Paula Akpan is a journalist, speaker and founding director of Black Girl Festival, the UK’s first arts and & cultural festival celebrating black women and girls. She is also the co-founder of the ‘I’m Tired’ Project, a photography campaign and international workshop programme, for which she received the Points of Light Award in 2017 for making a change in her community. Paula’s work – journalism and projects – mainly focuses on race, queerness, and social politics and she regularly writes for a variety of publications including Teen Vogue, The Independent, Stylist, and Al Jazeera.
Big lips. Fish lips. Gorilla lips. Names hurled at my confused eight-year-old self in the school playground, weighted words that neither my primary school peers nor I could’ve known would have the lengthy impact that they did.
In the innocuous way that all insecurities mount, I found myself shying away from drawing any attention to my lips without making a connection to those experiences at school. As I got older and absorbed more of the beauty conversations taking place around me, I began to understand that my full lips, which form a perpetual pout, were not the ‘norm’. I learned very quickly that my lips were viewed as undesirable and an unnecessarily exaggerated feature, and in some ways they felt almost cartoonish.
When people would talk about how every woman needs the perfect red lipstick, all I could think about what was my fear that it would clash horrifically with my skin tone and make me look like a garish clown, not too dissimilar from the racist Golliwog doll. I shied away from applying any of the many glosses my mum had rattling round our home; adding additional shine and shimmer was out of the question, especially when many of the ‘nude’ pink-toned lip glosses weren’t made for me anyway.
It’s only in learning to love so much about my lips that I’ve started to realise just how much I once detested them
And then we entered the era of celebrating white women who possessed features that black women were criticised for. The fascination with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Kylie Jenner has been covered extensively by black women and the way in which cosmetically enhanced full pouts have been deemed attractive but only on white faces. I began to understand the hard lesson that we exist in a world that covets blackness but minus the black people.
However, in spite of this, now in my mid 20s, my lips have become my favourite feature. Through surrounding myself more and more with black people who challenge and defy narrow concepts of desirability, over the years, my understanding of beauty has expanded. Being privy to people I admire loving themselves fully in the face of a society that tells them they shouldn’t, has given me permission to be more forgiving and loving towards myself, turning my ideals and standards of beauty on their head.
I’ve learned to love the way my lips stand out from my face, their fullness adding another level of depth to my face. I’ve learned to love the definition of my cupid’s bow, often carefully outlining those curved peaks of my mouth with lipsticks favouring bold reds, deep purples and brilliant teals. It’s only in learning to love so much about my lips that I’ve started to realise just how much I once detested them. My lips are a very decidedly black feature, one that I tried to escape from as a young teen when my blackness felt burdensome, a source of mockery and made me target. But as I’ve grown and thrived in understanding myself and my identity as a black woman, my lips have become a source of pride, their plumpness decidedly and unapologetically setting me apart.