Tuesday, April 22, 2008

impose their beauty standards on others

Try this thought experiment sometime. Say the following to an American:
I'm going to say a phrase, but before I do so, you have to close your eyes, and clear your mind.

Then I'm going to ask you what picture popped into your head in response to the phrase.

Okay, got your eyes closed? Good.

Got your mind as empty as you can get it? Good.

Now here's the phrase: "All-American girl."

Okay. Now describe the girl who came to mind for you--what does she look like?
In my experience, the vast majority of respondents say things like "cheerleader," or "she has long hair." Then, usually, "blond" and "blue eyes." If the respondents are non-white, they tend to quickly use the word "white" to describe the girl who popped into their minds. If they're white, it usually takes them longer to say the word "white," but it almost always comes for them too.

What this experiment demonstrates is that the category of "All-American," the category of American "ordinary," is occupied by white people in the minds of almost all Americans, be they white or not.

The occupancy of whiteness on America's cultural center stage has widespread effects throughout nearly every element of American culture, as well as within nearly every American mind. One sad effect is the favoring of white beauty standards, even among non-white people.

A lot of Asian women, for instance, have eye operations to widen their eyes. They do so for various reasons, but a common one, sometimes conscious and sometimes subconscious, is to make their eyes less "narrow." Narrow compared to what? one might ask. How did other, wider, non-Asian eyes come to be a standard for beauty that made Asian eyes seem not normal, but narrow in comparison?

Similarly, black women straighten their hair and use skin lighteners. They do so for various reasons, but an often subconscious reason is to make their appearance more like that of white women.

Women of color can now win local, national, and international beauty contests that are not in some way specific to particular races and ethnicities. But they can only do so if their appearances match a set of criteria initially established by previous white winners, and by a broader social and cultural emphasis on the beauty of white women. This set of criteria also holds true, in most cases, for the talent portions of such contests, and any demonstrations of markedly non-white talent only win if they are toned down, smoothed out, made palatable, or "decent"--and thus in effect, "whitened" as well.

A brilliant high school student named Kiri Davis recently made a poignant, informative, seven-minute analysis of this problem, demonstrating some of the insidious effects of the imposition of white standards on non-white people:

UPDATE: Not that the imposition of beauty standards is just a black-and-white thing:

Slip of the Tongue,
directed by Karen Lum


  1. Thanks for posting this video! It's good to hear black women addressing this issue of color-hierarchy within our culture. My family is Egyptian and the adults always used to praise me for my very light skin, that it made me more beautiful. So this white standard for beauty holds true globally, as you say.
    It's so sad and it eats away at black women's and girls' sense of self and identity. I can't tell you how many black men have told me bluntly that they "hate black girls" because they're not "feminine" enough or they're "too loud" or "ghetto." It's disgusting.

  2. One of my intro to soc professors Dr. Charles Gallagher did a similar experiment on the first day of classes.

    He would ask the students to write down the first 5 things they think others think of them upon seeing them.

    The majority of minority students wrote down their race, yet none of the white students did.

    Very telling.

  3. My gosh, the test with the children and baby dolls made me cry. That is so horrible that a child that young already has ideas of good and bad, but yet has no idea why they think that.
    My mom tried really hard when I was younger. I'm a lighter skinned Latina, but still darker than white, and she went EVERYWHERE and finally found me a tan-skinned Cabbage Patch doll, (I still have her). Also, I remember having tons of barbies and since back in the 80s they were either black or white, my favorite barbie was the Black barbie. I called her Guadalupe.
    I still go through rebelling with the standard of beauty thing. I have wavy unruly hair, and I straighten it once in a while cuz I like variety. I get the most compliments when I do that and it always made me uncomfortable and wonder what they are *really* say.
    Props to the girl who made that video!

  4. Wow, yeah, I had a tear come up and out too. Thanks Macon, very revealing post.

  5. Man! this is rich! I swear the worst is whenever you meet someone not from the USA and they already have that all American type ideal of person in mind, White! I remember asking a friend who was visiting from South America who only wanted to date and meet the all American types of girls. Which I was somewhat puzzled. I introduced to some of my friends who were latinas, african-americans, asian americans and white-americans. In the end, he said that the blond girls were the true all American type. We are still friends. . . .

  6. TRUE!!! ALL TRUE!!! but what about that hate of women in general too. Look at the pretty girls (why do people hardly use the word women now a days?), and how their skeleton shows. Lot at their faces, and take a close look at their cheek bones. Look at their thin legs, as thin as an arm. Look at our women today, why could we see the detail skeleton, and their veins pumping? Why do their chest and ribs look like an old school wash board? Why do we see such women beautiful, but at the same time feel disturb by the starve Jews (male, since women where executed) during world war two? Because girls are meant to be skinny and thin? If they where meant to be thin, then why do we always see them watch what they eat?
    But you tell me, what other animal in the kingdom survives looking like that. And you wounder why man are stronger. Its not because of nature, but because of nurture. And the truth of the mater is, this society hates any one who is not a wealthy white male. Womyn are not value. They are call bitches and hoes. They are put on the background to make it look appealing. They are forced to be weak, sensitive, and young. Their "beauty" is glorified, and never the brain. Womyn are hated. And all of this, is to dis-empower womyn. That is why, its a mans world right now, just as its a white world.

    And for all those people who refuse to accept reality. Thinking i'm an "ugly fat color girl", think again. I'm a male. I'm a male from south central, Los Angeles. I'm proud to be brown and I smoke weed. Let that just slap people reality. OH, and one more thing. I'm not a Latino, nor a Hispanic, i'm a XiKano (Chicano), just as Malcolm X WAS NOT A NIGGRO, but Afrikan.

    and for you the author. Thank you for this beautiful article.

  7. To everyone who commented before me--I love what you said and totally agree! Especially shack doctrine. I'm glad to know a chicano male can see the reality of the issue of standard beauty. Things have to change.

  8. your title says stuff white people do impose their beauty standards on others, but you havent really proved this. alot of african, asian people buy into this light skin standard, but is it really the white people imposing it? or are asians and africans just lost and confused?

  9. i truly appreciate this post! i'm trying to have an exchange w/folks on facebook about this very post and men want to keep making it about them or warp the topic somehow. only because it's relevant to my dilemma, i'm a man as well but i'm well aware of the need to discuss this subject so thanks again for posting this!!!


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