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Black beauty: What does it mean to be beautiful?

Kiah Morris is an artist, author, poet, advocate, leader, mother, sister and a former Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives. She says that finding herself beautiful was a “later in life kind of acceptance”.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Kiah Morris is an artist, author, poet, advocate, leader, mother, sister and a former Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives. She says that finding herself beautiful was a “later in life kind of acceptance”.

In this second episode of Homegoings, host Myra Flynn speaks with three women of color about their journey toward finding themselves beautiful in a world dominated by a Eurocentric beauty standard.

This is the latest episode of Homegoings, a seasonal podcast that features fearless conversations about race. This is storytelling — with soul. Follow the series here.

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If you stayed until the credits of our most recent episode, you heard me shoutout Mae Nagusky. For nearly a year, Mae was an intern here at Vermont Public. She worked diligently behind the scenes to help me launch this show. I can’t say enough good things about her. She is smart, efficient and wholeheartedly invested in the elevation of Black storytelling.

Mae also has some skin in the game when it came to her interest in wanting to launch Homegoings with me. Well … not her skin. Zola Nagusky is Mae’s 8-year-old adopted sister. Her birth mother wasn’t able to take care of her and Mae’s dad and stepmom wanted to add another child to their family. They went through years of background and house inspections and visits and finally, Zola joined the family in November 2014, shortly after she was born.

Mae Nagusky and her 8-year-old-sister Zola.
Mae Nagusky
Vermont Public
Mae Nagusky and her 8-year-old-sister Zola.

Zola is biracial. She describes herself as having brown skin, curly hair, black eyes. “I’m eight, and I’m really funny,” she says.

Mae and the rest of the Naguskys are white. Zola describes her older sister as having blonde hair, long eyelashes with blue eyes.

Despite Mae and Zola’s differences in age and skin color, they have some big things in common – mostly, their parents and upbringing. Also their love of listening to each other tell stories, playing hand games like slide or thumb war, love of delicious food, singing their hearts out to karaoke and pulling pranks on their dad, to name a few.

But it’s what they see when they look in the mirror that can’t be shared. For Mae, her blonde hair and blue eyes makes her the Eurocentric beauty standard that has shaped what we deem beautiful in America and much of the world. For Zola, it’s a little more complicated.

When Mae tries to tell Zola just how beautiful she is Zola plugs her ears. Mae asks her sister, “Why don’t you want to hear why you’re beautiful?” Zola replies, “Because it makes me uncomfortable.” When asked how Zola feels when she compares herself to her friends at school she says, “I feel bad because I want to have that. I want the same hair as them.”

Welcome to Homegoings, season 1, episode 2. Today on the show we’re talking about beauty; the good, the heartbreaking and the downright ugly.

This is Homegoings. Welcome home.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend pressing play on the audio posted here. For accessibility, we also provide a narrative version/transcript of the episode below.


As of April of this year, Yamuna Turco is the reigning Miss Vermont America, not to be confused with Miss Vermont USA, which I did confuse. She’s also the first Black winner of this competition since 2003. and the first Miss Vermont to be a first-generation American.

Yamuna Turco is the current Miss Vermont America, the first Black winner of the competition since 2003
Jon Adams
Yamuna Turco is the current Miss Vermont America, the first Black winner of the competition since 2003

I’ll take a beat here to tell you something I haven’t shared widely in this one life of mine. I have done the pageant circuit, and at the time, the name of the game was definitely beauty. It was a straight up beauty pageant. I remember a lot of hair spray, fake tanner (even on me, fake tanner), baby oil slicked over everything (don’t ask) and round after round of surface level interviews where your job is to answer questions on behalf of the state you represent, not the individual you are. It appears… some things have changed.

“My director did also say when I became Miss Vermont, that we’re in Vermont, and I can be as controversial as I want,” Yamuna says. ”Because some of the things that I believe in and advocate for are seen as controversial, and I don’t think they are.”

The “beauty” part of the beauty pageant has also changed. The Miss Vermont competition is now called the “Miss Vermont Scholarship Organization” with a tagline on their website that reads: “Where Vermont’s female leaders come to grow.” And Yamuna says what the participants do in the pageant has also changed. Well, almost. The talent category of the competition is still there and the dresses.

“There’s your onstage question,” Yamuna says. “Which is about your community service initiative. So, my service initiative is child literacy: One Book, One Child. I focus on increasing access to books, especially diverse books and stories. And then there’s your talent. So I sang. And then there’s fitness; fitness replaced swimwear. And the emphasis is on modeling and confidence. And then there’s evening gown, which is when you wear a beautiful dress and walk around on stage.”

When I participated in the pageant, I was the only Black participant. But it seems who gets to be successful in the competition has also changed these days.

“This is the first time in Vermont history that there have been two Black women as the final two in the Miss Vermont competition,” Yamuna says. “So, it was me and Malia Smith who were the top two. So in her own words, ‘either way we’ve won.’”

Miss Vermont may not be called a beauty pageant anymore, but Yamuna has achieved finding herself beautiful through the lens of this competition. And until these changes, pageants were the quintessential beauty standard maker. It’s hard to imagine some of that old way of thinking and judging aren’t inherently embedded into the fabric of these competitions between women.

Yamuna says the judges still rank the top five competitors and then rank who they think should be the next Miss Vermont, but ranked against what?

“Going in …I was like, do we have a diverse panel of judges?,” Yamuna says. “Because it’s not a beauty pageant, but you can not be a racist person. You can be anti-racist and still be in your mind, like unconsciously, ‘I’m used to my beauty queens looking like this,’ even though it’s not a beauty pageant. And so there was a diverse panel of judges and I’m grateful for that.”

Yamuna is from New York originally, upstate in Essex county. As she says, she’s first-generation American with a mother from South Africa and a father from Italy. She moved to Vermont when she began college at Saint Michael’s College, and now resides in Colchester, Vermont.

She says upstate had a little more diverse representation than Vermont. After all, the pageants she saw in New York included women from all over the state including one of the most diverse cities on the planet: New York City. But HER surroundings in Essex county, didn’t look too different to the Green Mountain State. She says in her elementary and middle school, she was one of two students of color. And when this is your story, you can start to take a look around and realize the only thing different — is you.

“Coming from where I’m from, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if the girl who was my local competition holder, or my country, or my region was the Eurocentric beauty standard,” Yamuna says.

So, what is the Eurocentric beauty standard?

“I think it’s tall to medium height, fair skin, blue eyes, blonde hair,” Yumuna says. “Even a certain kind of nose, which sounds so strange, but like the straight, maybe even no bridge nose. Very fair.”

“I’m average height, to a little bit shorter. I currently have chin length, curly hair. I am fair to be honest. I'm lighter skinned. But I'm not like, very light,” she says. “I've got brown eyes and freckles. And I would definitely say being mixed race and light skinned does come with privilege. And that's definitely something I've also thought about in my life.”

Yamuna Turco, the reigning Miss Vermont America, says that her most rewarding moments are when children come up to her in public and marvel because she looks just like them.
Olivia Gatti
Yamuna Turco, the reigning Miss Vermont America, says that her most rewarding moments are when children come up to her in public and marvel because she looks just like them.

Ah yes, ye olde “P” word: Privilege. One of my favorite nuanced words. And if you’re wondering, “Privilege? Isn’t that just a word used about white people to unpack the unconscious ability to be able to move through life without being racially profiled or unfairly stereotyped? Can Black people even be privileged?”

It’s a “Yes and” situation. Let me explain.

I am light-skinned and biracial, like Yamuna. And I have had to learn my own lessons about privilege in my Black community the hard way. Once in college, I got the work-study gig a friend of mine wanted, and she called me a tea server. I didn’t get it. So I wasn’t offended. Until she explained it to me.

A tea server is a term that comes from slavery. If you were the son or daughter of the master, typically by way of them raping one of their slaves, you were light-skinned, and got the privilege of serving tea in the house, instead of out in the hot sun or the fields. My friend was trying to tell me, I was acting advantageous and subconsciously privileged.

Back to the “yes and.” In my journey toward understanding my own beauty I’ve had to learn that as a light-skinned Black woman, there’s an upside when it comes to my safety and access to success in this world. I am what some might call a comfortable Black person for white people. And also on the downside, I am a comfortable Black person for white people. That stuff can get pretty complicated.

Like I say to Yamuna, “I was never afforded innocence. I felt always hypersexualized. Because I was comfortable and even had several boyfriends of mine that were white, growing up in Vermont, say things like, ‘You know, you’re really pretty for a Black girl.’ Somewhere in that middle you become this comfortable-enough person where people can still hate you and want you.”

Yamuna says that this resonates with her too. “Here’s an expectation of me, of how I will behave, how I will act, what I’ll say, based on the fact that I am a lighter-skinned Black woman,” she says. “Because of the horrible negative stereotypes that exist – that I want to be sexualized, that I’m dressing because I want to be sexualized, because I want attention, because I want to be looked at – And I don’t. I don’t like that I have to monitor the way I dress, the things I want to wear around people. No matter what, you’re going to receive unwanted attention. But like that extra layer of like, ‘I know this is you fetishizing me at this point.’”

I couldn’t have said it better. Because here’s the deal: even if you’ve won the pageant, if you're what was it — one drop of negro blood – you’re not having the white experience.

“I also have to check the fact that I do have privilege in this system,” Yumuna says. “But that I can still be micro-aggressed against and people can still say things negative to me and look at me the wrong way and say things even directly to me. And they do, so.”

When I ask her what are some of the things that have been said to her, Yamuna replies, “I have had a couple people say, ‘You’re Miss Vermont, how did that happen?’”

“Because of my service initiative and my service project, I work mostly with kids, and they’re pretty great,” she adds. “They just like my hair; they often ask to touch it. But like, you’re five, you don’t know any better. And I will say that every single negative comment that I’ve received from an adult is absolutely made up for by the little girls that look like me that come up to me when I’m in public and are like, ‘You look like me.’ And that carries me through, because it’s like I remember being younger and wanting to see someone like me in that position. And if I can do that for even one little girl, that makes a difference.”

When Yamuna competed for Miss Vermont, for her talent showcase, she sang “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cook. How apt.

I was born by the river
In a little tent
Oh, and just like the river, I’ve been running
Ever since

It’s been a long
A long time coming, but I know
A change gon come
Oh yes, it will


Kiah Morris: My name is Kiah Morris. I am a resident of Essex Junction in Chittenden County. I am an artist and author, a poet. I am an emcee, a host. I’m a leader. I’m a follower. I’m a mother. I am a sister. I’m a woman of the world and I’m so honored to be in this space with you, Myra.

Myra Flynn: Kiah is all the things she says she is, but she has left out a little. To quote my colleague Pete Hirschfeld, “It’s easier to list the things Kiah hasn’t done.”

Kiah is a former Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives. She’s an ambassador for OXFAM, who works to fight inequality, injustice and poverty; shepherded legislation to address medical fallout of industrial contamination of water in Bennington, Vermont. Basically? She’s a freaking boss, in some really beautiful ways.

Kiah Morris is an ambassador for OXFAM and shepherded legislation to address medical fallout of industrial contamination of water in Bennington, Vermont.
Kiah Morris
Kiah Morris says much more is attached to beauty than we might think including: Societal acceptance, movement within the workplace and "what your children do and don't get access to". 

Kiah Morris: So, I see myself as radiantly beautiful. I have a medium, dark complexion. So, kind of your favorite chocolate bar, but a little bit less, like a little milk chocolatey. I have sort of roundish eyes, that many people say are very bright and kind of look very friendly into you and into your face. I have the Jones family nose.

Myra Flynn (on tape): What’s the Jones family nose? 

Kiah: It’s distinctive, the Jones family nose, which is a little round nose that's kind of very well proportioned, sort of in the center of my face. I have full lips. I have my hair in a style that I've developed over the pandemic, no less, with a side shave and purple loc extensions in them.

Myra Flynn (on tape): So I feel like I know the answer to this, but do you think you're beautiful?

Kiah Morris: I do. I do. And that was a later in life kind of acceptance.

Myra Flynn: Now I’m the first to let you know that all Black stories are not a monolith. Everyone is an individual, but if there’s one thing in common coming from the three Black people you’ve heard from today, or fourth if you include me, it’s this: Every person I’ve interviewed here today either grew up, or is still growing up, in a majority white environment.

Kiah Morris: And for me, in my case, as some listeners may know, my younger years were my family integrating the violently all-white suburbs of Chicago, and to being the only faces that had melanin in them. 

Myra Flynn: And an environment where you are the only one of anything, can’t help but shape your sense of beauty.

Kiah Morris: My sense of beauty was really rooted in a white sense of beauty and acceptance that I did not receive other than the little kid crushes you have like when you're in the first grade before, you're told, ‘Maybe those aren't the ones, maybe those aren't the women that you should be pursuing or highlighting as being beautiful in your mind, creating a framework for beauty around.’ And it wasn't until later in life, in my later teen years going back to the city, going back to Chicago, being in a Black neighborhood, and seeing Black beauty and having others recognize Black beauty as an everyday thing, rather than an anomaly or a special sort of treat, as I've been called before. Rather than being a novelty, being a normalcy. Having that was the beginning stages of me recognizing and understanding my own beauty for who I am. And the way that I walk and present in the world.

Myra Flynn (on tape): Interview done. Bye. Let's go home.

Myra Flynn: Spoiler alert: We are gonna keep it going. I asked Kiah about her beauty, by way of the white lens. I’m gonna get out of the way for a moment, and let her go off.

Kiah Morris: It’s a fascinating piece that in this particular phase of society, at this particular phase of human history, that we're at a point where people are able to better recognize, appreciate, and honor and beauty that is not just rooted in a whiteness. Now recognizing, again, that whiteness is not an actual legal, medical, technical component of anyone's descriptors, but it is a societal lens that we use to determine who belongs and who does not belong. It's one that's been used and weaponized to kill Blacks, to kill those who are not part of the white dominant culture as we understand it, right. And so, that lens of whiteness is one that is upheld in a violent way. 

It is always the requirement that one must either conform to, or that they must somehow perform, in order to gain acceptance and that's the ubiquitous nature of a lens of whiteness in itself. Where we're saying there is an “other”, and then there's whiteness and whiteness is the goal. Whiteness is the place of the seat of power. It is the place of historic power. It is the place of economic power. It is the place of political power. It is the place where voice is recognized. And so everyone in the American dream of this, you know, melting pot is always moving towards an arc of whiteness in order to gain acceptance. 

So who was considered white changed over time, as we know. Certain folks – Italians were not white, Germans were not white, Jewish were not white. There had to be literal conversations in the halls of Congress and in the Congressional Record to determine who's white so that they could get access to vote in the United States. It's something we constantly negotiate, but there's still a center to it. You're still on the outside trying to get in, and whomever holds the power to create that definition, whether it be in a community, whether it be within an entire culture of individuals, or a nation, whomever holds that ability to dictate that narrative to you, that's where you find your goalposts for reaching what's considered to be the pinnacle of beauty.

It's a pale skin that is often – well melanated is a popular item now – is still coming from a base of a lessening of melanin. It is a straightening of hair. It is a lightening of eyes. It is what we would consider more European features. It's a thinness. You see this within the fashion world. There's still an obsession with a prepubescent body, one that cannot be necessarily coded by race, except for skin color. It is still based on a delicacy softness that's required to create a sort of passivity. It's meant to create a dependency, a vulnerability that has to be protected, right? And so being on the outside of that means none of those are afforded to you. It means none of those points of power, it means none of those points of acceptance, it means if you can, if you can perform that standard of beauty, then the world will be yours, although it's not, but for a few, which we do uphold and we look at. For me, it is a very, very painful place. 

Kiah Morris: Can we just talk real quick, woman to woman, about these Brazilian butt lifts? 

Myra Flynn (on tape): I knew you were gonna talk about the butt lifts. 

Kiah Morris: Can we just?

Myra Flynn (on tape): Listen, I was in Miami not that long ago and South Beach, that is a whole mood. 

Myra Flynn: Never thought I’d be describing the Brazilian Butt lift in my career but just in case you’re not familiar, here goes: The Brazilian butt lift (BBL) – more correctly known as gluteal fat grafting – is a procedure in which a doctor transfers fat from your belly, hips, lower back, or thighs to your butt.

Some people have what's called a "skinny BBL" because they don't have enough fat on their bodies so the doctor may remove it from other areas of the body or have them gain weight before the procedure to avoid trying to use fat from another donor — which is not safe. Let’s just say — it’s a procedure that has caused some controversy, and that’s not lost on Kiah.

Kiah Morris: I mean, Black women have some of the highest rates of eating disorders in this country right now. The levels of anorexia are enormous. And we have folks out there deliberately distorting their bodies to mimic blackness for appeal. And I am not saying that you cannot do modifications to your body. It's your body. You love it, you do with it as you will. But it is really difficult and disingenuine in this moment, when we've been told that our thickness is a pathological thing. It is a high-risk thing. It's a comorbid thing that can kill us. It's been created as a negativism, as a diagnosis. And yet we are busy glorifying women who are spending thousands of dollars getting dangerous surgeries so that they can mimic our bodies without us gaining any of the power. I got issues with that. 

There is so much attached to beauty. It's not just something we think about onto whether or not you receive a societal acceptance. That beauty determines your movement within the workplace, your ability to connect with others for romantic love, as we consider it, partnership, relationship. That beauty can often be a barrier to community, friends, what your children do and don't get access to. 

Myra Flynn: OK. Here’s the deal. For any of you who have brown and Black children, you may be out there thinking — what is wrong with the world? How am I supposed to correct this? Is my child’s perception of beauty just completely lost?

Hold on now. Kiah has a secret to overcoming this self loathing

Kiah Morris: The secret is to stop caring. I would almost say it's strategic in the sense that it's like there comes a point where you have to recognize for yourself that if it is not bringing you joy, that it is just causing you harm. And I can't be a party to that anymore. I can't be concerned with whether or not someone finds me beautiful. Because that over concern, that over anxiety, that insecurity was destroying me.

Zola Nagusky, Yamuna Turco, Kiah Morris. And as promised, each of our episodes will end with a deep listen. Today, Kiah, who in addition to the many beautiful accomplishments that dot her resume— is also a poet.

Black Beauty

by Kiah Morris

It is rigid 
spiral-like strictures that jut up violently from the brown Earth surface. 
algorithmically designed, 
attuned and directed through market analysis and capitalistic intentions. 
See this monolith of beauty that demands a conformity 
and when that conformity is not available, a performativity. 

See, blackness is not built on singularity. 
We live in pluralities, 
Our DNA bears the complex blueprint for all of humanity 
with its lines and its curves, 
with its stops and its starts, 
none of which can be bound. 

There are no curves without our caresses, 
skin that welcomes the sun, 
eyes that are the actual windows to soul. 
No hips without our mighty birthing power. 

We have to be trained to hate her own mothers 
and to degrade her magnificence 
to run from 
to demonize and disregard what God made perfect. 
It is the pursuit of power, 
that is unworthy of the sun blocking 
our greatest natural blessings of Black Beauty


This episode was mixed, scored and reported by Myra Flynn. She also composed the theme music, and the music under our deep listen. Other music by Blue dot sessions and Jay Green. Brittany Patterson edits our show., James Stewart and Mae Nagusky contributed to so many things on the backend of making this show.

Special thanks to Kelly Nagusky, Peter Hirschfield, and Peter Engisch. Also thanks to Elodie Reed, who is the graphic artist behind all of our Homegoings artist portraits.

As always, you are welcome here. To continue to be part of the Homegoings family:


    Myra Flynn joined Vermont Public in March 2021 and is the DEIB Advisor, Host and Executive Producer of Homegoings. Raised in Vermont, Myra Flynn is an accomplished musician who has come to know the lay of dirt-road land that much more intimately through touring both well-known and obscure stages all around the state and beyond. She also has experience as a teaching artist and wore many hats at the Burlington Free Press, including features reporter and correspondent, before her pursuits took her deep into the arts world. Prior to joining Vermont Public, Myra spent eight years in the Los Angeles music industry.