Soft Black Girls and the Reclamation of Black Femininity
I was not Black enough as a kid.
At least, that’s what I was often told by my classmates and, more subtly, by my family.
As soon as I entered middle school, I became obsessed with shoujo manga and anime — the type of Japanese visual media made for teen girls. Magical girls, romance stories, and cute colorful characters were my kryptonite. Every week I was in Borders (I know) spending my allowance on every volume of Tokyo Mew Mew (which was for me what Sailor Moon was for everyone else).
Yet when talking to friends at school, I hid the extent of my hobby, covering up my more girlish interests with a passing familiarity of more male-oriented titles, like Naruto. When making friends with other anime fans online, I was careful to hide my race behind cute pale-skinned avatars. Even at such a young age, I had internalized enough of society’s messaging to know what to expect if I were honest about my interests.
The cute Japanese things were not meant for a Black girl like me.
Softness is an act of rebellion. It’s a form of reclaiming the delicate femininity that has long been thought of as exclusive to White and Asian women.
Back in 2015, Vice interviewed Black attendees at an anime convention about their experiences in engaging with otaku (fan) culture. One Sailor Moon cosplayer revealed some of the nastiness she received for dressing up as her favorite character:
That was the first time I ever cosplayed. I got some pictures taken that were posted on the internet. I was excited… And then I read the comments. A lot of them weren’t good, at all. I got “The cosplay is good, but she shouldn’t be Black,” and “Oh, her skin is too dark,” and “Oh, her hair shouldn’t be blonde.” It was a lot of nasty stuff people should have kept to themselves.
Anime is not the only realm that tries to exclude Black women from all things cute and sweet. We’re often told to avoid wearing bright and colorful things that will “clash” with our skin tones. Even young Black girls are subject to a large degree of adultification — the biased perception that they are more mature and less in need of nurturing — that robs them of the innocence of childhood.
The world seems to think that Black girls and softness don’t mix.
In a society where dark skin is often seen as inherently aggressive, and “sassy” has long been the media’s descriptor of choice for Black women, softness is an act of rebellion. It’s a form of reclaiming the delicate femininity that has long been thought of as exclusive to White and Asian women.
White society’s attempts to exclude Black women from femininity and the connotations that come with it — cuteness, sweetness, innocence — has been systematic and integral to the oppression that began in slavery:
Like Black men, enslaved Black women were dehumanized… Stereotypes of Black women — that they were loud, lewd, rude, ugly, barbaric, and sexually promiscuous — were used to justify the atrocities committed against them. (Source)
The type of femininity that has been afforded to Black women is more often promiscuous and suggestive. Black women and girls are the victims of a hypersexualized Jezebel stereotype that leads to more instances of sexual assault and violence while also making us less likely to receive support for these traumas.
The Soft Black Girl pushes back against these harmful stereotypes in a way that manages to be both bold and revolutionary, despite the tranquility of the aesthetic. It combats images of overly aggressive sex-driven Black women with a gentleness and innocence that the world at large never associates with Blackness.
A number of artists, style icons, and Black-owned brands have stepped up to champion the Soft Black Girl in the current visual landscape of media. Popular Dutch-Afro-Caribbean artist Céli, co-creator of #Blacktober, depicts adorable characters of color in cozy and comforting settings.
Geneva Bowers, better known as GDBee, is another popular Black artist whose work captures the emotive beauty of Soft Black Girls with illustrations that range from light and joyful to wistful and somber.
This aesthetic clearly resonates with a lot of other Black girls and women. The feeling it evokes is similar to the positively pink style of Jacque Aye, founder of Adorned by Chi, a brand that was created to capture the desire of Black women to depict softness and light through clothing and accessories with slogans like “Cosmic Cutie” and “Let’s Cry Together.”
In a past ZORA interview, Aye talked about her motivations in creating the brand: “I’ve always liked a feminine, magical aesthetic, but I never saw Black women represented. It was always fair-skinned images. I wanted to make something where Black women could be beautiful, feminine, and magical.”
While a pretty pastel look draws the attention, the idea of the Soft Black Girl goes beyond visuals. It’s also about being able to express vulnerability in a world that expects all Black women to be “strong” and forever resilient.
Researcher Seanna Leath explored Black women’s mental health and the effects of the Strong Black Woman stereotype on their emotional well-being:
My conversations with Black college women highlight that even as they were praised for taking care of siblings, helping around the house, and excelling academically, their emotional displays of vulnerability, anger, and sadness were often met with resistance from family members. A recurring theme among the young women was that they had “never seen their mothers cry.”
The emotional suppression of trauma that Black women experience is a key component of the Strong Black Woman character. Having a “stiff upper lip” about all that we endure has long been the model of resilience passed down through generations. But in recent years there has been a shift. As more Black women are embracing therapy and attending to their mental health, it has become increasingly important to break cycles of trauma through engaging directly with emotion in an open and vulnerable way.
The emergence of the Soft Black Girl gives us the space to shed the weight of the Strong Black Woman expectations and display a full range of emotion.
In an essay by fellow Medium writer Ashia Monet entitled “Yes, Black Girls Are Allowed to Be Soft,” Monet articulates the rebellious nature of softness for Black women: “In a world that rejects vulnerability for the Black woman, she carves it out for herself.” The emergence of the Soft Black Girl gives us the space to shed the weight of the Strong Black Woman expectations and display a full range of emotion — even when it’s unpleasant.
There is strength in choosing to be soft and gentle in a world that attempts to elicit nothing but hardness and stoicism from you. In this way, Black women continue to defy the limitations and bounds of racism with grace, beauty, strength, and a lovely pastel palette.
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