Maisha Howze (contributer) was going to be the featured speaker at our Recognition Event this year. However, due to Covid-19, we had to cancel this event. We are honored that Ms. Howze agreed to compose a special blog about beauty written specifically for Minority Mental Health Month 2020. (More about Maisha can be found after the blog.)
In today’s society, the outside appearance is very important to many people. We see it often: people focus on the ‘right’ filters and angles, the retake of a simple photo of friends and family at a social event can result in several retakes for people to ‘feel’ as though a good picture was taken before it can be posted on social media…some people have endured the pain of surgery to enhance their outside beauty. Others refuse to be seen without make-up, hair extensions, or hair dye. In 2018, the beauty industry was valued at $532 billion and is certain to continue to rise. There is a ridiculous number of companies (182), but they are only owned by 7 major leaders. It seems as if this is a one-sided industry controlled by an ‘elite’ who decide what is considered ‘beautiful’ for everyone else.
Although I do not believe the beauty industry strives to exploit insecurities or perpetuate the idea that people cannot present their natural selves. For those who may already have an existing internal struggle with self-worth, the need to be accepted by social beauty standards are at significant risk.
I believe this very thing has happened to many in the African American community. So many of us were conditioned to believe that a certain look is most acceptable by society. In some respects, some feel inferior if their natural look does not align with who they see on television or in the entertainment industry. The thought that ‘light is right’ led to many people using bleaching creams or an abundance of make-up on their skin. The thought that straight hair was somehow ‘right’ led to many people using chemicals to alter their naturally kinky hair. The thought that a thinner nose was ‘right’ led to many people having rhinoplasty (plastic surgery of the nose). The thought that a smaller waistline is ‘right’ led to many ‘tummy tucks.’ These are all things done to be more acceptable in society’s view. The struggle that some African Americans must be accepted or at the very least not be viewed in an unfavorable way can be a heavy burden to carry. The struggle with trying to appear ‘acceptable’ and still have the mental and emotional capacity to cope with your own internal struggles can lead to unstable health.
There is a lot of time and money focused on enhancements and ‘being beautiful’ on the outside. Enhancements are not a bad thing, but when this is done to cover-up issues that you are struggling with internally, it can be very detrimental. When you consistently cover-up who you are and what you are truly dealing with, it may be hard for others to see beyond your created self. Some say, ‘presentation is everything,’ but what does this really mean? Is the person’s presentation a true representation of who they are? Or are they covering up internal struggles?
Internal struggles can be past or present trauma, mental health and/or substance use challenges, familial discord, grief, disappointments, loss…the list goes on and on. These issues are at times buried so deep within the person it can be very difficult to recognize. Then the focus on external presentation may inhibit the ability to recognize a person’s issues may seem near impossible. But if you take the time to ‘insert a pause’ when interacting with people, you may be able to see beyond their ‘look.‘
As you journey through each day, do you take the time to truly see the person in front of you? Do you challenge yourself to go beyond the surface of what others may present? This is challenging, but it can be accomplished. This act of humility and compassion may literally save the person’s life. There are people that are truly suffering from internal warfare; they get up every day, go to work/school, interact with others, care for their siblings/children, care for parents/grandparents, attend church, participate in social activities – but because of their outside presentation, others would never know internal struggles exist.
Truth be told, that person was me! About 15 years ago, I was struggling with constant thoughts of suicide and even those closest to me had no idea.
They had no idea that I had daily thoughts of taking my own life.
In fact, people would often tell me that I looked like I always had it all together. That could not have been further from the truth. At times I felt like I was drowning, but if you were only focused on my outside appearance, you would never have known. I was a single parent of twins, in college, and working multiple jobs. But I was spiritually, mentally, physically, and emotionally drained.
I also had not healed from previous self-esteem issues. As a young person, I was teased because of my physical appearance; this was very difficult for me. I thought I had moved past those feelings of inadequacy and ‘not measuring up’ to those societal norms of beauty. On the outside, I had a ‘good presentation’ and I was sure to walk with my head held high. It was a struggle, but I felt forced to do so.
I was too afraid to let my head down even a little bit or miss a beat, because then others would know that I didn’t have it all together.
It can be a suffocating feeling to think that you must always ‘be on,’ not trip or allow others to see the vulnerability in you. I challenge you to not view this as a ‘trip,’ but as a calculated step towards healing. The healing process is taken step-by-step. You cannot approach your process without being honest with yourself first about those internal issues that you are struggling with, the challenges we try to cover-up and hide from others.
I am grateful that someone was able to see beyond my outside appearance. This person was not concerned with the origin of my issues, but instead that I start taking care of myself and begin the healing process. She could see that I was dealing with an internal struggle. Although she was not certain where my internal struggles came from, she was able to be supportive and help me through my inner turmoil. Her concern was not the where, but how I would transition from my place of hurt and when I would begin my process of healing.
Fast forward to now. I recently published a book entitled W.A.S.H. (Withstand All Strife to Heal): Time to Do YOUR Laundry. W.A.S.H. is designed to help the reader move from a place of withstanding the strife they have endured to a place of healing.
In the book, I talk about two different types of ‘stains’ (issues/concerns): ‘laundry stains’ and ‘life stains.’ Laundry stains are marks, possibly from ‘dirt’ that is not easily removed. Life stains are issues/concerns that have caused damage to you emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, etc. It is the life stains that some people strive so hard to cover up on the outside.
As a community, WE have a responsibility to support others through their healing.
Much like a laundry stain can spread and begin to negatively impact the other fabric in the laundry basket, this too can happen when someone in your community has a life stain that has begun to negatively impact them. Issues that a person is fighting internally can have a tremendous impact on the community. Internal struggles can manifest in different ways: unhealthy thoughts and actions, such as drug and alcohol use/abuse, unstable/untreated mental health conditons, criminal behavior, and a lack of attention to personal needs (employment, housing, children, etc.), just to name a few.
We know that the beauty industry, social media, and societal norms of a person’s appearance will most likely continue to be superficial. We know that many will continue to struggle internally and try to cover up their inner turmoil with perceived outside beauty. BUT, we also know THERE IS HOPE. There is hope that as a community, we can support those who struggle internally and support them on their healing journey to love themselves.
The time you invest in ‘seeing’ a person beyond their look can be invaluable and literally save their life.
About the Author: Maisha Howze has worked in the social services field for more than 20 years. She is currently the Administrator of Allegheny Co. Bureau of Drug & Alcohol Services. Ms. Howze is the owner of In Touch Consulting, LLC and the author of W.A.S.H.: Time to Do YOUR Laundry (see below). Maisha is passionate about community, healing, and mentoring young women. Special thanks to Maisha for sharing part of herself and her wisdom in this amazing blog.