How My Biracial British Heritage Impacted — & Influenced — My Beauty Identity

Rhea Cartwright
Biracial Rhe Cartwright from Britain posing for a selfie

Half-caste; half-breed; half-pure. Those are just a taste of the racist slurs I’ve been met with as a Biracial British woman in a society that demands I quantify both my blackness and my identity. Looking at the intersection of beauty and social theories through identity, it’s a complex relationship made hazier when the beauty ideals of my ancestors and heritage have historically opposed each other. Not fitting in, feeling Black enough or white enough were frequent obstacles I had to overcome growing up which only compounded with feeling aesthetically ostracized due to sharing no physical traits with my family.

Navigating my own beauty identity hasn't been the easiest journey. An only child born in 1991 to a white English mother and Black Guyanese father, I know I look inherently different from not only both of my parents but also my entire family. There's a dichotomy of knowing I am biologically linked to these people through DNA but externally, I don’t share any similarities. While I can clearly see the physical traits they share with one another, my hair texture, skin color and features differ from those on both sides of my family tree. I'm the odd one out in the family portraits.

Rhea Cartwright

With her huge blue eyes, milky white skin and long blonde hair, my mum was the epitome of Eurocentric beauty ideals that popular culture did, and still does, favor: white, blonde, thin, cis, and straight. The relationship with your mother forms your beauty identity, and just like most little girls, I’d be fascinated watching her brush her golden hair, or putting on the minimal makeup she wore, like the most beautiful goddess I had ever seen. As a child, before my mind could be infiltrated and polluted by the media and society’s alleged beauty standards, my perception was formed by those closest to me. My own features, with their various shades of brown, didn’t match those of my mother’s. It's not to say I felt ugly, but I felt undeniably different.

In London in the early '90s, mixed-race celebrities were scarce in a way that the youth of today could never imagine. If life does imitate art, then the arrival of The Spice Girls and Mel B was like a mirror image of myself as the only Black girl in my own friend group. Scary Spice was my only morsel of representation — and despite my adoration of her leopard print outfits at 7 years old, I detested being associated with the word “scary.” The brazen choice of adjective used for the only Black member only perpetuates the notion of racist subtleties in popular culture. Aside from her, Belle from The Beauty and The Beast was my only other ally. Yes, her hair was straight and we could see her cartoon father was white, but her complexion was somewhat darker than the rest of the Disney princesses. I clung to that.

Rhea Cartwright

My hair, similarly to the testimonies of so many other biracial women with naturally curly hair, was a point of contention that I battled with. My teenage years were in an era pre-GHDs, in which flatirons yielded questionable results. It would be naive of me to look back and say I preferred it straight when I was simply assimilating. If we feel the need to identify with others in order to belong, I was undoubtedly conforming to the realities and ideals of those around me. The irony in that as I was straightening my hair, my white friends would often ask me to cornrow theirs at lunchtime. The arrival of Maybelline's Dream Matte Mousse when I was 14 years old was my first foray into foundations. It was a staple of every teenager in the early-aughts, and an introduction to the disappointment of foundation shade ranges. While my face most certainly didn't match my neck (or any other part of my body), I was happy just to be involved — even if that participation came at the price of an ashy complexion.

It was only when I moved to Madrid that I was thrust into my natural hair journey due to the unbearable humidity. I was 20 years old and finally fully accepting and appreciative of what I’d been born with. Like any relationship, it took time and patience but there were still challenges. I’d straighten it before important meetings or job interviews because curly hair products were always there to “tame” and “manage” so I absorbed the microaggressions within marketing discourse that my “unruly” hair wasn’t professional. I was, and to extent still am, acutely aware of the socio-economic undertones that are woven into the narrative of hair.

Now at 29, I can comfortably say I have asserted my own beauty identity which leans heavily on minimalism and staying natural, instead of a total dependance on straightening tools, fake hair and other ornaments that provided nothing more than a comfort blanket due to my own insecurity. It’s liberating not feeling the need to conform and knowing that although I went through it alone, I wasn't alone in my experience. Both the Internet and social media have helped democratize and display the natural hair movement and there are a plethora of notable mixed race celebrities in a way that five-year-old me could never imagine. I have to be aware of my own white privilege for that progress and it is uncomfortable. I know that my ambiguous aesthetic which often has people questioning my ethnicity, allows me to blend in and toy with culture and identity in ways that others can't. Being entrenched in the beauty industry, the fetishization and palatability of mixed race people is even more visible as my hair is the "accepted" amount of texture and my skin tone, which is the "tolerable" amount of melanin, is often the darkest shade for foundations and is so wrongfully used as the archetypal, socially acceptable vision for Black people. But the Black experience and spectrum is broad and beauty brands are rightfully being called out for lack of representation and to #pulluporshutup because they have historically ignored us.

Societally, looking at the freedom of movement and immigration, this phenomenon of not looking like your family will continue to grow — but rising racial ambiguity does not mean the issues are no longer there. As global beauty ideals are becoming homogenized, it’s more important than ever that everyone feels represented and seen. Beauty goes far beyond aesthetics, it is an identity marker that has historically defined us and as we teeter on the edge of a social revolution, we all need a sense of belonging.