth are all we need in the end (again, see this season’s Love Island and references to mixed race Wez below the belt)? But will a mortgage-priced car and Jay-Z-inspired hublot matched with a hyper-sexualised existence provide any solace when you’re alone, in low spirits, and face to face with a discomforting reflection in the mirror? Black men are notoriously guarded when it comes to their feelings and trying to get them to honestly discuss their physical appearance is a challenge not many will be interested in taking up. But I feel if we are able to talk sincerely about the days when we feel undesirable, a whole new world of expression will open up thereafter and we’ll be on course for a healthier emotional life.

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derek.jpgDerek Owusu is a writer, mentor and host on literature podcast, Mostly Lit. He discovered literature at the age of 23 while studying exercise science at university and soon after dedicated his life to reading and writing.


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30 thoughts on “Black men are made to feel ugly, and we need to talk about it

  1. Blacks are inherently ugly. The only blacks who are attractive are those who are mixed with Caucasians or Mongoloids. This has nothing to do with skin either, in fact dark skin can be more attractive than pale skin, rather it’s the facial structure which is aesthetically unappealing and asymmetrical. Media is doing the opposite of what you claim, black men are glamorized by the media to the point of it being ludicrous; I mean, fat blubber lips, uneven skintone, nappy hair or the ridiculous straight hairlines, fat noses and dressing up like thugs isn’t attractive, it is a sign that tells me to change my lane and move away from this creature. Even as a little kid from a non white country, i.e before media could influence me, I always found blacks to be hideous, I never felt the same about Asians or whites the same way.

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  2. “Black masculinity ? ” That would be behaving like a thug and spewing gangsta rap garbage to let the “brothas ” know you’re “down with them .” NICE !!!!! Someone I’D love to emulate ,right ??? (Well,if I were ugly and IQ were 80,NOT 160 !!!!!!)

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  3. There was a 1970’s band (of Indigenous Americans) called Redbone. Are they what you mean ? (I prefer buxom blondes between 30 and 40 !!!!!!)

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  4. I’m 65 and cover boy handsome (and VERY dark-skinned,with a 160 IQ.) I am distrusted by the usual suspects-racists, black nationalists , fugly women -but also by gangsta rap black dudes who hate me for not being a stupid thug,liking (some) Country music and rock and roll.

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  5. Isn’t this really about how tall, handsome and muscular the man is and not about how dark his skin is? Yes, some white women may have an issue with men because they are black and some black girls may prefer mixed guys. But if you are attractive, women will be interested however dark you are. For guys, isn’t not about colourism, it’s about handsome.

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  6. I never thought of this perspective before. I always thought that black men were hyper-sexualized, but that could be unique to where I live. There’s a lot of programming that we have to unlearn as time goes on.

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  7. Interesting…I had never heard of Love Island until I saw a picture of Marcel circulating on Facebook. My first thought was, “Damn, look at this fine chocolate man.” I then went on a deep search to find out who he was. I should also point out that I’m American. In the US it seems to me that black men are practically worshipped for their appearance. White women here loooove Idris Elba, Denzel Washington, Borderick Hunter, Will Smith, Sidney Poiteir back in the day, etc. “Jungle fever” is a known thing and white women are actually kind of a threat. Black women on the other hand are the most likely to stay single and can’t catch a break unless they’re redbone. The rest of us are “too dark.” But the British perspective is certainly interesting and I don’t doubt your experiences across the pond. Funny that I’d always been somewhat jealous of black men.

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  8. @amaigom

    Antiblackness is a community problem. Contrary to what is commonly expressed in online echo chambers, it doesn’t only present itself in black men who want Beckys. I experienced it from black girls when I was growing up; my African mother has experienced it from fully grown black women. A black girl I knew in school, bullied a black boy so bad that he teared up in class and everyone laughed at him. Rubber lips. Drop lips. etc.
    And yes, I remember black girls experiencing it too, which is why I say its a community problem.

    It’s really gauche for black men to admit what Derek is admitting here. It’s more socially acceptable for us to pretend that the barbs we received were just jokes; that they didn’t leave any lasting impact.
    A lot of men who experience these things, never process their pain, and end up seeking unhealthy validation as result.

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    1. Your anecdotes don’t detract from my initial comment.
      As I’ve stated black men are the worst perpetrators of anti- blackness in the black community and their biggest victims are black women. This article is akin to white men tears about how hard their life is. So I give this just as much short shrift as I would an article like that. Do better by the women who birth, raise you – usually single handed – and march for you when you guys are shot by the police and perhaps I’ll have the energy to take this on board. Until then I’ll continue to only uphold those who uphold me. and stop constantly seeking to be the

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      1. You could easily have sidestepped this article if you found it triggering.
        Most conversations about internalized racism rely on anecdotes, which is why I made that point about echo chambers.
        Derek didn’t directly appeal to black women for help, so i’m not sure why you’re trotting out the mule rhetoric.
        Surely everyone would benefit if black men dealt with their insecurities, instead of bottling them up and ending up like Kodak Black.

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        1. You could’ve easily sidestepped replying to my comment if since you find it triggering being reminded of the complicity of black men in upholding and enforcing anti-blackness against black women.
          Lol @ “trotting out the mule rhetoric”
          when it’s not your daily experience it’s easy to diminish. You could’ve easily commented in a manner that acknolwledged the issues sisters face from so-called black men but heaven forbid the spotlight comes off you for a
          change. Always committed to the playing the the victim, even if it’s at the expense of the very women you’re meant to protect. Thanks for proving my point re: black men and why black women shouldn’t give a damn about this.

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          1. So what do you propose black people do when self-hating black men emerge? Cancel them and hope that the social malaise that created them disappears?
            “You could’ve easily commented in a manner that acknolwledged the issues sisters face from so-called black men”
            I considered doing this, and then I thought: Nah this person just wants to derail this post.

            When black men try to co-opt conversations centered on black women, I talk to them in the same way I’m talking to you. No, I do not think that black men have it as hard as black women.
            I often hear that black men shouldn’t wait around for black women to fix them. *points at Derek’s initial post*

            I also don’t think that you came to this post with the intent of helping black women. I’m pretty sure you came here to vent, and in the past I indulged that sort of thing, but I find it really selfish now.

            Many sites such as Madamnoire and Gal-dem have produced articles on the topics you mention in your first post.

            Feel free to miss each of my points again. I’m out.

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            1. So because YOU disagree with a comment that YOU chose to reply to on an article on a public website that makes what was stated selfish?! PMSL! Again you’re completely laughable in how typical an example of how self-centred and selfish black men are when they’re reminded of their fuckery.

              “We’re not going to do that today”? I just did – and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about that. Regardless of your view plenty of black women I know feel the same and that’s all that matters to me.

              So continue to be b*tthurt about the truth and I’ll continue to not give a damn about your feelings or the issues raised in this article. Feel free to reply again – I won’t bother to read your response as I have better things to do #reclaimingmytime. You getting the last comment on here doesn’t invalidate my POV or the fact that I give zero f*cks about the issues this article raised.

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          2. Lawd. You sound like a member of the site lipstick alley and deftly as miserable as the women on that site.
            This article is important. We hardly ever see black men be emotionally vulnerable about how they are affected by this topic and this is a gateway to healing for them and eventually black people collectively if this is allowed flourish.

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            1. Lawd. You sound like a typical misogynoir filled mammy that’s happy to throw black women under the bus for individuals who barely reciprocate such emotional investment or labour. One sided loyalty is for suckers. You can continue to be be one but I’m not about that life and I’m extremely happy as a result.

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          3. I understand your point but I think this is the wrong place for the comment.This article is specifically talking about the issues black men are facing and it’s important that we acknowledge that. We don’t have to diminish one experience to recognize another one. You have a great voice. And it’s definitely a topic that should be talked just not here especially on a post based on a personal experience. I really think you should start your own blog and talk about your experiences. It would be great for black women to have a place where their voices felt heard. .It’s important that everyone in the black community uplifts each other.

            To all the Black men I see you, I respect you, and your’re beautiful no matter what society says.
            And to all of my Sisters I see you, I respect you, your afros are wonderful and your skin is amazing. Don’t let society tear you down. Be kind to each other. “Wale-Black is gold “

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            1. I disagree. This is a public forum and I’m entitled to my perspective on this article. The idea that I should have any sympathy for a group who continually fail to reciprocate the support and care that black women give them is laughable. Thankfully more sisters are waking up to this point. If you wish to continue to extend yourself then your welcome to do so.

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              1. ‘…ny sympathy for a group who continually fail to reciprocate the support and care that black women give them…’ Sorry, what sympathy and support? Black women have complained for a long time about the mistreatment they receive from black men. And black women have argued that they are the main victims in the community. What sympathy do decent black men get? What recognition do good black fathers get? None.

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  9. This is what Black women have constantly put up with and worst. Much of the hatred received has been from so-called black men who enforce rigid Eurocentric ideals of beauty on black women more than white people. We need to first talk about and resolve this before we move onto this topic. Too much of the resources within the black community are already focused on black men and your struggles. Not enough is about the main providers of these resources – Black women – and pitiful level of reciprocity provided by black men. So to be frank, until you as a collective can treat the women who birth, raise and march for you better then zero f@cks are given in regards to this.

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    1. I approached the article by acknowledging the writer writing about his experiences being a black man growing up in Britain. I am well aware of how black women are made to feel unattractive and unwanted by everyone including their own men here in the States, but perhaps things are different in England and other parts of Britain. It is important not to base all experiences of the Black Diaspora on the experiences we have in the United States.

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      1. It’s interesting that you assume I’m not from the UK when I’m a born and bred and based Brit. The experience I speak of is solely based on that perspective.
        It’s not based on the USA as I am not from there.

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    1. The man who wrote this piece writes as though
      he were a Black female! There is no obvious or
      evident discrimination against the darker Black
      male on ‘Love Island’!

      If anything, there is a subtle marginalization of
      the Black female at every opportunity! If the
      writer of this piece had issues at school for
      being explicitly African and was teased as
      such by ‘African-Caribbean’ boys and girls,
      and was made to feel ugly as consequence
      then maybe he needs to work through those
      issues with a therapist and cease projecting
      them onto the masses of confident ‘darker’
      Black males who know from experience that
      dark skin on males is deeply desired by gals
      from all backgrounds…and especially by
      white women!

      Like

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