Do you have blue eyes?
I am beautiful.
I can say that in a self-affirming/we’re-all-beautiful sort of way, but I’m definitely not beautiful in a classical sense. I’m not the kind of beauty that people stop on the street or walk up to in bars just to comment on my good looks, so I’m not really used to having my appearance remarked upon. But I’ve recently had a spate of such comments.
(A little background to these occurrences – this summer I’ve been working at a day camp for “at risk” elementary and middle school students, two-thirds of whom are Latina/o).
It started with my eyes. Two different female campers asked me at separate times if I had blue eyes (I do). One of them followed up the question with “they’re pretty”. A few days later, I overheard another girl tell her friend (in Spanish), “she’s pretty” (referring to me). The friend then turned and told me “those two girls think you’re pretty”. At first I was sort of unnerved by this sudden attention being paid to my looks. And then I began to unpack the cultural baggage behind these comments.
All of the girls making these comments are Latina. Although only 10% of the people in their town are Latina/o, they live together in a neighborhood that is upwards of 90% Latina/o and attend a school where three-quarters of the students are Latina/o. The majority of people that these girls interact with in an average week are Latina/o, so for them, my blue eyes are a rarity. And of course, because I have blond hair and white skin, I also fall into the group of people that our society has traditionally defined as beautiful. Or at least I fit the category of “people who have the chance to be beautiful” – that is, not all white, blond, blue-eyed people are pretty, but those with dark skin, eyes and hair are much less likely to be classified as good looking.
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 while ago, Jill wrote about how white beauty norms affect women of color and the privileging of Whiteness as a beauty concept. The videos and articles that Jill discusses focus mainly on how the desire for whiteness plays out in the lives of black women, but the same general problems are present in the Latina community as well. Latinas have traditionally been excluded from beauty ideals, just the way that black women have and lighter skin tones are certainly prized in many Latina/o communities.
For the young Latinas that I’m working with, I possess not only the culturally determined characteristics of beauty, but also an air of exoticism (because of the rarity of white people in their environment). These two factors combine to make my eyes and general appearance noteworthy for these girls.
As I said at the beginning of this post, people don’t regularly comment on my looks. Or rather, white people don’t usually comment on my looks. I grew up in a mainly white neighborhood of Seattle (a fairly white city). Then I went to a prep school in the suburbs (read, a school full of rich white kids). Then I went to a liberal arts college in a small Midwestern town (more white people). So like many white people, I’ve spent most of my life being surrounded mainly be other white people. Since many white people have light hair and blue eyes, my appearance was never really a topic of conversation. And as blue eyes go, mine are a rather dull/dark blue*, not the bright blue that usually receives comments (at least within the light-eyed community). When I’m surrounded by mainly white people (which is most of the time), my appearance is not particularly remarkable, so no one remarks upon it. But when I’m one of very few white people that these young Latina girls see regularly, I’m of great interest to them because I am both unusual and have the outward signs of American “beauty”.
*Mom and I have exactly the same color eyes, and when she was little she liked to tell people that her eyes were “navy blue”.