Beauty comes in all forms, but the institution of white supremacy demands that whiteness is the ideal.
When Lil’ Kim posted new pictures to her Instagram, people immediately noticed a glaring change. In addition to the blonde lace front, Kim’s complexion was noticeably whiter, almost ghostly pale. The iconic rapper and former Junior M.A.F.I.A. member looked like a complete stranger, unrecognizable when compared to the images of her in memorable videos such as the color-coordinated “Crush on You” and later hits such as “How Many Licks” and “No Matter What They Say.”
Filters and careful photo editing may have exaggerated Kim’s startling new look, but this transformation didn’t happen overnight. Over the years, Kim has revealed that her low self-esteem and low self-worth stem from the unconscious belief that blackness is undesirable. Like many young girls and women, Kim absorbed the poison of racist beauty standards. Although Kim has never confirmed to using skin-whitening or bleaching products, one cannot help but read between the lines. The pictures shared on Kim’s Instagram feature a person miles away from the woman who hit MTV’s VMA red carpet in a lavender wig, sequined jumpsuit, and matching pasty. In one display of irony, Kim is wearing a “Black Girls Rock” t-shirt. She’s got long, flowing, light blonde hair, her skin is several shades lighter, and her nose is slimmed down, probably contoured with heavy makeup. She looks like a combination of Kim Kardashian and Faith Evans.
In an interview with Newsweek, Kim reveals that an early age, she felt like she wasn’t good enough. Citing her father’s rigid standards as the source of her anxiety, she says, “It was like I could do nothing right. Everything about me was wrong–my hair, my clothes, just me.” This set the stage for Kim’s feelings of inadequacy. Later on, she says, “All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough–even the men I was dating…Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.”
It seems that Kim has been unable to break free from ideology that cherishes whiteness and dehumanizes blackness. The seed planted in early childhood thrived on a succession of loves who upheld a color-struck hierarchy. The sexism and racism of the music industry only allowed such self-loathing to expand, burrowing deeper.
Notice how Kim mentions that her ex-boyfriends favored women who were the “long-hair type.” She’s not talking about black women with long hair. She’s actually talking about whiteness, or specifically, physical traits that denote whiteness. White beauty standards vehemently reject natural hair. Despite the growing number of black women who have put down the hot combs, straightening irons, and relaxers, natural hair is still viewed as “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” Black girls are sent home from school or threatened with expulsion for wearing their hair natural. Black women working as news anchors are criticized for wearing their natural hair on air. Mainstream society upholds the notion that wearing natural hair is a punishable act.
These racist standards are blazingly apparent when the fashion industry trips over itself to praise white celebrities for sporting familiar black hairstyles such as “boxer braids” (aka cornrows) and dreadlocks. Thus, when TV characters such as Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder are shown removing their wigs and/or weaves, it’s groundbreaking. When Beyoncé calls out “Becky with the good hair” on Lemonade, she’s calling out the lie that kinky hair is ugly. The term “good hair,” when used in earnest, is carved from the language of white supremacy. Having good hair means that your hair is as close to straight as possible. Having good hair means you are reflecting white beauty rules.
When people on social media wonder why Kim “looks like a white woman,” they ignore the fact that through personal experience and unconscious influence, Kim has learned to view whiteness as a marker of superiority. In an article for The Huffington Post, Zeba Blay notes, “Like millions of dark-skinned women, [she] has been socialized to believe she is ugly and unworthy because she is not white or light…The difference between Kim and so many others who struggle with this specific kind of low self-esteem is that Kim has money and access to doctors willing to indulge and encourage her need to change herself into a different person.” Kim’s Instagram picture is the result of that money and level of access, not the aftermath of a spontaneous, irrational decision. It’s not that Kim simply wants to be white; she wants the acceptance that whiteness promises.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye shows how the desire for whiteness is mentally, emotionally, and psychologically destructive. Pecola, a young black girl, yearns for blue eyes. In chapter 3 of the novel, the narrator notes, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” Pecola is fixated on blue eyes because she thinks that they are not only beautiful but also pose the opportunity to escape herself. Blue eyes would literally transform her perspective. She would shed the struggles of her current state of existence. For Pecola, blue eyes signify freedom from blackness.
Kim has fallen into the same trap as Pecola. Self-love seems impossible when external forces fuel their survival on your self-hate.
At what cost has Kim become a sex symbol? Only she can truly answer that question. However, studying the trajectory of her image can provide some unfortunate and disturbing truths. Instead of mocking Kim, we must remember that our society created this pursuit of whiteness. Over at Mic, writer Michael Arceneaux reflects on what led Kim to this dramatic image overhaul and wonders, “If everyone had played nice, would Kim have stopped doing this to herself? Kim is continuously uploading pictures of herself online that depict her as lighter and lighter in appearance. Kim wants us to see her this way.”
One can only hope that Kim has finally found the validation that seems to have eluded her.
About Vanessa Willoughby
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut, and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal.