I never knew that I was ugly. Or, at least, that white society thought so.
Growing up, I had never felt more invisible. My middle school years were defined by excessive in-school suspensions and meetings in the principal’s office. I was a straight A student in a public charter school, but that was impossible to see when my behavior was always defined for me. I was not a troublesome student. In fact, I enjoyed following the rules. So, why couldn’t the school administrators see that? Why was I punished significantly more than other students for the same behavior? During my first suspension in middle school, I did not have the vocabulary to defend myself. I remember sitting at the principal’s round table, hands crossed in my lap. Her office, lacking personal touches and color, mirrored an interrogation room. The door to her office was only slightly ajar, but I could hear everything. It was as if my teachers couldn’t be bothered to hide their opinions of me.
“She’s a distraction during study period.”
“She cannot keep speaking out of turn.”
I was hypervisible – an unfortunate symptom of my ugliness. I was always being watched. So, I sat there alone, awaiting a punishment that I knew would be too strict.
What I did not realize was that the coming-of-age process for Black girls had an extra miserable layer: we were ugly, whether we believed it or not. Tarana Burke describes this phenomenon in a work I was introduced to during my first semester of sophomore year. Being ugly, she said, is the “funny way that some people interact with those they deem physically unattractive … I know this because I’m ugly. At least that’s what the world finds new ways to tell me every day.” For Burke, the ugliness the world attached to her was physical. For me, ugliness spoke to being unimportant, unseen, and unheard as a child.
Black women have been called ugly for longer than we’ve been deemed human. Black girls live in a paradoxical state where they’re too ugly to be loved, yet too sexualized to be cherished. America knows all too well the consequences of labeling Black girls as promiscuous; there is no forgiveness or innocence awarded to Black girls who simply want to be children. Black girls experience sexual assault at a higher rate than their counterparts. In fact, one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
When I was 12, being ugly meant people did not care to understand me or hear me. Nobody believed that I could be a rule-abiding student, even though I valued my education. As Black girls, we didn’t have the luxury of making mistakes. Now, as an almost 20 year-old woman studying at Harvard, I’m still proving myself. I find romantic relationships difficult to navigate because I am hypersexualized. The ugliness that was once attached to my body has morphed into lust.
Black women exist in a space between femininity and masculinity that denies us access to either. For Black women, “ugly” means something deeper. It means that we aren’t seen as fully human and, therefore, we do not fit into the Eurocentric construct of gender. It also means that other people define us before we get to define ourselves.
White society never misses a chance to remind Black women that they’re the most disrespected group in America. I refuse to continue the cycle of perpetuated violence against other women who look like me, so I’m done listening. To be a Black girl in America is to trust that you’re beautiful when the world covers the mirrors.
Black girls, I see you. And, more importantly, I am not afraid to look at you.
Ebony M. Smith ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Government and African & African American Studies in Eliot House.