“Black Don’t Crack” Is Stressing Me Out
The phrase is a point of pride in the black community, but is it another way we're pressured to be perfect?
I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “black don’t crack,” but that’s probably because I learned other things about being black first. After a particularly tense meeting with a middle school principle, my mother warned me that, “as a black person, you have to work twice as hard to go half as far.” And when Timmy* — the Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike of my 7th grade class — was asked if he’d date Tyra Banks, he shook his head and said, “She’s black.” The message was pretty clear: Tyra’s skin colour somehow made her undesirable.
I wasn’t outraged by either of these incidents. They were just a part of growing up as a black kid in a predominantly white Catholic school on Long Island. Along with spelling and multiplication, I learned that my skin colour made me invisible, my intelligence was underestimated, and my attractiveness was overlooked. I learned that if my blackness was going to be celebrated, I’d have to do it myself.
“Black don’t crack,” the belief that we don't age or get wrinkles, is one of the ways that we embrace black beauty. Scroll through the #Blackdontcrack hashtag on Instagram, and you'll see over half a million memes and side-by-side photos of black women celebrating birthdays. In a way, “black don’t crack” is a reaction to the anti-blackness we face every day. It’s a point of pride for millions of people who have been told their skin isn’t good enough, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to back it up: 40-year-old Bianca Lawson has looked the same since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Gabrielle Union-Wade is flawless at 46 years old, and the world is filled with unknown black grandmothers who stopped ageing at 28.
The idiom is also rooted in science. There is considerable research that the higher concentration of melanin in darker skin is resistant to ageing from the sun, and it can take around 10 years longer for darker skin to show signs of photo-ageing (fine lines, creases, and wrinkles) than white folks. “black don’t crack” is a phrase I picked up as I’ve learned to love my puffy eyes, my wide nose, and my thick lips.
By the time I was 34 years old, I thought I’d overcome my skin insecurities. Even with the dark under-eye circles that I’ve had since birth, I still got carded at gas stations into my late 20s. Often I still get mistaken for a college student whenever I wear a backpack within a few blocks of any college campus or high school.
But a few weeks before my 35th birthday, something is changing. I stare at myself in the mirror each morning and wonder if my skin is sagging, then I text my best friend about whether or not we should get fillers. I scroll through Instagram, comparing myself to my high school friends. I check Sephora reviews for under-eye creams that promise to brighten dark circles and erase fine lines. New grey hair sprouts from my scalp every day, while I sit in meetings with 22-year-olds who are more confident than I’ll ever be. Every new frown line or bad photo makes me more aware that I don’t “have it all together,” and it shows. I am suddenly aware that my black might be cracking.
When I asked my 73-year-old mother — who washes her face with Noxzema, never wears foundation, and could pass as 55 — if she worries about whether or not her black will crack, she squints and says, “Ageing is better than the alternative.” And she’s right. As a health editor, I’m aware that maternal mortality is killing Black women at an alarming rate; we are more likely to die of cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancers than our white counterparts; and only 33.33 percent of black people who need mental health care actually receive it.
So why is it, that even with all of those statistics, looking my age feels like a strange personal failure? In some ways, “black don’t crack” is about more than just the outward appearance. It feels like another way black women aren’t allowed to be fully human. We are “girls” forever, filled with an endless stream of magic. Or we’re “angry women” who terrify everyone around us. We are “strong” and therefore never allowed to be seen as tender. And on top of that, we don’t get to wrinkle, shrivel and shrink? The pressure is unfair.
“It’s not that [black women] don’t age, we just age differently,” says Michelle Henry, MD, who specialises in dermatology and cosmetic surgery. “You have to have a different scale when you’re ageing black skin than when you’re ageing white skin.” Dr. Henry goes on to tell me that, “black may not crack as early as our white counterparts, but it does fall, sag, and dull,” adding that people with white skin show signs of ageing around their mouths, forehead, while black people are prone to hollowing under the eyes, and dullness of the skin.
As a result, Dr. Henry says she has seen an influx in black people seeking aesthetic treatments, like fillers. And according to statistics from The American Association Of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, among black patients “the rate of requests for cosmetic procedures increased by 340% from 1999 to 2001.” In more recent years, a 2011 study published in The American Surgeon found that, while white women are still the most prominent group getting cosmetic surgery, there has been an increase in procedures among black people (as well as among Asians, Latinx, and Indigenous people) over the last 10 years. Maybe the rise of black people documenting plastic surgery stories and under-eye filler appointments on social media has made many of us realise that we can access products and medical procedures that change the appearance of our bodies and help us feel more confident. Dr. Henry says Black women are simply “benefiting from aesthetic technological advances that our white friends and colleagues (and whoever) are benefiting from.”
But actually getting those procedures done can be emotionally fraught for many of us.“I do filler under the eyes [of my patients], but I also do filler on the noses and in other areas, so there’s always this conversation about not changing or compromising one’s ethnicity,” Dr. Henry says. “And I think that’s kind of been a stigma for black people… There’s this idea that if you do anything, or you change anything, you’re not proud of who you are.”
Joy Harden Bradford, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of the podcast Therapy For Black Girls, concedes that sometimes a frown line is just a line — fixed with a small cosmetic procedure. But in other instances, we might want to examine our intentions before we leap. Black women "are sometimes very invested in looking put together, and we don’t want the world to know that we’re stressing and struggling,” she says. “So I think you do want to make sure that you are invested in making sure that the inside is not cracking.”
In truth, fussing over my skin is easier than reassessing my life choices. As I get older, I worry that my parents are getting older. I’m single, don’t have children, and I don’t know if I ever will. I can’t play Spades, dance on beat, or put a straight part in my 4C hair. I’m not contributing as much as I could to my retirement accounts, and becoming Jeff Bezos-rich looks less likely every day. I worry that my age makes me less appealing on dating apps, and sometimes I wonder: If I die in my apartment, how long would it take for anyone to find me?
So yeah, this isn’t just about fillers. As I inch closer and closer to 35, I want to inject my life with more of the things I want. I might learn to cornrow or explore my fertility options. I might sit with my therapist and define what it means to age gracefully for me. I plan to laugh at my own vanity and see my new fear of ageing as a bizarre luxury — one that my ancestors probably didn’t have. I don’t intend to get fillers (yet). But I’ll take Dr. Henry’s orders and use sunscreen and retinol serums to keep my skin from ageing faster than the rest of me. And I’ll also follow Dr. Harden Bradford’s advice in prioritising my emotional health. And if all else fails, I will remind myself that self care comes in a variety of forms. It could mean indulging in a new anti-aging face cream or earning new smile lines by laughing over drinks with my closest friends.
*Names have been changed.