A girl running down the street, arms powering her movement. A group of girls dancing to the beat, one with a grin that threatens to turn into deep laughter at any moment. One girl takes a photo while another looks at something in the distance, the essence of a pensive grin on her face. Words about big braids, going to the salon and loving your hair.
These are the images of The Beautiful Project, a Durham, N.C.-based organization that’s helping black girls and women find and honor their true selves by confronting positive and negative portrayals of black girls and women in the media and in our communities.
As a mother, one of my strongest desires for my children is that they grow up with a strong sense of self, a positive definition for who they are and how they fit into our culture, without losing the unique and special qualities that make them individuals. I have a son who is adopted from Ethiopia. He has beautiful brown skin, big eyes with endless lashes, and lovely curls that frame his handsome face. He is kind and generous and inspired. And he will face the joys and challenges of growing up as a black man in America. He will face assumptions about who he is. Negative assumptions that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Assumptions played out every day in our media and communities.
This is why The Beautiful Project is so vital. By confronting negative imagery, lifting up positive imagery and showing the many, varied ways every black girl is beautiful, the program helps black girls and women find a sense of self that celebrates their beauty and validates all the amazing aspects of what makes them unique and special and something to aspire to.
Founded by Jamaica Gilmer as a way to impact black girls through photography, The Beautiful Project uses photography, reflective workshops and mentoring in a variety of programs. The organization shares photographs and interviews, as well as personal stories submitted from the community, to capture the unique beauty of black girls just as they are. Facilitated “Saturday Studios” are workshops designed to engage girls in conversation about their beauty while empowering them to find their voice and share it. Undergraduate interns support the The Beautiful Project as photographers, facilitators and mentors and are able to continue their personal journey of identity through the organization’s health and wellness department.
A 2013 study by Essence found negative imagery of black women was often seen twice as frequently as positive imagery. And that negative imagery falls into pretty alarming categories: Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels, Baby Mamas, Uneducated Sisters, Ratchet Women, Angry Black Women, Mean Black Girls, Unhealthy Black Women, and Black Barbies.
And teens are more susceptible to negative imagery due to the amount of media they consume—9 hours a day according to a 2015 report by Common Sense Media—and their tendency to look to pop culture, which leans more negative, for cues on self-expression.
Thankfully The Beautiful Project provides an alternative to those negative categories, and gives black girls tools to navigate the media landscape and engage in their communities. And there are many ways to get involved, including submitting your stories and photographs to one of the organization’s image campaigns. For example, “The Sisterhood Storytelling Series,” based on the tenets of the Sisterhood Creed (joy, suffering, keeping, acceptance and sharpening), invites black women and girls to share how their relationship with another black woman exemplifies one of these tenets.
Negative imagery of black women and men is something that hits close to home for me, and it’s something I think about daily. I want a world where Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels and Baby Mamas aren’t part of the story black women and girls are burdened with carrying. A world where my son isn’t put into a category because he’s black. Offering up a new story for black women and girls, a truly beautiful one, is something we can all aspire to carry forward.
Amber Ukena formerly ran global PR and marketing campaigns for business and tech clients. Today she co-owns a content marketing agency based in North Carolina, where her cat serves as office manager. She lives in a house full of boys who treat her like a queen (most of the time) and is mom to a 10-year-old social butterfly who hails from Ethiopia and step-mom to a 7-year-old train enthusiast.