Essence Magazine October 2005
Article by Rhonda Ross
In the shadow of the stunning: as the daughter of a woman famed for her good looks, the author was blind to her own beauty for years. Not anymore
Essence, Oct, 2005 by Rhonda Ross.
Recently The New York Times Magazine published a pictorial entitled "It's All in the Genes." My mother and I were invited to participate and answer questions. One was, "When did you first become aware that your mother was considered a great beauty?" I realized that I don't remember when I first knew it. I only remember feeling that she was and I wasn't.
Whether onstage, posing at a photo shoot or coming out of the shower, Diana Ross is a stunning woman. As a child. I would watch, mesmerized, as she got ready to perform. putting on her lipstick or false eyelashes. Then I and my two sisters, Tracee and Chudney, would sit in the audience and sing along at her nightly concerts. Just before the show ended, the three of us would run backstage to meet Mom in the wings, always excited to see that magnificence up close.
Of the three daughters, I was always told that I looked the most like our mother. But backstage I never got the accolades my sisters received. It still amazes me that no matter how loud my mother's crowded dressing room became. I could always hear the voices that praised my sisters' looks over my own. "Isn't Tracee a knockout!" and "You watch my words, that Chudney is going to be a model."
My sisters and I do not share the same biological father. They are biracial. I am not. Although older than my sisters, I was shorter, and my skin was darker, and my facial features were more ancestral. By adolescence I had become an athlete, so as my sisters grew tall and slim, I developed huge leg muscles, which I was ashamed of. As my sisters' hair swayed in the breeze. I religiously ran to get mine relaxed. Sure, our mother had taught us that good character was more important than good looks, but the world had taught me to prize the physical. No one cared that I was funny, intelligent, dependable and kind. No one ever planned my career before the camera, because society's definition of attractiveness did not include me.
I saw the evidence of that in music videos and commercials, and on magazine covers. Tall, White or light-skinned women with long flowing hair were heralded as images of perfection. I loved swimming underwater because there my hair became soft and swayed in slow motion around my face and shoulders, just like my sisters'. As soon as I came up for air, however, I alone was summoned by older relatives to get out of the sun so I wouldn't get "too dark." I prayed to be lighter, to be taller, for my nose to be slimmer, to have my hair always behave as it did underwater.
Finally realizing the futility of it all, I gave up. By high school. I had stopped competing in society's beauty pageant and made up rules of my own. In my contest my mother's teaching prevailed: A "good personality" won all the prizes. Intelligence was applauded and strength praised. I read everything from Aristotle to Maya Angelou. I became a Democrat, a liberal, a feminist. I was on the track team, the gymnastics team, the volleyball team. I shunned the pretty, popular kids and gravitated toward the outsiders: the poets, the scientists, the ones who were good at math.
I carried my "good personality" consolation prize with me to college, where my racial consciousness expanded. I studied Black history, Black literature and Black politics. Unfortunately my deeper understanding of my history did not create in me a deeper understanding of my beauty. I still thought my skin was too dark and my hair was too nappy. It wasn't until I graduated that my journey to self-love began.
I met Rodney Kendrick, my future husband, six months after graduation. Before him, all my boyfriends had been White. With them. I would find myself defending my Afrocentric fashion choices and wasting hour upon hour explaining the nature and texture of my hair. But Rodney is a big, bold, bodacious Black man. He looked at my kinky hair and brown skin and saw his mother, his sisters, himself. He told me I was beautiful and introduced me to brilliant, exquisite artists who celebrate being just as God created them. Then through Rodney's 86-year-old mother, Juet, I discovered the Black church. Experiencing the time-honored prayers, praise songs and dances that we trace all the way back to Africa took my breath away!
An inner revolution was occurring. It became more and more clear to me that loving myself was part of loving God. After all, I was made in God's image. What a shame that my self-worth had been so twisted by society's portrayal of beauty that I had been unable to see the value in what God had given me. Suddenly I understood how narrow my definitions of beauty had been. It wasn't society's responsibility to love my skin, my hair, my body. It was mine! I didn't have to change my physical appearance; I just had to change my mind. And that's just what I did. I began comparing my looks to those of my ancestors: bold, strong and unapologetically dark. Instead of straightening my hair, I grew locks: bold, strong and unapologetically long. And for the first time in my life I felt whole.
Though I now love what I see in the mirror, I don't rely upon it. My outer appearance is bolstered by my strength of character and my faith in God. So as I stood posing for the Times. I felt that my life had come full circle. Here I was, the daughter with the "good personality," posing with my mother. the "great beauty." Yet I, too, felt beautiful because I had finally learned to love myself.
Rhonda Ross is a writer, vocalist and Emmy-nominated actress. She and her husband, jazz pianist Rodney Kendrick, have been together for 12 years. Their most recent albums are top sellers on CDbaby.com and other music sites.