Conversations about beauty can often leave us feeling vulnerable because, well, beauty is subjective. But as we know, societal attitudes and representation can color what we deem attractive and what we consider undesirable. In our society, it just so happens that Eurocentric features are favored, and it can be hard to navigate life, especially as a public figure, if you do not fit that mold. And it gets even trickier when you consider things like colorism, the erroneous belief born out of our society’s rampant anti-blackness, that the lighter-skinned you are, the more beautiful you are. Colorism continues to be a sore in the black community, and it affects everyone, even those deemed “acceptable” within its narrow notions of beauty. Queen Sugar actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner knows this well. The half black and half Chinese star of the Ava DuVernay–produced show admits that even she has struggled with these attitudes, being exoticized as a mixed woman.
Still, for her, her identity goes far beyond what she looks like. We chatted candidly with her about these unwelcome labels, her aspirations for women of color being represented in Hollywood, who she found beautiful growing up, and, of course, her beauty regimen.
Allure: Growing up, who did you find beautiful?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I remember one of my cousins, I thought she was the most beautiful person in the world. I can remember looking at her smile. She has a very deep, deep, deep chocolate hue. I remember her coming back from vacation [in] Jamaica one year, and [her skin] had gotten deeper and darker. It was like, “Oh my God! She got more beautiful!” I remember [her] glow, especially when she came back — [her skin] was even deeper and darker, but it was almost radiant. I was just blown away by her beauty. I will also say that as she got older, that was not an uncommon response, but I watched her struggle being able to receive it or believe it. It was truly amazing and angering to me to see how much she had internalized what she had encountered when she was young and how much it colored her experiences into her adult life. I also understood that the standards of beauty values, in this country anyway, [a] lighter complexion and features that look closer to European ideals. I understood from my cousin’s experience how incredibly damaging that is, and that as a person with lighter skin, there is a privilege assigned to me, whether or not I wanted it.
How did you handle embracing your black and Asian cultures among friends and family without feeling like you had to choose one over the other?
There is a lot of conversation on intersectionality right now. I’m very personally involved in that and [I’m] having my own conversation about it. That word is a little tough for me because I feel like I’ve worked hard to have an integrated identity because of this experience growing up mixed race. My experience of culture and identity is that it is fluid. That’s the reality, and to pinpoint one or the other doesn’t work for me. However, saying that, I [feel] that there is this experience of standing at either a crossroad or this place of convergence when it comes to race and culture in this country. Separating that, valuing my own experience, and listening to what is true about it versus what’s assumed has been important. That is something of a practice, because I’ve had to reconcile what I see in the mirror every day.
What has been your personal experience with desirability as a mixed woman?
My experiences growing up were at times very painful because the actual internal experience of my looks felt more freakish than anything. It’s an interesting thing because I think that there is an assumption that it somehow feels special [to be mixed]. In my experience, being exoticized was the experience of being othered in a way that was really uncomfortable. And it felt like it created a distance between my African-American identification and [myself]. I felt extremely objectified and sexualized in a way that I didn’t desire. It lacked wholeness; there was a feeling of almost being assigned this uber [sexuality] that I truly didn’t choose. And I sensed it so much early on, and, well, there wasn’t a space to talk about mixed identity. That conversation wasn’t happening really before President Obama. Even after then, it felt like… I’m going to say something that’s actually a little hard, or it deserves to be unpacked more than maybe we have time for but, I think that I felt like there was an assumption that being mixed that somehow I considered myself either better or more beautiful or something. And I remember that every time I either heard it or encountered it, all I would think in my head was “But I’m a freak!“ Like, where are you all getting this?
Tell me a little about your beauty regimen.
Being able to down-regulate has become critical to my beauty routine — being able to rest, to stop, to renew. I’m actually really passionate about this because I think a lot of women struggle with it, especially with getting enough sleep. For me, it’s such an ingrained habit to go, go, go, and it takes a lot of focus to slow myself down and let my body regenerate, especially while shooting the show. I’ve found that the most important step in all of that is taking off my makeup from the day. It sends this signal through my body that it’s time to shift to rest. Letting my face breathe as much as possible in general has been important. And then, of course, other wellness practices like massage, yoga, eating minimally processed foods, drinking lots of water — when I am doing all of those things I look and feel like a different person. That’s my inside-out recipe. In terms of beauty products, I’m a huge fan of an organic skin-care line called Ilike — it’s really potent with a lot of raw botanical ingredients, and I make sure to use one of their masks daily. I also do my best to exfoliate at least twice a week, and I keep both hyalauronic acid and a good Vitamin C serum on hand.
What are your hopes in regards to representation of women of color in mass media?
What I wish most for women of color — as cliché as it might sound — is self-love. For me, self-love involves self-compassion, self-care, and self-celebration. It dismantles what phrases like “good hair” can perpetuate even unconsciously, which can feel to me like a kind of emotional self-violence. It’s something that many women and people of color people of color experience, in not seeing themselves reflected in the norms and ideals of society. I’m in my own journey of self-love in that way, and I’m playing a character that is so deeply in the midst of redefining herself — my hope is that women feel even greater encouragement to own their own journey, and to love themselves through it.
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