Although it is an unfortunate reality, looks matter more than ever.
So just be you. And be beautiful.
Excessive use of mascara makes eyelashes appear fuller and longer. Spray-on tans gives the skin a glowing effect while make-up covers blemishes and all other “unsightly” characteristics. Already slender bodies are reduced to the width of sticks with digital retouching. If that wasn’t enough, make-up is used to make fake muscles appear to be real to the naked eye. Teeth are edited to be blindingly white. All of this is apparently done for the purpose of selling a product, but models found throughout spreads of magazines and television channels are having a much different effect on Americans, and more specifically, adolescent girls. The standard of beauty in the media today is impossible for most people to achieve because it is not only unnatural, but unrealistic.
Let’s face it. In a country where cosmetic surgery, excessive tanning, and eating disorders are occurring more than ever, it’s become obvious that looks really do matter. Beauty, a topic closely tied to women and femininity, has been a pervasive force in the lives of women everywhere since the recognition of sexual attraction. According to the dictionary, beauty is vaguely defined as “the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind.” But how exactly is beauty determined? Is it something that can be measured? According to the famous painter, Pablo Picasso, there is no such thing as beauty. The vast number of women of all shapes and sizes attempting to conform to its nearly impossible conditions may suggest that beauty is, in fact, imaginary. Of course this leads us to the next question: whose opinion validates who can be beautiful? The answer is simple: society.
The topic that I would like to focus on is the beauty ideal in the U.S. and how to challenge or resist its detrimental effects on women. Furthermore, I would like to focus in on the feminine side of beauty and in particular, the beauty of women of color. Beauty, which is ultimately a measurement of self worth, is directly tied to racism. With sex and race working together, black women remain the most under-privileged group in America going as far back as slavery. I believe that by understanding black women’s struggle to be included in American beauty can allow for a more beneficial way of looking at beauty and self worth, for women of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Hopefully, this information will help to create a better beauty standard that we define within ourselves as opposed to letting it define us.
“Beauty is what makes life worth living”
– Frederick Turner
“..American girls are conditioned to limit their own life goals and self-esteem. Black women have been doubly victimized by scholarly neglect and racist assumptions. Belonging as they do to two groups which have traditionally been treated as inferiors by American society—Blacks and women—they have been doubly invisible.” -Gerda Lerner
People are not just born thinking that someone is less attractive because of the color of their skin. They are taught this. A man who played a central role of the development of the white racial frame, Thomas Jefferson, also introduced ideas of superior beauty in whites. He suggested this because of their “flowing hair” and “more elegant symmetry” which are depictions of beauty that would haunt black women today, especially in regards to hair.  During a time when slavery was flourishing, there were many ideologies surfacing that not only created the social reality of race but placed races in hierarchical categories that left blacks at the very bottom. The racial frame has been strengthened and regulated strategically by whites that would leave black Americans, especially black women, at the bottom of the social totem pole. It is this same strategy that allows whites to be the dominant group in this country up until present day.With racist stereotypes and images that are often portrayed through media, elites are able to manipulate and mold the social realities of Americans into believing false values surrounding beauty and attractiveness.
Media is heavily used to promote messages that attack people of color. We make the false assumption that most of what we are fed through the media is true, when in fact it is controlled by some of the same people hoping to uphold white dominance in this country. It makes it harder to break free from what we think we have known all along and begin to accept that we have had a false reality fed to us, including beauty in regards to women of color. Ideologies of systematic gendered racism are evident in depictions of black women as unintelligent, money thirsty, hyper sexual, and unnattractive . The lack of women of color’s exposure and diversity in media reflects the invisibility that has followed them throughout American contemporary society. Because skinny, white, blue eyed women have been labeled as the beauty norm, women of ALL backgrounds are going to great lengths to achieve it. Despite the pain these messages cause for black women, media affects ALL women and as a result, they have come together in hopes to resist the harmful effects of the beauty myth.
Black women are a prism through which the searing rays of race, gender, and sex are first focused, then refracted. The creative among us transform these rays into a spectrum of brilliant colors, a rainbow which illuminates the experience of all mankind. – Margaret B. Wilkerson
The beauty industry has become a multinational, multi-million dollar business. Although the beauty standard has always served as a guideline to the social lives of women, recently it has become an obsession. In has also served as a form of therapy for all women in gaining it . The beauty standard suggests that it is something that must be earned or attained. It has caused women to go to endless lengths to achieve it when it’s standards are near to impossible to achieve.
Loveyourbody.org is a website whose mission is effective in reaching out to all women of different shapes, sizes ,and colors. The editor, Ophira Edut, is a writer, editor, designer and social entrepreneur. For the past decade she has created independent media projects for young women. She primarily focuses on body image, media, and culture. She also firmly believes in the idea of “radical self acceptance” and creating one’s own image of beauty by being conscious media consumers. Her social presence has allowed her to create a movement effective in reaching out to young women who are the primary victims to the scrutiny of media. She has created numerous websites, written books and articles, while also giving lectures at colleges and universities.
http://www.about-face.org focuses on attitude in reversing internalized values of beauty. Their movement identifies the struggle of separating one’s feelings about her physical body from her self-worth, especially in a society so indulged in media. Their ultimate goal is “to imbue girls and women with the power to free themselves from the burden of body-image problems so they will be capable of fulfilling their varied and wondrous potentials”.
“Our extraordinary new initiative, My Black is Beautiful, celebrates the diverse collective beauty of African American women and nurtures black self-esteem. The movement encourages black women to define and promote our own beauty standard – one that is an authentic reflection of our indomitable spirit. Recognizing that beauty and self confidence are intrinsically linked, My Black is Beautiful is designed to ignite black pride and support a sustained national conversation by, for, and about black women—the way we are reflected in popular culture and how we serve as the catalyst for a movement that effects positive change.”
Lerner discusses how black people have been denied their history and how identifying with it can bring forth a mental freedom. Understanding the past, present, and future can help to shake off the insecurities of not only being black but being a woman. By simply understanding yourself and the history of your people you are growing more comfortable with your existence. The closer you are to yourself the more you become empowered with self-love. The ability to accept responsibility for one’s own body allows for a better life. In defining yourself you create your own beauty standard and feeling of self worth. Telling people you are beautiful as opposed to being told can make all the difference in people’s approach to defining attractiveness. Survival has been an effective form of resistance for black woman and we can learn a lot from them. Movements, organizations, and other forms of resistance are taking advantage of this to reflect their “indomitable spirit” in hopes to inspire the same strength in other women. It is important not to attack the dominant group, but to challenge them.
persistent anxiety over weight and appearance,
extremely unhealthy diets and exercise regimens,
and eating disorders.
To feel empowered as a woman we should look at the bigger picture. No matter how you look at it, the beauty standard affects ALL woman and we should become unified as a group instead of looking at the micro internal conflicts we may experience under the pressures of being beautiful. Division among women, especially involving race, only complicates change because we all must be on the same page before we can move forward as a whole.It’s ironic that through the process of trying to achieve an imaginary standard of beauty, women are destroying everything that makes them beautiful and unique. It is no longer black girls wishing to have a long, straight ponytail running down their back. It is no longer larger women wishing to be thinner, but already thin women wishing to be thin too. With this development it becomes quite obvious that media is sending all the wrong messages. Connecting images of beauty, sex appeal, perfection, and health to a small minority of women puts pressure on other women who do not look similar to them. Self improvement is a part of human nature. Women should want to be the best they can be. But in the process they must not lose focus on the idea of individuality which is a key component needed for self-love. Beauty does exist but it is important to find it within before looking to outside forces like media.
In the meantime, I believe that women should focus more on what they love about themselves. Instead of “fixing” themselves they should focus this energy towards expanding the person they are. Religiously reading fashion magazines or viewing “reality” tv shows may also have a detrimental affect on women because most of it is fake or edited. We all seem to have an understanding of the flawed nature of beauty in this country but are in denial. It’s a natural feeling to want to feel beautiful, but most women underestimate the power to control these feelings without having to turn to social media.
- Wingfield, Adia H. Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
- Lerner, Gerda. Black Women in White America. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
- Edut, Ophira. Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image. Emeryville, California: Seal, 1998.
- Grogan, Sarah. Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women, and Children. New York: Routledge, 2008.
- Nakano Glenn, Evelyn. Shades of Difference : Why Skin Color Matters. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 2009.
- Black, Paula. The Beauty Industry : Gender, Culture, Pleasure. New York: Routledge, 2004.