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, sisters Ra’chel Bowie and Rashon (Shona) Seals compare their experiences growing up, and discuss how their faith has transformed the way they see themselves in the world.
What are some of your earliest memories or experiences that shaped your concept of beauty?
Ra’chel: So I have two answers. One answer is, my mom would take us out and do very girly things. We would do photos shoots and we would go to museums and she would educate us about these different things. We would do lunch dates, and she would buy us all of the girly stuff and she would show us responsibility. She would bake cookies from scratch and things like that. And that kind of just taught me this sense of just—to the smallest degree—about womanhood, and to me I thought it was beautiful.
But at the same time—my mom would tell me that I’m beautiful, my dad would tell me that I’m beautiful—but the first time I think I remember what the world taught me about beauty was someone telling me that they thought I was beautiful for a dark skin girl. One, that taught me that I was dark—because I didn’t feel that way. But I was introduced to that idea that being dark was not beautiful, and that I was an exception. That was one of the first things that made me look at myself in a different way.
I continued to hear that in high school, not as much, but then in my adult life I heard it the most … Girl, there’s literally somebody in my office and she calls me “pretty.” She does not know my name. She walks by my desk everyday—“Hey pretty.” I hate it. I cringe. Because pretty to me is so superficial, and beauty to me comes from the inside out.
Shona: I would say my first experience with beauty—I saw beauty first outwardly. Like, if you dress really nice. I was super obsessed with my mother when I was younger, and one thing she always did was dress very nicely and smell really good. So those two things were my first [memories]. And then secondly, honestly … the white, slim-faced, smaller-framed person—that was from when I was younger as well. Those two things are what drove what I thought was beautiful.
Ra’chel: And I can add to that too, just you even bringing that up, I’m thinking about the women in our family. I have a lot of older cousins, and everybody—regardless of what their bank account looked like, they weren’t out buying the newest Fendi or things like that—but they were always put together and kept. I would look at them like, “Wow, that’s what it means to be a beautiful woman and a lady.” Your hair’s done, you’re put together, and you do girly things, and that’s beautiful. But now, as an adult looking back, it’s just interesting how we take things in as children and the projection of what beauty looked like—it was always outward appearance. But that’s actually a very destructive way of thinking, because you build your life outwardly, and you basically mask yourself. That’s scary.
Do you feel like you two had different experiences [with beauty] growing up?
Shona: I can absolutely say, my sister and I had two different experiences. And we’re both dark-skinned/brown-skinned—
Ra’chel: But see, even that. Even that alone—
Shona: Which is amazing because like I said earlier, when you asked me about my earliest memories about beauty, it was white skin, petite frame, and things like that. And so growing up, though, I didn’t look at myself as being a dark-skinned—
Ra’chel: You weren’t.
Shona: I am dark-skinned.
Ra’chel: Shona, you’ve grown darker but honey, you were—you said “a dark-skinned” like you’re white.
Shona: What I mean is, because it’s like a lot of people feel less than because of their skin complexion. I did not. I was hanging out with all different types of races. I did not look at my skin like “Oh well I’m different than them, so I feel less than.” That just was not in my heart, you know?
Ra’chel: Mom did really well with that.
Shona: Which is interesting, which is why I say we had two different experiences …
Ra’chel: For my experience, I wasn’t—I didn’t look at light-skinned or dark-skinned, because as a kid I just didn’t have words for it. I hear that as you age, some people get darker, so as a kid, Shona was actually lighter than what she is now. And so, I would see the attention that she would get because she was lighter or because of her hair—from older cousins, who would tell her, “Oh you’re so pretty.” Because you’ve got long hair, or your hair texture is a certain way. And so as a kid, I felt like I was treated differently because I was darker—by family members.
Shona: So even with me and my sister, like our family would say how beautiful she is, but growing up she would have certain nicknames—I can attest to that. Which I believe did make us have different experiences growing up. I definitely believe that. But honestly, I mean, the conversation as I grew up around being dark-skinned—even when I was around that conversation, I did not feel like that was me. And again, it could’ve been because of, you know like Ra’chel said, when I was a kid I never was subject to that constantly, someone talking to me and pointing out my skin color.
“To not recognize us by name … There’s a part of that, like what happened even with slavery, it’s still in that same spirit of erasing us.” — Shona
Ra’chel: Now the first racism I experienced in Ohio was while I was working at Bob Evans, and this lady wanted to know “what boat my family got off of,” because I was so beautiful...It’s like, so...what you just did was—
Shona: That’s how they talk. I remember—
Ra’chel: Honey, I didn’t even realize it was racist. My cousin was like “What did she say to you?” because she worked there too. I didn’t even have a grid for that at that time.
Shona: Yeah, so, the older people, they do think like that. Back in the day, when we were living in Georgia, we had a substitute teacher in middle school. She was like seventy-five [laughs]. No, I’m joking—anyway, she would call all the black kids “boy,” and “girl.” She wouldn’t use our names. She would say, “Boy, come over here,” or “Guh, come over here.” But for the white kids, she would say their names.
Ra’chel: That’s deep.
Shona: And she really felt like she had a right to, and she didn’t understand what was wrong with it. I have talked with older people—older white people and older black people, and they are … they were brought up in a culture where this was normal. To not recognize us by name. That’s deep, though. There’s a part of that, like what happened even with slavery, it’s still in that same spirit of erasing us. The devil, he did overtime with that. Clearly.
I don’t feel like we have to have God and our blackness separate. He made me black, and it’s beautiful. — Ra'chel
As believers, we are obviously supposed to be listening for the voice of God and not trying to mirror what the world is saying. But that’s why it’s so important to even know that God has something to say about these things. I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric in the church that says, “You should be more Christian than you are black,” or “You’re a Christian who happens to be black...” I get the sentiment. Our allegiance is to Christ above the culture, but for many black women growing up with some of the experiences we’ve had, to hear that we just “happen to be black,” like it was an accident, just reinforces some of the lies I believed as a child, feeling like I got the short end of the stick.
God gave me the phrase “Black Girl Miracle” a few years ago when I was living in South Africa and a friend invited me to participate in his story slam. The theme was perception, and around that time the Lord had brought the memory of me praying to be white as a child back to the forefront of my consciousness. And so I decided to write about perceptions of beauty and toward the end I wrote, “...it’s not magic, it’s a miracle, because my blackness is not a sleight of hand or conjured up...” But literally, when God formed me and sent me into the Earth, He decided to put me in this frame.
Ra’chel: Now that you say that, I remember as a child, I wanted to know why I was black. I’d seen the good things about blackness as far as family, I love my family. But just in society, I didn’t really see us received or respected in the same regard as other people. I do believe it’s important to be proud and to be comfortable with the skin that you’re in. Society has already put nails in all of our backs and counted us out and written us off for so many different things, and … I don’t feel like we have to have God and our blackness separate. He made me black, and it’s beautiful. I don’t have to start, you know—even with the “White Lives Matter,”—I get it. God loves us all. But what I’m saying is that my black is beautiful, and my life matters too. I’m a Christian, but I also know that I am African-American. I’m proud of being African-American, and I can’t say that I always felt that way.
I was mad at God, as a child. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t white, or why I wasn’t mixed. I was like, so I think I’m adopted. I think—I think I’m either kidnapped, or a mistake was made, because I shouldn’t have been in this family. I thought like that as a kid. I literally, I was like there’s no way. You messed up. You made a mistake—one, because I’m black, and two because you put me in the U.S. Like as a kid, I’m like there’s so much more to this world and You got me in the U.S.?—
Shona: And it’s so funny. It’s so funny because I was like the complete opposite of that. I wasn’t even thinking about stuff like that as a young girl. I was outside playing kickball, like—
Ra’chel: I did too. I did that too. I remember mom—
Shona: I loved that I was born here. I was so happy [laughs].
Ra’chel: I mean, I was grateful, because I realized we were privileged in certain ways, but I mean I was about ten, or less than ten thinking that way. I remember we were about to move, and my mom was looking for a house and she wanted us to get into a good school, and I’m like—can we just move out of the country? Can we move out of the state? We can just leave it all behind.
Shona: Did you get that from Aunt Regina, always traveling out the country, living in other places?
Ra’chel: I don’t think so … I just think, I think it’s just how I’m made up. I think maybe because I wasn’t raised by my biological father, and just always really being obsessed with the meaning behind everything, and I don’t know if it’s because of that? But just as a child, I was very big on the purpose behind things—the purpose for why we live, the purpose for why, you know, why did God create me? If He created me, then why did He make me black?
Shona: Yeah, she was always much more mature in her thinking—Ra’chel was.
Ra’chel: I don’t know if that was necessarily more mature, I was just—
Shona: No, that’s very mature for a child [laughs] I don’t think there’s children out there—well nowadays they’re probably thinking like that.
Ra’chel: Right, some of these kids got a PhD.
Shona: I was like, not thinking like that at all. But like you said, you mentioned the father thing. I also had—well we both had my father. But that’s a good connection—how you connected it. That’s some deep stuff right there Ra’chel.
The Lord resting upon you, and in you—that’s beauty, to be honest. And I love that, because there’s no comparison in that. Everybody can tap into faith. — Shona
How has your faith impacted your outlook on beauty?
Shona: Becoming a believer has really impacted my outlook on beauty. I still believe in being kept and put together, but now I believe beauty has everything to do with having a servant’s heart—to be able to look past your own self—that’s a beautiful thing … Yeah, I can honestly say that my relationship with God, just the—what the Bible says about how we’re all made in the image of God, and how we are fearfully and wonderfully made, for purpose—that has definitely changed my outlook. Because you can see the most beautiful person on the outside—got the edges, got the skin complexion as far as what the world says, but when you meet them, it’s like no type of substance there. They’re very selfish, you know what I mean?
The Lord resting upon you, and in you—that’s beauty, to be honest. And I won’t ever change that concept or how I feel towards that. It may be “super spiritual,” but I don’t care. It works for me, and it is so. And I love that, because there’s no comparison in that. You get what I’m saying? Everybody can tap into faith. There’s no comparison in that.
Ra’chel: Evolving over the years, just growing in maturity and in Christ—the more I grow in Christ, the more freedom that I outwardly live in. Not necessarily “the more that I’m in church,” because I feel like getting caught up in being religious can be very constricting, even outwardly, and we get so caught up in legalism and all that. I’m not getting younger, I’m getting older, so at the end of the day I need to embrace who I am and find things that I find that are beautiful about myself, so that I love myself. This self-care thing, I think it’s good, but some people over-indulge and pervert it to the point where they become their own god and they need to praise and worship themselves, you know what I mean? But self care for me—I definitely think you need to look in the mirror and love who you are, even with every imperfection. I can walk in confidence and still be who I am outwardly and inwardly, and I haven’t always been able to do that.
If you could send a letter to your younger self, what would you tell her?
Ra’chel: I would tell my younger self—Ra’chel, don’t ever minimize yourself for anybody around you. You are enough. You are beautiful. And you are set apart. So never make anybody around you the standard. You have a voice, use it. I would tell myself, anytime anybody makes you feel like you have to shut your mouth, or be quiet, or go in a corner and minimize who you are—never dial back for somebody else in that way. That’s a standard for me. If my voice is silenced or if I’m made to feel like I don’t matter, then that’s a sign of urgency that something’s not right.
Shona: I would tell my younger self to focus on what really matters. Not to focus too much on outward beauty … and to be free. Don’t hold back. Don’t stop raising your hand and asking questions. Be who you are. Learn as you go, don’t internalize things as condemnation or an indictment just because people see things differently than you. Just be super free. Be free, and be open-minded. Keep that childlikeness and learn what makes you beautiful—what true beauty is, and then teach others. Make a difference.
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.