We had just made it to the river when they saw me. Four teenage girls of varying shades, all prepubescent and thin. The brownest and youngest one couldn’t stop her curious eyes from glancing up at my 4C pattern afro as she answered my friend’s questions. The others looked at me in amazement as well. I couldn’t quite figure out what about me would garner such stares from four little black girls until they started swimming and dipping their heads under water.
“My hair is curling up again, oh no!”
“It’s going to dreadlock!”
“Ew, my product is leaving.”
“Oh no, I’m ugly!”
I think the presence of my definitely curly and proud curls made these young women insecure. They all had processed hair, hair forced into submission because that’s what they were taught. Hair should submit. And here I was with my coiled curls that refused to straighten out. It must have been hard for them to be raised here in Brazil – home to the “worlds most beautiful women”, which usually just translates into images of mixed women; loose curls, bronze skin, black booties but Eurocentric phenotypes. And these young girls didn’t have the privilege of living in the city where they’d have access to alternative media that shows them women that look like them or how they could look if they let the product go.
We were in the country. We were in Diogo, Bahia, Brazil. About two hours outside of the city of Salvador, where I live, where my blackness and my nappy hair is affirmed and normalized (to a certain extent).
…Salvador, where I live, where my blackness and my nappy hair is affirmed and normalized…
It had been a long time since I had this type of reaction to my natural hair. Living in Salvador, where blackness is celebrated to the point of fetish, made me forget that I was still in an extremely racist society.
Brazilians are supposed to be beautiful. It’s a national pride thing. Their look is supposed to be a testament to the power of Branqueamento. Branqueamento is the process that many South American countries went through once slavery was abolished and they found themselves with a surplus of black folk. Brazil, wanting to keep up with Europe, decided to send for Italians, Portuguese, Germans and any other European countries that had citizens willing to work on farms in exchange for citizenship. Unlike the United States, Brazil encouraged the mixing of the races, in the hopes that the African ancestry would simply dilute until disappearance.
Brazilians are supposed to be beautiful.
This is how we’ve arrived at the concept of Brazilian beauty we know today. A brown but not black woman, with thick legs, a round booty, long hair, light eyes and racially ambiguous features. This image of the mulata, the bronzed woman with the perfect indigenous brown skin and phenotypically European facial features and hair, is a national ideal that doesn’t fit the majority.
I could throw a rock into a crowded room and hit a caramel colored girl with loose curls that cascade down her back here in Brazil. But that hair doesn’t cascade without the assistance of creamy crack. And that complexion may have been planned by her mother in the hopes that a lighter skinned child may bring the family better financial opportunity. She also wouldn’t be the most beautiful woman. At least not to me. Especially since I started living in Salvador.
To walk down the street and hear, “Bom dia preta linda” or “E ai, negra” makes me smile.
To say that the people are beautiful is an understatement. And when I speak of beauty, I’m not talking about Eurocentric standards. I’m talking about ebony complexions that contrast white teeth perfectly. I’m talking about dark dense curls of hair that cradle brown broad foreheads. I’m talking about lips that are thick, noses that are wide, features that are undeniably African. These are the people that I consider beautiful in Salvador, Bahia Brazil. And to walk down the street and hear, “Bom dia preta linda” or “E ai, negra” makes me smile. To have other women hold my face in their hands as they marvel at my complexion makes me feel accepted. To be a part of a community of photographers and media makers in Salvador who do the work of creating the images we know we need to see affirms my purpose in life. When people ask what I’m doing down here in Brazil, I can honestly answer, “Discovering that I’m beautiful.” Because for a long time, I had no idea that I was.
I’m not saying that I’ve never felt beautiful. I felt shades of beautiful at varying times in my life. There was my freshman year of high school when my locks had finally reached the top of my shoulders. Senior prom when the dress I designed came out exactly how I wanted it to, and I wore false eyelashes for the first and last time. I really liked how I looked for my 20th birthday. But these moments were fleeting and dependent upon my clothes and the way I styled my hair. I was always aware that it would only take a slight change for my feelings around my appearance to move. It wasn’t until I began to live in Salvador, Bahia Brazil that I really started feeling beautiful in my natural form. Sans makeup and clothes. Without my clever attitude and witty humor. Living in a totally different country where I didn’t speak the language, so I can’t rely on my charm to create an illusion around who I am. But there is something about the way light absorbs melanin in Salvador, Bahia Brazil that makes me feel shimmery like glitter. Makes me want to lay in the sun all day in the hopes of getting darker. And that is exactly how I plan to spend the rest of my time here.