The term “beautiful” means different things to different people. What may seem like a simple compliment to most, opens up a can of worms, releasing all kinds of uncomfortable memories for others. As Junior, a late-twentysomething from the Ivory Coast of West Africa, shows us, instead of just calling someone beautiful, we owe it to ourselves, and the people we admire, to learn their stories.
Do I consider myself beautiful? No. I didn’t even grow up hearing the word. That’s not something you focus on in my culture. We grew up in extreme poverty so there were many other things to worry about besides our physical appearance. As an adult, I hear people give me compliments and I try to be respectful, but it is weird to hear. It isn’t something I’m used to.
There are some benefits to people considering you beautiful. But the not so good side is when you run into people who have ulterior motives. Personally, I’ve had experiences where people I have shared some of my biggest moments with who were generous, caring, and listened to me when I needed them most turned out to be attracted to me romantically.
In one example, a close friend who knew more about me than anyone else ended up telling me that he loved me and thought I was his soul mate. That hurt me because I realized our entire friendship was based on the other intentions, which made me feel used. I’d heard other people say that might have been the case, but I never believed it. I had to hear it from the person’s mouth. And when I did, I was shocked—I never saw it coming.
Do I consider myself beautiful? No. I didn’t even grow up hearing the word… As an adult, I hear people give me compliments and I try to be respectful, but it is weird to hear. It isn’t something I’m used to.
From a social standpoint, in New York, people will invite you to places on the basis of what you look like. Not because they care about you, but because they want you to just be there. If you’re there, it will attract other people that probably wouldn’t normally come. To a degree, it’s another way that others might use your beauty, which makes it hard for you to know who is being genuine.
A major part of that is because they also believe that because you’re beautiful, you obviously don’t work hard for what you have. There’s this idea that everything is easy for you and given to you, so they justify it as okay to use you. But they have no idea what a person has actually been through or how hard you might have worked to get where you are.
The first time I can remember someone describing my level of attractiveness was when I was a freshman in college, working at Duane Reade. The experience really made me uncomfortable. One of the customers, came in and she kept going on and on about how beautiful I was. It wasn’t just a passing compliment. She kept asking where I was from and a lot of other personal questions.
When I’m at work, I’m all about work. So, I was trying to get the job done and reduce the line, but she kept talking. I started to feel really uncomfortable because everyone was listening. On one hand, she knew a lot about history, where I was from, and about African culture, which is why she would add her own take on certain things. But it wasn’t the right place and I really wasn’t in the mood for it.
He saw me and started saying all kinds of things about my beauty. Being 20, I believed him. It was a time when I was struggling with my sexuality…. I ended up getting used over and over by him, but I kept going back because he said he loved me.
When I started messing around with guys, a lot of them would use compliments and say whatever they wanted in hopes of having sex with you. One guy in particular I happened to run into one day in the city. He saw me and started saying all kinds of things about my beauty. Being 20, I believed him. It was a time when I was struggling with my sexuality and feeling like I needed to come out to my parents. I had a lot of internal conflict going on in my life at the time.
To run into someone who made me feel better and happier than I was made me feel special. Plus, my self-esteem wasn’t where it needed to be, which also had an impact on my decision. In the end, we started a premature relationship—one I wasn’t ready for. I ended up getting used over and over by him, but I kept going back because he said he loved me, even though he went behind my back and was with other guys. Eventually, I was able to break up with him, but it was something that made me swear I’d be single forever.
A lot has changed since then. Now, I’m 27 and I feel like I know myself more. I’m happy with the person I am and I don’t feel like I need to hear compliments to make me feel good about myself. I have more substance. I was able to accomplish a lot like graduating from college and even getting a masters.
I was always attracted to people who were doing well in my field, which played a part in me liking him. But establishing myself as a professional validated my worth more than a relationship with him ever could. When I hear compliments or people I approach me, I hear what others have to say, but I know what’s important to me.
So that I would never forget how I view beauty, I got a tattoo last summer with a saying from one of my favorite books, The Little Prince. It says, “You cannot see true beauty through your naked eye, you can only feel it in your heart.”
When it comes to beauty, a lot of people assume I’m a model—and that still gets on my nerves. My response is of course diplomatic. But there was a point where I really disliked hearing it. Back when I was trying to balance my college life and modeling, I got upset when I realized that people were more focused on hearing about modeling than all the hard work I was putting into college. And that was one of the reasons I stopped doing it.
Another part of it is that I didn’t want to be seen as just a model. Oftentimes, people would see me, a person of color, and they would apply all kinds of stereotypes before even getting to know me. Because I was a model, they would assume I was gay and approach in certain ways or think I was just a pretty face and nothing more. I didn’t like that.
It reminded me a lot of when people would call me stupid when I was growing up, especially when comparing me to my older brother. In their eyes, I was the stupid one, so that created a lot of internal conflict within myself. I worked hard to go against that, but when people would assume I was just a model, I would associate that with stupidity and feel they saw that as all I was good at.
So that I would never forget how I view beauty, I got a tattoo last summer with a saying from one of my favorite books, The Little Prince. It says, “You cannot see true beauty through your naked eye, you can only feel it in your heart.” I got it at a point where I felt like I didn’t agree with other people’s definition of beauty.
At that time, I was getting sick and tired of people saying I’m beautiful when in my head I didn’t always feel that way. I did it to remind myself that when I don’t feel beautiful, it’s an opportunity to reach inside myself and ask why because I should know that beauty is always within me.
A lot has changed since then. Now, I’m 27 and I feel like I know myself more. I’m happy with the person I am and I don’t feel like I need to hear compliments to make me feel good about myself.