Last year, we started hosting candid conversations with black women in our community, through which we explored their relationships with their bodies and the experiences that have shaped their perceptions of beauty and self. In this excerpt from our conversation, Aziza Allen explores her desires—the desire to be desired, to be seen, known, and heard—and how healing has gifted her the power of choice and Truth.
What are some of your earliest memories or experiences that shaped your concept of beauty?
The first thing that comes to mind is—I was at my grandmother’s house, and she has this shoebox full of old photos, and in the box were photos of my mom getting ready for prom. So there was this huge DMX poster in the background, and my mom in her crazy, pink and purple and black dress, putting on her makeup in the mirror. At that point, I was super young. I must have been like six or seven? I just remember looking like, “Oh I can’t wait to get really pretty one day.” It’s—“My mom has done it, my grandmother’s done it. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to do that.”
I still have that photo in my house. It’s framed now.
You grew up as an only child for most of your life, right? During those years, do you remember any experiences with your mom that shaped how you started to think about womanhood and beauty?
My mom, I just knew she was beautiful because of the aura about herself, the way she carried herself. In fact, it was never about the clothes or makeup. I remember, my mom was in between jobs and things were getting super hard, and so she was going on tons of interviews, and she only had one suit. She came and picked me up from after-school care and I did this heinous thing. I pulled her to the side, after like the third day in a row, and I was like “Mom, you can’t wear the same suit, people are gonna think we’re poor.” This was when we didn’t have anything. This was when we lived in Compton, and she clearly was just trying to be an incredible mother.
And so I remember her never being flashy. Everything that was beautiful about my mother, and the things I learned about womanhood were lessons on poise and sacrifice, and just being steady. Even if my mom wasn’t steady, I would have never known. It was this, like, “I’m collected and I’m calm and this is a problem, but it will be solved.” And that’s where I’ve taken on that whole approach to life, especially as it pertains to womanhood. If I’m going through something, it’s just like “Well, let’s get gritty, let’s take care of this.” And I associated that with womanhood subconsciously for so long. To me, it’s kind of like a rite of passage to see adversity and address it with poise.
How about now that you have two younger sisters? They’re both chocolate-skinned. With them looking up to you, have you had any instances where they’ve made comments about their skin or their hair? That’s one question. Secondly, do you feel they’ve experienced a different side of your mom now that your family is in a different place than they were when you were growing up?
Yeah. They have just shown me so much more about different beauty concepts. I know for sure, when I was growing up, I wanted to be white. I didn’t really enjoy who I was and what I looked like, you know, in middle school and forward. But with them, I’ve been able to see it from so young, and it’s heartbreaking. Being with them has really forced me to reckon with my own beauty, to be an example for them. I remember I had weave in—a nice good, healthy sixteen to eighteen inches—and my sister was like “Your hair grew so fast!” And I’m like “Oh no, this is fake hair.” And she was like, “Well I wish I had that.” And I was like [screams], like Oh my God. Now she’s gonna hate herself. And I took the weave out like, that week.
Oooh girl, that’s money.
I would’ve been like “Aw, nah sis, don’t do that”—
Do as I say, not as I do! [Both laugh]. But I took it out because just ... the way she was looking at me. She was just awestruck and she thought I was so beautiful and she didn’t feel that way about herself.
And the way my mom interacts with them … I think it’s just completely different because we’re like fifteen years apart. My mom is a different woman today than she was fifteen years ago, right? And rightfully so. And they just have so much more access to stuff. Like I come into their room and they are on Youtube looking at makeup tutorials, ok? Like my sister Chloe, she loves makeup. She can do a smokey eye better than me, and I’m not even exaggerating. And I’m like bro, what in the world? I snuck eyeliner in the tenth grade. I didn’t even know what was going on.
So I think beauty looks a lot different for them. They have a lot more access to trends and whatever else. It’s just very different for them. And so it worries me, but at the same time the sister in me is like I’m so happy you’re exploring yourself at eight. That’s really encouraging to me.
I remember you telling the story once, on this panel, about this experience you had in middle school where you would take the yearbooks and scratch your nose out of it. [Yeah.] Was this after you had moved from Compton?
Oh for sure. So I never fit in no matter where I was. My mother was so adamant about—it keeps coming back to this—but just poise, respect, and honor. And when I was in Compton, I wasn’t like the other kids in that way. But when I got to Texas, suburban Texas, that’s when it was like, “Oh, something’s really wrong with me.”
There were two black girls, and one African-American guy and one African guy—those were the only brown people in my school from grades fifth to eighth. And I just remember wishing to be desired. That’s what I wished. And I didn’t feel desired. I hated anything that had to do with who I was instinctively. My face—ok, my nose is bigger than everyone’s. My hair—I have to wrap my hair whenever I go spend the night at your house. I just remember waiting til everyone went to sleep to put my bonnet on and then then taking it off before they wake up [laughs].
I remember asking my dad on one of my birthdays for a Marilyn Monroe poster, and my dad is like super pro-black. He’s like absolutely not. I was like “You just don’t understand me.” I was like—I had a skateboard, I was listening to rock music. The whole nine yards. I went in.
[Laughs] Now I did love All-American Rejects. They had some bangers.
[Laughs] What’s that other one? Panic! At the Disco? Those were my boys. Death Cab for Cutie? I remember.
They were a bop. [Both laugh].
But yeah, you can just pinpoint those times where it was like … I don’t—it’s more than not feeling like you fit in, because I had friends. I was extroverted. But it was more of, in that adolescent phase, where people are starting to like each other, and now you had dances at school. I always knew that I wasn’t desirable in that way. And that really set me up for craziness going forth. When people started spitting game at me? I did not know what to do with myself. It was a total 180. And it carried on into college.
When I traveled to Uganda, in my group there was me, two other black people who were dark-skinned—everybody thought they were Ugandan—and everybody else was white. So I’m like I’m going to Africa. It’s my first time on the continent. I’m going to meet my people! But all the men were enamored with white beauty, still. It’s like even among “my people,” I still wasn’t desirable in the face of white beauty.
How has your image evolved over the years, with your self-esteem, the opinions of others, or your personal well-being?
When I cut all my hair off, the second time, I was going through it. I was in the sunken place. I specifically remember just getting up and doing my hair, and I didn’t want to put the perm back in, because I really missed my curls. I knew I needed to get the perm in order for the style to work, but I missed my curls. But the deeper thing was, I was missing something about myself that I hadn’t seen in a while.
I had just—maybe eight to ten months before that—I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship. And I just remember completely losing myself. I didn’t feel like anything belonged to me. I felt like everything I thought I knew about myself had just been stripped away and I was just left there. Not even to pick up pieces, but to be bare.
And so that transition was more of like, like you said, an outward manifestation of what I felt inside. I felt bare, and then I felt hideous with my hair. People are like, “It’s so liberating, you just learn to walk in your truth.” I was like—box braids. Like as soon as it can grab this inch and a half of hair, I’m getting box braids. And I had my hair covered up for forever ... until my friend came over and took scissors to my hair and cut like four braids off. So we took out my hair. It was very therapeutic. We took out my braids—like three of my friends were over—she washed my hair over the sink like my mother did. She was like, “Ok, go get in the shower, stop crying, go rinse out your hair.” And I just remember looking in the mirror after, and being like, “Well, this is who I am. This is what I have right now.” And so, I had to learn to love it. I was gonna fake it til I made it.
But then I ended up loving my curly pixie cut. I owned it. My style changed, my clothes changed. My makeup changed. The way I carried myself changed ... It’s so odd what we do with our hair. It’s like you get to be somebody else. It’s like a door into another iteration of self. And so right now, I don’t really know what my hair is saying about me, but I feel like I’m ready for something different. Whenever my mind is hazy, or I’m itching for change, the first thing I think about is my hair.
How do you think—I remember you describing your book, and saying that you turned to writing in a time when you felt like you weren’t being heard. Who did you feel wasn’t listening?
I think the cookie-cutter answer is “The Patriarchy” or “I didn’t feel like I could be a woman”—but like, the honest answer is I didn’t feel like I could be my entire self. I didn’t feel like I could bring my whole self into church. There were just so many expectations of modesty, and of meekness, and I had been letting other people define what those words meant for me—based on tradition, based on what people are used to seeing, what is desirable, what is palatable. And I just knew that I didn’t fit it. It’s like when you go outside and you’re wearing shoes that are five sizes too small for you—people notice. Everybody knows. Everybody knows that you’re doing a dinosaur claw over your shoe and you still don’t care!
And so, I didn’t feel seen or known or heard. Even in trying to communicate that, like, “Hey, I don’t feel any less closer to God when I wear this, or write this, or do this,” … and so that’s when I went into writing, because it was a place where I could just say what I felt.
I just let myself be different, for the first time. I let my thoughts be different. I let my words be different. I let my dress be different. I found my voice in that way, where I was finally comfortable not being the same as everyone around me.
How have you navigated that? What tends to happen for a lot of people, when they’re in a space of rediscovering themselves, is that they become bent on becoming the necessary opposite of everything “they” said you should be. How do you navigate that, while knowing that as a Christian woman, it’s a bit of a different process?
I think that’s exactly where I am right now—that pivot of like ... Ok. I’m pretty pissed off, like I’m not sad anymore, I’m just angry that I bowed to a lot of different people’s opinions. And so the desire is to do the jerk-back and be like, “Well I’m not doing anything y’all do—it’s ALL wrong.” But it’s clear that that’s an immature reaction. It’s one built off emotion and what I think. My own perceptions. So right now, I read the Bible a lot. It looks like reading the Bible a lot. Because that’s my source of what’s true about me. It’s just a lot of questioning that has been going on. Why do you believe that? Is it because you’ve been through something and you’re taking these self-protective vows to not engage in that? Is it because you’re scared? Why do you believe what you believe? And that clears up so much and it frees me to be … to be.
How did your family, friends, past/current lovers, or other influential figures in your life shape your sense of self?
I’ve never been in a relationship where I haven’t been cheated on. Like at all. Like not one. And every single time, you’re thinking “It can’t be.” Like “I must be enough. I’m doing really well. I am enough.” And then you find out blatantly, or otherwise, that you weren’t. And so I vividly remember just always being second-best. Who I was and what I had to offer was simply not enough. And I took that into every sphere—so I excelled in school because of it, I took on extra projects or what have you to impress my parents, because I so wanted to be enough. My dad wasn’t there growing up. I might have seen him every few years, but then after age six-ish, he was just completely gone. And so that was another reminder of not being enough: I’m not enough for you to stay, I’m not enough for you to want me. And for my mother, it was more of like, “I’m gonna make sure that I’m enough. I’m going to perform well.”
And then on the flipside, in my last relationship—the one I noted about abuse—I stayed because I needed to be enough. He had a mental illness. And I’m trying to prove that I can help him, that I can save him, that I’m enough for him to get better. Or that I’m reason enough for him to get better. And so that need continued to manifest itself in different ways, in various relationships.
If you could send a letter to your younger self, what would you tell her?
Like younger, how? What age?
Honestly, you have the liberty to define that however you want—whether that’s at five-years-old, or as recent as last year.
Yeah [pauses] so it would be to like the nineteen- or twenty-year-old Aziza. And it’s really just concerning receiving love and looking for love. I would tell her that she has a choice. Just because someone expresses a desire for you, doesn’t mean that you have to oblige. When someone is offering you love, it’s okay to say “no.” I think that that girl ... like her happiness and her peace rested on the desire of other people, for her. Completely. And if someone expressed even a little bit of desire, it’s almost as if she’d grasp that because she didn’t know if it was gonna show back up again.
What were or are some pivotal moments + defining truths that have changed the way you see yourself?
So this is why I wrote my book, Whole. Something that gives me peace—I’m very prone to anxiety. That’s right where I go, like immediately when things aren’t the way I perceive they should be. And so, allowing myself to be okay with the process has freed me beyond words. You will be imperfect and working on something until Christ returns. That is the inevitable truth, so enjoy the journey. When you’re addressing something, you will be in the breaking. You will be in that space where it hurts beyond words. But that time will end and you’ll learn what healing for that specific thing looks like. And then you’ll learn how to be happy about that and use that and let that be a light inside of you, and even a trophy ... or like a book in your library of life. You will always be becoming, and if you can be at peace with that, knowing that every single thing you are walking through is a part of that becoming, then you will be ok.
I’m so grateful for how far I’ve come in my identity. I’m finally in a place where, yeah there are some quirks or some things I’m working on, but I finally feel proud of myself. There are no other words more important to me than, “I’m proud of you.” And I feel like that’s what the Lord is saying.
To learn more about this project or read our other interviews, click here. Then, join the conversation! Use the hashtags #aboutfaceproject and #blackgirlmiracle to share your own stories of beauty and becoming with us.