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White beauty norms are not problematic for White women only

April 16, 2009

We create beauty norms to privilege a certain kind of person. Amanda wrote recently about the capitalistic elements of our beauty standards: how we create beauty standards based on the value we place on consumption. We also create beauty standards based on the bodies we already value. Last spring, Daphne Valerius came to Carleton to speak at a screening of her documentary, The Souls of Black Girls, about media images of the bodies and minds of Black women. Here’s a clip:

A lot of the things the young women of color at the beginning of this video are saying sound exactly like what gets said at Happy Bodies planning meetings, or whenever women are given the chance to talk about their bodies. But the issue is not precisely the same. When Michaela Angela Davis says, “Women of color have never been in a position to define our own sexuality,” she touches on the hegemony of White people on what constitutes beauty. That is, that Blackness only nears beautiful as it nears Whiteness.

Sociological Images recently posted a video of A Girl Like Me, a documentary by Kiri Davis in which Black girls talk about body image:

Elle at Shakesville writes about skin bleaching, and the cultural connection between attractiveness and Whiteness:

There were the times I watched pregnant women in my community grab the hands of straight or curly haired, light-skinned people and rub those hands across their stomachs—so the “good” hair and light skin would rub off on the baby. There were the times people asked my sister and I if we had the same father, because I was lighter than she. There was also the fact that I was an early romance-novel reader; I wish now I had a nickel for all the mentions of “pale” or “alabaster” flesh (quivering flesh—it was always quivering flesh!)


Being lighter, being closer to white, makes PoC more successful, more confident, more attractive. That message is drummed into us over and over.

Renee at Womanist Musings talks about the dynamic of this standard of beauty within Black communities:

To be a dark skinned black woman in a world that values whiteness, is to be daily “othered” and otherwise ignored. From a very early age the dark skin girl learns that she is not beautiful regardless of how supportive her family may be and in a world where beauty is one of the few ways in which women express and or wield power, this can lead to feelings of anger and resentment. To actually rise above the anger that is created by discovering that through an accident of birth one is deemed socially irrelevant, is work that for some women takes a lifetime.

This anger often manifests itself by challenging the worth and or the blackness of lighter skinned women. Light skinned women may find more acceptability around whiteness but when they must relate to members of the African American community, issues of undeserved privilege will arise. They will be asked to prove their allegiance to POC and black men will actively seek them out as trophy wives. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to identify as a WOC, only to have that identity challenged repeatedly. Some will become extremely militant as a way to counter act the exclusion that they face.

Both of these posts, along with Amanda’s from earlier this week, underscored for me that challenging beauty norms and expectations is about a lot more than just making my body feel happy. It’s about resisting structures of power within our culture that determine what is an acceptable body, and what kinds of bodies need to be policed: dieted, Whitened, silenced, commented on. No woman ever escapes being understood in terms of her body; the political is personal, indubitably. And a vitally important part of this project, Happy Bodies and its on-campus activities, is the individual, personal affirmation that all of our bodies are and deserve to feel valuable.

But we also need to challenge our culture to respect the value of multiple beauties, and to see the racial and socioeconomic privilege inherent in holding up these beauty standards that honor advantaged people in our society.

Now, go watch those videos and read those beautiful women.


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