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Beauty is in the Eye of the Colonizer
Contestants must be “of good health and of the white race.” These were the Miss America pageant’s rules before amendments in 1940.
Beauty standards have been and continue to be defined by whiteness. Like our 1930s Miss America, the modern “all-American beauty” is still blond, blue-eyed, and thin. Ultimately, these features, coupled with pale skin, ski-sloped noses, and more, have been deemed most desirable by everyone from the colonizers of the 1400s to modern mainstream media. Coincidentally enough, they’re also features that are most prevalent in European genetics. Conversely, ethnic features are rejected and deemed inferior.
European colonialism is undoubtedly one root of this phenomenon. Through colonization, the colonized country’s political agency and power are stripped away. As Chris Weedon, a Critical and Cultural Theory Cardiff University professor wrote, “From the beginning of modern Western colonialism in the fifteenth century, Europeans… who settled in other parts of the world have defined themselves as different from and superior to the peoples of the five continents they colonized.” Colonizers ultimately become positioned at the top of the social hierarchy with natives at the bottom. As such, during the hundreds of years under colonization, the belief that European features are noble and beautiful became deeply embedded in many cultures. Furthermore, as Rubert Kipling demonstrated in his poem The White Man’s Burden, many colonists believed they had divine responsibility to impose their cultures and structures to “civilize” the natives. Consequently, white colonists often, through the criminalization of native traditions, destruction of cultural monuments, and more, made efforts forcing the adoption of European practices and eradication of native identities. Ultimately, as a survival strategy to escape persecution, native populations learned to re-create themselves in the white person’s image, assimilating and imitating their traditions, cultures, and features. It’s well documented that native peoples with European facial features were favored by the colonizers and rewarded with higher social statuses compared to their kin without.
Colorism--preference for fair skin over darker skin--is one clear consequence of this dynamic. Based on one’s complexion and not one’s race, colorism can be found globally in countries tied together by their shared experience under European colonialism or imperialism. In India and many other Asian countries, British and Spanish colonizers accepted those with lighter skin tones as “allies” and gave them more government roles. Comparatively, darker-skinned Indians, like Dalits, were viewed as “untouchables” and denied access to education. Similarly, in America, enslaved Africans with lighter skin were favored by their masters and given more domestic tasks while those with darker skin were sent to work labor-intensive tasks out in fields.
Colorism is also compounded and forwarded by poor media representation. Those with darker skin are largely absent from the big screen. Hollywood consistently preferentially casts lighter-skinned Black women despite original characters being markedly darker, from Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter in The Hate U Give to Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina. Even cartoons haven’t escaped this fate; Princess Tiana--Disney’s only Black princess-- had a lighter complexion and sharper features when she appeared in Ralph Breaks the Internet. Even when they are, they’re often negatively portrayed as uneducated or violent. During the OJ Simpson trials, Time’s magazine photoshopped Simpson to be significantly darker on the cover, giving the American public a more “criminal” impression of him. But skin color is far from being the only ethnic feature that’s been vilified— this pattern of exclusion has asserted itself in almost every ethnic feature, including noses, lips, hair, eyes, and bodies. In general, Hollywood pushes the same narrative that colonialism did, of white superiority and ethnic inferiority, with white characters being complex, kind and generous, and colored characters being either undepicted or depicted flatly, often following negative stereotypes like nerds, criminals, and terrorists. Consequently, the notion that white is beautiful and ethnic is ugly becomes reinforced.
The result is especially cruel because of the power beauty holds. Myriads of scientific papers document the halo effect, where people strongly associate those who are beautiful with positive traits like kindness and intelligence. This association has very real consequences. In a 2005 experiment modeling the hiring process, employers were ready to give 10.5% higher salaries to attractive people over unattractive people. Similarly, lighter-skinned Black women who better satisfy Eurocentric beauty standards have been found to earn $2600 more per year on average, serve 12% less time behind bars, are 3 times less likely to be suspended, and much much more, compared to their darker-skinned counterparts. On the other hand, the unattractive are associated with negative attributes, ranging from stupidity to immorality. As such, sociologist Bonnie Berry writes, “The disabled, the disfigured and the unattractive are all denied the relative ease of access to power and instead encounter obstacles to gaining social and economic power.” Correspondingly, in Pew’s National Survey of Latinos, 64% of Hispanics with darker skin said they’d personally experienced discrimination during the prior year while only 54% of Hispanics with lighter skin said the same. It’s clear that one’s perceived beauty has a large impact on one’s social power, and as a result, our current eurocentric beauty standards structurally favor Whites and disadvantages people of color.
On a more individually internal level, eurocentric beauty standards prevent people of color from seeing themselves as beautiful. They are made to hate their natural features. As a woman of color myself, growing up, I had a complex about my eyes. Thin. Slanted. Mono-lidded. They looked nothing like the big, round, European eyes I saw on magazine covers. My lack of an epicanthic fold distinguished me as other. It painted a bright crimson target on my face, making me the fodder for racist jokes and mockery about their size. The obvious conclusion I drew: my eyes were ugly.
This crippling insecurity around my appearance derailed much potential happiness and achievements. I was too concerned with how my eyes would disappear when I laughed to enjoy the moment. I was too concerned with drawing attention to my apparent ugliness to put myself out there and aim for excellence. My inability to see myself as beautiful directly prevented me from loving myself, and thus, truly living my life. Many other people of color have shared similar stories, from Arabs hating their “drooping” noses to Blacks hating their natural “kinky” hair.
However, in a society where the Patriarchy has delineated a woman’s worth as equivalent to her attractiveness, it’s important to recognize that these negative effects--structural discrimination and insecurity-- are especially concentrated on women of color. For thousands of years, marrying up was the singular method for women to achieve a better life, and their beauty, as what men primarily valued, was their only trait that could be weaponized. Even to this day, 35% of people say that a woman’s physical attractiveness is her most important trait while only 11% of people say the same for men, explaining why 92% of all plastic surgery patients in American in 2014 were women. As such, the exclusion of women of color from being considered beautiful greatly disenfranchises them.
With the social capital and personal value that beauty grants, it’s logical that women of color, one of the most marginalized groups in the western world, would greatly desire to attain the standard. Consequently, many have tried erasing their ethnic features. In the latter half of the 20th century, plastic surgery was advertised as a way to “correct” “foreign” features, and as such it’s unsurprisingly still used for that purpose. The number of ethnic patients undergoing plastic surgery in the U.S increased by 243% between the years 2000 and 2013. Similarly, the skin bleaching industry was valued at 8.6 billion in 2020 and is predicted to expand to reach 12.3 billion by 2027. These practices are very expensive, time-consuming, and even dangerous. Plastic surgery often costs tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, may require long recovery times, and has health risks. Likewise, many skin bleaching creams have been found to contain large amounts of mercury, hydroquinone, and other toxic chemicals that have detrimental health effects. While every person of color has the right to modify their body in ways they see fit, it’s very sad that society has conditioned us to see our natural features, indicators of our complex, deep heritage, as something that needs to be adjusted.
However, recently, the culture has undergone a strange transformation. Ethnic features are being celebrated---but only when worn on white women. Now, we are confronted with a new problem of appropriation and commodification of these features. There are varied reasons for this. Bell hooks, a feminist scholar, wrote that “There is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference. The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling,” arguing that the appropriate ethnicity and features are used to add spice to the otherwise blandness of mainstream white culture. Thus, there becomes a very utilitarian and calculated aspect to this commodification; white women who intelligently capitalize off the appropriation can generate billions of dollars in profit. The Kardashian-Jenners, a family of reality TV stars and pop culture icons, are a prime example of how ethnic features become marketable when installed on white bodies. Through excessive tans, dramatically curvy bodies achieved with implants and surgeries, and plumped lips through fillers, many Kardashians appear extremely racially ambiguous despite being white and have successfully utilized those features to build great wealth. Kim Kardashian capitalized on the size of her behind to capture the public’s attention, emphasizing it on multiple magazine covers, and utilizing it to launch her shapewear brand SKIMS; Kylie Jenner sold hundreds of millions of dollars of lipstick with the attention over her lips size after fillers. With their influence, curvy bodies, dark tans, and large lips are now the “it item” to have. Since 2000, butt-enhancing procedures have increased by 256% and lip fillers have increased by more than 50%. Specifically, in 2016, the number of lip procedures performed increased sharply right after Kylie Jenner admitted to getting lip fillers. Yet these features are precisely the ones that people of color were dehumanized for. Colorism towards darker complexions requires no further explanation. Fuller lips and curvier bodies on Black women, features they’re genetically predisposed to, were mocked by minstrel shows and racist cartoons for entertainment. In fact, in the 19th-century, Saartijie Baartman, a South African woman, was paraded semi-nude, her posterior exhibited for Europeans to look at and for a price, touch.
A similar phenomenon has occurred with the fox eye trend. On many social media platforms, creators will use makeup and face tapes to lift and lengthen their eyes into a “foxy” shape. Interestingly enough, this eye shape--slanted, long, and small-- is one that many East Asians naturally have. It was an extremely out-of-body experience to see a feature that I had always been ridiculed for, receive heaps of compliments and praise on white women. I felt the entire situation quite ironic.
This fetishization of ethnic features believably masquerades as inclusivity. Some see the “celebration” of darker skin tones, smaller eyes, or bigger lips and weaponize that as evidence that beauty standards have been successfully decolonized. That we’ve achieved the goal of diversity. That there is no more progress that needs to be made. When critics point out the falsity of such claims, some will even attack detractors for not being appreciative of how diverse features are being spread and “loved.” This view is especially sinister because it parallels how imperialism disguises itself as well-intentioned help through trade deals and aid, escaping backlash and abolitionist efforts. Ultimately, like how later abolitionists missed how imperialist policies and institutions like the IMF largely achieved the exact same effect of direct militaristic colonialism--the oppression of weaker countries and exploitation of their natural resources--the view that appropriation of these features is “inclusive” ignores the reality that they are only celebrated on white women while women of color still face degradation for their natural features. Additionally, it is important to remember that the popularity of Black and East Asian features is momentary. When they become normalized on white faces, the public will likely again turn to a new ethnic feature for their dash of “otherness.” Who is to say that Arabian or Hispanic features won’t be next? Ultimately, trends come and go, but while white women can pick and choose ethnic features, adapting them to their liking while they are fashionable, women of color cannot do the same. While white women can dissolve their filler, take off their eye tape, and stop applying fake tanner, Black women cannot dissolve their natural lip volume, nor can East Asians un-tape their eyes, nor can all people of color with darker complexion erase their melanin. Will our old and boring ethnic features still be adored after their time is up? Likely not. Consequently, we are prevented from truly solving the problem of colonialist beauty standards.
So how can we decolonize our beauty standards? I propose two methods. The first is to eliminate personal beauty as a measure of self-worth, decreasing its importance, and erasing the idea that beauty is a prerequisite to being treated with respect, kindness, or compassion. This is ideal-- it would reduce both the disenfranchisement of people of color as well as everyone else who current beauty standards exclude, from the disabled to the fat.
The second is to expand our definition and view on what is beautiful. As media greatly shapes our perception of ourselves and others, a greater diversity of faces in media is a powerful tool to accomplish this. After all, a 1993 analysis found that we are better at evaluating the beauty of faces we are familiar with. Additionally, studies have established the existence of the familiarity principle--we find things we are familiar with, including faces, more attractive. Even brief exposure to an object, for example seeing it in a social media post, can enormously influence our perception. In a social media landscape that’s saturated with white faces with minimal diversity--in Hollywood, ethnic minorities, who make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population, receive only 17% of the lead roles in films-- we are conditioned to find white faces more beautiful. The portrayal of a diverse range of bodies and faces also leads to increased confidence; a King University study found that “brief exposure to body-positive Instagram posts resulted in improved body image and mood in young women.” For young people of color, conceptualizing a person of color with the same features as them as beautiful helps them conceptualize themselves as well. Personally, I first saw my eyes as beautiful when I saw a picture of Tsunaina. A Tibetan model and musician, Tsunaina wore many insecurities that I had with pride and regal authority, from numerous moles to lengthened and small eyes to thicker lips and very strong bone structure. Within her beauty, I saw a reflection of myself, leading me to love my features. Even now, when I feel a wave of insecurity rolling over me, I pull up pictures of her and other East Asian women I see myself in. By showing more women of color, Hollywood and the media can also be used to fight back against eurocentric beauty standards.
Politics additionally imbue every aspect of what we see as beautiful. As Naomi Wolf wrote, “beauty is a currency system like the gold standard,” and every economy is determined by politics. Specifically, she states that “...in the modern age in the west it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact." The U.S’s 90 billion dollar beauty industry and its targeted advertisements, telling women, especially women of color, that they are not enough, that they are too fat, too skinny, too old, too young, too dark, too light, and much more is a method for white male supremacists to keep women insecure and in control. As such, political movements that affirm the beauty and power of people of color have also been extremely successful. Historically, the Black is Beautiful movement in the 60s and 70s led to Blacks embracing their blackness, from their dark skin tone to their textured hair. A 1972 study of black teens revealed that 90% of young men and 40% of young women in Saint Louis sported their natural kinks, an uptick from the 50s and 60s. In current times, the body neutrality and body positivity movements have also changed social perceptions on what a beautiful body can look like.
There will be pushback. As established, beauty is power, and minorities gaining power has always been threatening to White America. Efforts to reject beauty as a measure of worth and to expand its parameters directly endangers the profit and status of many, from all corporations in the beauty industry to celebrities and influencers. Black is Beautiful faced controversy. The fat positivity movement has as well.
In July, California’s legislature unanimously passed a bill, awarding tax credits to productions that were “broadly reflective of California’s population, in terms of race and gender,” incentivizing diversity in Hollywood. But California is simply one state out of 50; this one bill doesn’t overhaul Hollywood, much less our social ideals shaped by hundreds of years of colonization. Yet great change is built on the foundation of small actions--we must continue rejecting conformity to current eurocentric beauty standards, continue unabashedly loving ourselves, continue deemphasizing the importance of beauty, and continue advocating for greater representation in media, decolonizing beauty standards step by step. Only then will the old Miss America rules and the ideal it represents be truly left behind. Only then can we live totally. Unapologetically. Freely.