WHAT IS BEAUTY?
WHAT IS BEAUTY
Beauty is subjective; it is a result of the judgment of others on what is aesthetically pleasing. For example, some people find that the color orange is beautiful while others find that the color blue is beautiful. When it comes to other human beings, however, the definition and perception of beauty becomes far less subjective. Cultural norms and traditions skew the definition of ‘beauty’ until it becomes a rigid, cookie-cutter concept that acknowledges little to no bend. The U.S. is programmed to glorify Eurocentric features. The problem is that America’s population does not consist of white people exclusively. A country that houses thousands of people with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds cannot only praise the attributes of Caucasians because it creates an inferiority complex. The presence of white beauty preferences is harmful because they serve to erase and devalue black culture and support a system of black inferiority. White people created the social idea that one color is better than another and because of this, beauty standards remain slanted to this day.
THE HISTORY THAT BROUGHT ABOUT THIS MINDSET
To understand the social construct of black inferiority and its relationship to beauty ideals, specifically, female beauty ideals, there must be an understanding of the history that brought the country to where it is in present time. When Europeans first encountered Western Africa in the 1400’s, the hairstyles that the African people wore were shockingly different to those that the Europeans were used to. The Africans wore their hair in intricate braids, plaits, twists, and locs and they had patterns shaved into their scalps. All of these hairstyles came with mixtures of beads, shells, and flowers as adornments. To the Africans, hair was a social mechanism that held strong spiritual significance. The Europeans understood how much this meant to the Africans, so the first thing the white slavers did was shave their heads to strip them of their identity (Patton 28). Already this established white dominance over blacks by showing that they had to power to take away things that were important to a culture simply because they felt like it. This approach is similar to the approach that the Nazis used when putting Jewish people into concentration camps. Their techniques included removing the Jews from their familiar settings, cutting off all their hair so that men and women looked similar, taking their clothes and making them all wear the same thing, and then removing their last shred of identity and humanity by marking them with numbers like cattle. These extreme acts of dehumanization serve to remove a person
from their individuality, to establish a hierarchy and to strip that person of any self-power that was previously possessed. If a person is continuously treated like an animal, soon they will become one out of habit. In 1619, when whites had successfully enslaved Africans, the whites defined the blacks that had more Eurocentric features—lighter skin, looser hair texture, and European facial structures— as “better”. These blacks were more likely to be the ones who worked in the house. Housework meant less backbreaking labor, better access to clothes, education, food and the promise of freedom when the Master died. Those who were darker skinned with kinky hair and more broad features were sent to work in the fields (Patton 26). Most of the field slaves wore scarves to cover their kinky hair that was un-styled, balding and breaking off. Those who worked in the house, however, had access to ingredients that helped them to care for and fashion their hair, emulating white hairstyles so that it was “presentable” for the Masters (Patton 28). Emulating whiteness offered a certain amount of protection for blacks, which helped to perpetuate the idea that the closer to white you are the better. It became an issue of free versus slave, educated versus uneducated and upper class versus poor (Patton 29). Soon, regardless of whether or not you actually worked the house or the field, lighter skinned black people were seen as better. Because of the hierarchal ladder that whites created, blacks began to internalize the standard and the legacy continues to this day due to years of living in a system that is based on that oppressive idea. American society idealizes the physical characteristics of white women and then measures black women against those standards (Patton 28). Black women feel pressure to cover up their “blackness” in order to conform to something that is absolutely unattainable which, in turn, leads to self-hate.
IDEALIZATION OF EUROPEAN CHARACTERISTICS
The idealization of European characteristics is not difficult to find in present day society. The problem is that in the past, the idealization was blatant and whites felt comfortable and entitled enough to vocalize this preference directly. In contemporary society, the outward, and flagrant declaration concerning the favoritism of white features is not accepted on a superficial level; no one wants to be labeled a racist. Ashamed of the U.S.’s history of slavery, people like to believe that racism is over and that there is no more discrimination, but they are simply turning a blind eye to reality. These preferences and idealizations are so much a part of the foundation of American society that many can’t see or understand what it looks like. The Eurocentric “cookie-cutter” has already taken root. This is seen in campaigns such as L’Oreal, Clairol and Cover Girl, who have been know to do things like lighten the skin, straighten the hair and lighten the eyes of black icons such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifa (Kite). Even these black mega-stars are seen as less because their skin is not lighter; therefore the editors see it fit to force their image to comply with European attributes. An example of ignorance to the dangers of Eurocentric beauty ideals is the recent New York Times article written by Alessandra Stanley in which Viola Davis is called ‘less classically beautiful’. It becomes clear that, to Stanley, classic beauty means white beauty, and Viola Davis, with her dark skin, fuller figure, and
broader facial features, does not fit into Stanley’s very narrow perception of what beauty is. White women are prominently featured on magazine covers, advertisements, commercials, television shows and movies. They are glorified as the “woman to be” and the “perfect girl”. The black women who are able to attain the spotlight are seen as exotic rarities and unusual and unique beauties. Black beauty and black inferiority are closely linked in the idea that refusing to let a society see value in black women, American culture, by default, creates a stigma that suggest that black women just aren’t good enough. Euro-American women see their body image and beauty as a concrete and accepted part of mainstream society. African-American beauty has been raped and defiled habitually for decades, and the systematic denial of anyone who is different from the established beauty standard is needed for the American system and economy to prosper (Patton 34). If all races were found beautiful on equal standards, who would buy, hair, creams, make-up and other cosmetics to fit into specific beauty paradigms?
DEHUMANIZATION OF BLACK WOMEN
There are, however, those who say that America does see the beauty in black women and that America is inserting black people and their culture into the media and fashion industry. In theory, this concept sounds good, almost transcendent, but in today’s society, white people not only assert that their beauty is superior but take things from black culture, appropriate it and claim it as their own. This results in the further dehumanization of black women and the erasure of their identity. Whites aren’t celebrating black culture. They are taking black culture apart and picking out things to try on as fads and trends, paying no attention to the history of abuse that black people have received as a result of living with a culture that they can’t remove. Marie Claire called Kendall Jenner’s cornrows “epic”, white DKNY models with “slicked-down tendrils” –-more commonly known as baby hairs—were called trendy and chic (Wellington). Cornrows and braids have been a part of the African and African-American culture for centuries and slicking down baby hairs has been a part of the culture for a long time as well. Society pays no attention the fact that they call black people ghetto and ratchet for wearing these same styles. When white people don them, however, they have discovered something entirely new; they are chic, trendy, modern, and stylish and black women are never praised or accredited for these aspects of their culture. Numéro magazine went as far as releasing a spread entitled “African Queen” which
depicted a 16-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed, white model with her skin significantly darkened posing with African inspired clothing. When backlash hit, the editor responded by saying “It was never his intention to portray a black woman in the story” and how he wanted “tanned and golden skin to be showcased as the beauty aesthetic for the shoot”. Not only did he use blackface without a second thought, but his backwards apology spins circles around his own Eurocentric ideals. He named the spread “African Queen”, darkened the skin of a white model to a deep bronze and presented the clothes with a Moroccan style in mind, but he wasn’t trying to portray a black person. It sounds contradictory because it is. Even when ample black people are available to portray an African Queen, Numéro chose a white female to do the job, further spreading the idea that even as a black person, a white person is better.
So, because of cultural customs, the word ‘beauty’ is no longer subjective in reference to human beings in American society. Beauty standards, perpetuated by a history of dehumanization and separation within the black community, created a rigid hierarchy that established black women at the bottom of the food chain. This hierarchy still exists today and is extremely harmful because it aids a system of black inferiority. Those who disagree and say that America does see the beauty in black women are not seeing that society does not appreciate, but appropriates black culture and claim it as their own and further propagates the Eurocentric beauty ideal.
Kite, Lexi, and Lindsay Kite. "Beauty Whitewashed: How White Ideals Exclude Women of Color."
BEAUTY REDEFINED. 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.
Patton, Tracey Owens. "Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their
Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair." NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006): 24-51.
Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
Wellington, Elizabeth. "When Black Girls Get Criticized and White Girls Get Celebrated." For Harriet.
5 Oct. 2014. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.