Interview by Lauren Richards
Photography by Izzy Yap
Photography by Traci Felton
Toni-Marie Gomes (CGS '21, SAR '23)
Ejiro Agege (SAR '21)
Zakiah Tcheifa (ENG '22)
Irene Phung (COM '22)
Soumya Nimmu (CAS '21)
Lauren Richards is a writer and a photographer. She loves finding stories and their profundity in the simple and mundane elements of life, and strives to share peoples’ stories with accuracy and care. She is a junior at Boston University majoring in Journalism and minoring in African American Studies. She enjoys reading, walking and biking around the city, sketching and painting.
Behold a modern renaissance with each subject bringing life to our vibrant
mosaic. Toni, Ejiro, Zakiah, Irene,
Soumya and Lauren share their
stores to discover their beauty in color.
Glowing and fair skin, silky and straight hair, and a graceful and meek persona created a beautiful woman. Images around young Soumya fed her this notion and she responded accordingly. In middle school, she started rubbing lemon on her face in an attempt to lighten her skin. The grocery stores with shelves jammed with creams promising fairer skin seemed to encourage this. The celebrities on television and influencers on social media with pale skin and smiling eyes seemed to encourage this.
Oiling, combing and brushing her hair became another essential element in her daily routine. Her mother refused to let her use conditioners and instead encouraged an all natural, chemical-free, way of caring for her hair. Soumya complied and began trying to tame her curls with the natural products rather than care for them. Every day, she’d brush and brush until her natural curls
transformed into something straight and limp.
If she did let her curls out, she’d hear comments like, “You’re not a ghost, braid your hair,” and “You look like a Rakshasa.” She hadn’t seen the natural way her hair took form as beauty, but rather as something to control. Afterall, curly resembled the unruly hair of the rakshasa, which were essentially like demons.
At weddings and family events, Soumya overheard her relatives confronting her mom about her weight. “She’s too skinny,” she heard all too often, followed by suggestions like feeding her more cashews and raisins to fatten her up.
Soumya grew self-conscious of her thinness that remained regardless of what or how much she ate. Yet, she’d continually witness family members telling her mother that she wasn’t feeding Soumya enough.
“I wish my younger self could have seen earlier how big the world is and how differently people think,” Soumya said. “Like, you’re seeing 100,000 people, but there’s a million people out there who think the opposite thing.”
When she moved to California from Hyderabad, she encountered a world of opposites. Skinny became positive. People paid to get tan. Curls lacked the connotation she had always known them to have. One day, a white girl approached in the hallway and lauded her brown skin. Something clicked. Soumya began asking herself questions she’d never posed before. Suddenly, she was wondering whom she was trying to impress— why did the words resonate when a white individual spoke them? where did this desire to lighten her skin come from— and other matters of the sort. She never spoke with the girl again, but the encounter lingered on her mind long after they parted ways.
“I had the realization that whatever subset of people I was with, that that was very much a subset,
not the whole world,” Soumya said.
The ideals of beauty became a broader notion for her to deconstruct as time went on. She saw how the past influenced beauty standards of the present. She also became more keen to the various pressures and expectations
different locations encouraged.
“I identify beauty today as something like a light that draws me to a person,” Soumya said. “That can be things that inspire me about them or their strength, or how they see the world differently than me—I often find beauty in that.”
At university, she surrounded herself with a diverse group of friends. Everything from body shape, to skin tone, to personality, to style varied, yet she found each of her friends exceedingly beautiful. They helped her recognize beauty within herself.
She stopped oiling and combing her hair with the intention to make it straight. Instead, she found conditioners that accentuated her curls she learned to find beauty in. She accepted her body for what it was rather than trying to force it to take another form. She started loving herself.
“I [thought that] if any of these rules and boxes apply [to what makes someone beautiful], then all these people can’t be stunning in my eyes like that,” Soumya said. “When I realized that, it made sense that some people could view me that way too.”
Ejiro and her sisters would stare at the television, enthralled by the drama and beauty of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model. These women were tall, thin, and in young Ejiro’s mind, free of any impurities. No acne. No scars. Not a hair too long or out of place.
The Black women on the show had hair as straight as their white counterparts, so Ejiro wanted the same. In elementary school, peers would ask why her hair wasn’t straight, and why she couldn’t easily run a comb through it. She equated her nappy hair with bad hair, and at age six she had her hair relaxed, continuing until age 17.
In middle school, a classmate pointed out the hair on Ejiro’s arms. She hadn’t noticed it before, but then saw that there was more hair on her arms than the girls around her. The realization led Ejiro to buy hair removal cream to eliminate what she deemed as excess.
By high school, she was relaxing her hair, trying to remove it from her arms, and feeling self conscious of her melanated skin.
“I didn’t really feel that beautiful because I wasn’t getting the attention or being perceived as someone who’s pretty compared to the white girls I was around,” Ejiro said.
As she followed more and more women who looked like her on social media, she began to view her complexion as beautiful and accepted her dark skin. She quit lathering her arms with Nair cream. She hadn’t seen the kid that pointed it out since then, and nobody else made such a comment.
At 17, Ejiro stopped relaxing her hair and started trying protective styles and eventually natural styles. She was curious about her hair and wanted to understand it rather than force it to be something it was not. Her younger sister started about a year before she did, and tried to offer advice. While well-meaning, it proved to be futile because Ejiro’s hair held a different curl and texture.
She started with Garnier shampoos and conditioners, then went through a Cantu products phase, before doing research on the best ways to care for her hair. Slowly, she started to add to her natural hair knowledge and adjust products and usage accordingly. When she grew frustrated, she’d get her hair braided for a few months and then return to natural.
Ejiro came to university and joined a larger Black community. As she saw other Black women being affirmed and lifted up, she started feeling affirmed and lifted up as well, and started seeing beauty within herself in a way she hadn’t before.
She was confident in her body. Her dark skin, long legs, and nappy hair were features she now admired. Beauty was no longer something reserved for the stick-thin models with pencil straight hair, but rather something more inclusive and plentiful.
“I would tell [my younger self], just because you don’t look like someone that’s on TV doesn’t mean you’re inferior in any sense,” Ejiro said. “I also would tell her to love her nappy hair.”
Toni once had curly hair that reached her shoulders—her collar bone when there was no shrinkage. She loved her hair and the ease of styling it to match with an outfit, as well as the comfort it gave her. She saw her hair as a symbol of beauty and femininity, and when she was little, she dreamt of growing up and having hair as long as Rapunzel’s.
Her mother had long, thick and curly hair, as did her aunts and many of the other women during her childhood in a Cape Verdean household. When her mother showed up one day with short hair, she and her grandmother, who helped raise her, were shocked.
Her mother had had the big chop.
At the time, Toni took on many of her grandmother’s conservative views of beauty defined by a pureness that lacked piercings and tattoos and included long hair. So when her mother, who had a tongue piercing and now short hair, defied those odds, Toni was captious like her grandmother.
“When you’re younger, you have this set idea of what [beauty] is, and you also take the ideas [...] and ideals of the people who raised you,” Toni said.
“I’m finding that for myself.”
As she grew older, she admired her mother’s beauty and outgoing personality more and more. She slowly expanded her understanding of beauty and likened it to something resembling confidence.
When she was in high school, she attempted to match the beauty of the girls at her predominantly white high school. She would straighten her hair and smooth it back into a ponytail and emulate trendy outfits on the days they didn’t have to wear a uniform. The other girls were getting the guys’ attention, but she was not. During her junior year, she decided to trust herself and her style, starting with hoop earrings and a Biggie Small sweatshirt.
“I think the biggest transition for me was when I was like, ‘No, I’m going to wear hoops to school.’ That was a big thing,” Toni said. “I stopped trying to look good for other people and more for myself.”
Just before starting university in January 2020, she took a step that would have left her younger self flabbergasted: Toni chopped her hair.
Her best friend went through chemotherapy and lost her hair, so Toni decided to cut her own so they could grow it back together. Initially, she was proud of her choice, but she quickly realized how much of her confidence had been rooted in her hair. The styles and upkeep she was comfortable with were inaccessible, and to compensate, Toni changed the way she dressed to draw less attention to herself.
Her relatives initially poked fun at her. They called her a boy and asked about her hair in the jeering matter that was reminiscent of the way they’d call her too skinny when she was little. Though their eyes were bright when they made the comments, Toni absorbed their comments and their sting.
However, with her new hair came a new environment. She started at BU’s College of General Studies last January with the short hair she hadn’t yet grown accustomed to. Others didn’t know her from before, and she started noticing other Black women with short hair and bold fashion and was compelled to find that beauty within herself.
“I admired the other women and wanted that for myself,” Toni said. “So I would start experimenting with how I accessorize my hair.”
She began wearing hoop earrings again, as well as headbands and jewelry. She wore baggy and loose clothing less, and instead chose patterns and styles she enjoyed. She experimented more with makeup, and got a nose piercing. She developed confidence in herself more so than at any other time.
She carried that same confidence at university after a couple of weeks. She credits her mother, brother and friends for helping her recognize beauty within herself and encouraging her to embrace herself fully.
“If you’re defining yourself by what others think, you’re never going to be happy or satisfied. So you have to figure [beauty] out for yourself and define it.”
In second grade, Zakiah started wearing a hijab. She’d wrap her head in the black hijab with blue flowers every day for elementary school. She started off wearing big and bold headbands and eventually decided to switch to something more central to her religious identity. She would not have worded it that way in second grade, but looking back, she saw the motivator for her shift more clearly.
She adored her black hijab. Even when her parents suggested that she switch the colors, she insisted on wearing the same one. Every day from second grade to the end of middle school, she wore the single hijab.
Zakiah couldn’t point out any specific individual who inspired her decision to wear the hijab. She motivated herself and later found inspiration through Youtube channels. There she found hijabi women with various colored hijabs in different styles. In high school, Zakiah decided to make a change and retire the beloved black hijab with blue flowers and wear a pink, chiffon one instead.
Initially, she didn’t want the extra attention that came with wearing something new. Her graduating class was 100 students, so everyone was familiar with each other. However, she decided it meant more to her to embrace this change in expression and modesty than to avoid students’ eyes and questions.
“I feel like that itself was a struggle for me. I knew that when I went to school the next day, everyone was going to be like, ‘Oh my god, Zakiah has a new hijab on,” Zakiah said. “When I do something new, I feel like it’s for my modesty, so it makes it harder because it’s abnormal to people.”
Throughout her primary schooling, she received questions like, “Do you have hair?” and “Do you feel forced to wear it?” She’d be sitting in science class and peers would ask her about the hijab, and 30 minutes after explaining, they still would not believe that she willingly chose to wear it.
“Some people just won’t get it because they don’t want to get it,” Zakiah said. “I’m wearing it because I personally want to.
If I didn’t want to wear it, I just would not wear it.”
Zakiah was confident in herself and in the way she chose to express herself. She was proud of her skin, her culture—her parents being from Ghana and Togo—and her faith. However, in elementary school in the Bronx, she adapted certain behaviors to avoid fitting in to the stereotypes associated with Africans.
She developed an obsession with perfume. While proud to be African, she did not want to fit the stereotype that claimed all Africans smelled like incense. Over time, however, Zakiah grew to love perfume and used
it because she enjoyed the smell rather than using it to emphasize the absence of another.
College brought Zakiah to a larger Muslim community where she was able to share experiences and grow in faith, as well as discuss societal trends and modest fashion. Since high school, Zakiah found fashion to be an obstacle. While she wanted to keep up with the latest trends, she’d have to find or create affordable and modest alternatives.
“I feel like beauty, in my opinion, is really just your self confidence but also your comfort,” Zakiah said. “Beauty, to me as a Muslim person who also wears the hijab, also comes with modesty.”
The way she dresses is an integral part of how she chooses to express herself to others. She intentionally chooses loose-fitting clothing and is confident in them. Regardless of the season, she covers herself in such a way that honored her faith and understanding of modesty, but also leaves her feeling confident.
“Whatever you feel confident in, you should wear it regardless of what people are saying,” Zakiah said. “In society, there’s this idea that showing your skin makes you look good, but I can still be out here in a baggy sweater, some good sneakers, some baggy sweats and I’m still looking good.”
She went to a high school where there was only one other Asian girl. The two of them connected and became friends. They studied the dynamics of the school, noting how students only dated within their own race, and how they and other BIPOC students weren’t considered attractive.
“People wouldn’t really look at People of Color as beautiful,” Irene said. “All the Asians and Black people and whoever else wereas basically ostracized and isolated.”
Irene was never ashamed of being Asian, rather, she took pride in it. She accepted herself and who she was, but she struggled to find beauty within herself. Towards the end of high school, she gave up trying to bend to the standards around her. She started to forsake the trends of her peers and began choosing outfits that she enjoyed and letting her hair find its natural wave once more.
“Despite all the efforts that I made, I was always ostracized because of who I was, because of my race,” Irene said. “Because I eventually started to accept that, I started to embrace who I am. I kind of just found my way naturally.”
After an eye-opening doctor’s appointment, Irene was determined to take care of her body. She began exercising, dancing and finding ways to nurture her mental and physical health. When she came to university, she was encouraged by the diversity around her. She began embracing her Chinese American identity, her personality and her body.
She further developed her fashion and found outfits that fit her mood and made her feel confident. She started turning music on and dancing in her dorm room to express herself and find enjoyment through movement. Her social media feed included more and more diverse accounts and individuals.
On rough days, Irene would force herself to look in the mirror and try to imagine viewing herself from someone else’s perspective instead of fixating on the parts that she wasn’t pleased with. She said she recently started to love her body.
“I don’t want anybody to ever feel what I felt [growing up], so for me, to treat people how they should be treated makes me feel like a really beautiful person,” Irene said.
Irene felt pressure to live up to American beauty standards and Asian beauty standards simultaneously. She avoided the sun to keep her skin pale, she’d pinch her nose to try to keep it flat, and when she was around 10 years old, her aunt tried to smooth out her hair’s waves with a perm. That perm, while accomplishing the straightness her aunt desired, damaged Irene’s hair.
When she was little, she was borderline overweight, and continued to grow into a bigger frame. Family and peers called her fat. The popular images of those around her—both American and Asian—emphasized thinness as beautiful.
In middle school, peers regularly made passing jokes about her weight and acne. The comments added up and stuck with her long after they were uttered. She tried to find acceptance and would wear brands like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch and style her hair with trendying accessories. She didn’t feel like herself, but she wanted to find some sense of belonging.
I built this image of ethereal beauty and swore I’d achieve it. Every inch of my being would grow into this pure, benevolent figure with narrow hips, a narrow nose, and a thin lipped smile revealing perfectly pink gums and white teeth. This was the image I was certain I’d be, one I bound myself to as I saw it dance around me on television and into my dreams.
She was gentle, demure and always giving from an endless well of energy and wealth. At least, these are the attributes I believed she possessed and hoped that I one day would too—almost as much as I hoped to obtain her beauty. This perfect and beautiful version of myself looked nothing like me, but as a child, I had faith that I would grow into her with her long limbs and pale skin.
There was a summer when I became too dark to become her. I was swimming with my best friend in her blue, inflatable pool when she pointed out the ebony my skin had grown into—one that almost matched my mother’s. I think back on it now and I wish I could envelop myself in sunlight and truth. But that moment evoked a deep fear within me. I asked my mother what happened to my skin and she told me that that’s what happened when I spent time in the sun. She told me I was beautiful, but I could only see a blackness that my friends couldn’t help but point out as if it were unnatural in comparison to the red, flaking skin that summertime donned them in.
I didn’t think of my mother’s beauty, or my aunties’ beauty, or any of the family friends whose complexions were darker and far more lovely than the images around me. I only saw whiteness and my lack of it.
The ideal of beauty felt further from me and I began feeling shame that I attached to my skin. Yet, this ideal beauty beckoned me to try harder—I would simply have to avoid the sun to be closer to her.
When I got braces, I noticed my gums were dark. I feared it was something detrimental occuring and grappled to understand how my orthodontist and dentist had missed it. I figured that I could fix it through brushing my teeth and gums more frequently.
When I finally voiced this concern to my dentist, he told me that my gums were healthy and that the darker pigmentation was a common feature of “African Americans.” I wanted to shrivel in the dentist chair. I wanted, no, needed my gums to be pink. That was a small and simple detail in this ideal I had created and yearned for.
Not long after, my body began to swell in ways my peers did not. Soft curves formed and wandering hands brushed against them. I told myself that if I were thinner, I would have been spared these unwanted touches, and viewed as someone pretty, rather than a mere curiosity. I blamed myself.
I grew to hate the flesh adorning my thighs that gently nudged one another with every step. I so desperately wanted to evolve into something, someone slim and elegant, just like those around me were doing with an effortlessness I was growing to envy. Their limbs elongated while mine remained short. I began to despise the muscle wrapping my bones and the fat that lingered alongside it. I would contort my body if it wouldn’t naturally grow into the expectations of beauty I had internalized.
I took up running. I removed entire food groups from my diet. I purged when I felt I ate too much. That definition of “too much” began to look like less and less. As the number on the scale shrinked, the compliments increased. In a cruel way, the shame did too. So I ran more, tried to eat less, and sprinkled in religious fervor to my veneer of health. I called my restrictive diet fasting and my excessive exercise taking care of the “temple” that was my body. I used a blanket of rhetoric to moralize the shame that compelled me to act against my every instinct. Friends and teachers applauded me—it seemed like only my parents were concerned. For the sake of the ethereal beauty I’d imagined long ago, I willingly subjected myself to fatigue and hunger.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I realized that my imaginings of perfect feminine beauty were a distorted image that lauded proximity to whiteness and Eurocentric features.
I never built the image. Rather, the image of skewed perfection superimposed itself upon every popular image of success and instilled its doctrine of Eurocentric features within my young, malleable mind. I thought this ideal was one I myself had construed, but only after I spent years trying to contort my body to fit into its mold, I realized the demon of white supremacy this alleged beauty was rooted in.
It was liberating recognizing that I could accept my body and its figure: embodying the acceptance took far longer.
Deconstructing notions of beauty and garnering an understanding of true beauty—one that’s inclusive of features and sizes I was taught to despise—proved tedious but liberating.
My freshman year of college left me in internal turmoil. I had gained weight after spending the past six years trying so desperately to lose it. One night in December I called my mom, sobbing inconsolably.
I couldn’t make peace with myself and who I was becoming. I felt like I didn’t have an image to grow towards.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I adopted the radical notion of listening to my body. I began to slowly trust my body and myself in ways I had not known to be possible. No expectations, no judgement—these were the new goals.
In my junior year, I finally began seeing beauty within myself on a daily basis. I began looking at myself in the mirror with a sense of awe; I was humbled by how my body endured the mistreatment I had inflicted upon her. I spent so long working against her, but she was resilient and forgiving. My melanated skin embraced my muscle, bone and fat like a blanket. That example encouraged my mind to accept and embrace them too.
My skin, my curves, my hair that refuses to lie flat—all of them became beautiful and worthy in my eyes. The flesh on my thighs, in my cheeks, and on my belly became dollops of softness deserving of love rather than faulty parts requiring change. I never thought such a view was possible unless I fit the definition of beauty whiteness praised.
Every inch of my being grew into this beautiful, benevolent figure of wide hips and dark gums. The person I became and the one I am becoming are bound to no image, but free to grow into whatever figure or form.