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.
Derek 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.