Never That Kind of Beautiful
The Impacts of Eurocentric Beauty Standards
They travel, they change, but really, they stay the same: so hard to achieve. However, for some they are easier to reach. People with money, able-bodied people and also, you guessed it, White people. European or Eurocentric beauty standards are a very strange concept when you sit down and think about it. This idea that people from multiple ends of the world are desperately trying to look like the sometimes opposite of what they naturally look like, is quite absurd. I also think this topic is interesting because for White people, it is something they most likely will never think about before hearing it from the mouth of people of colour. This article will give, hopefully, a voice to women who have been affected by this very racially narrow vision of female beauty, and how they learned to find beauty in themselves regardless. This article is about the ones who have been told they were beautiful… but never that kind of beautiful.
Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly are the women for whom the term sex symbol was invented. These women represented, in the 1950s, the raw definition of beauty. Then came Brigitte Bardot, Farrah Fawcett, Madonna, and Heidi Klum for the following decades. The bar for women has always been insanely high when it comes to beauty standards. Probably every girl on this planet remembers a moment when she scrolled down Instagram or looked up at a billboard and has felt inadequate and not good enough because of the way she looked. Her teeth aren’t as straight as the actresses on tv, or maybe she isn’t as skinny as the glassy models on this magazine. While these are insecurities that most women can relate to, there are some that are exclusive to women of colour. Because if you are a natural blonde, chances are, you never looked at Cinderella as a kid, thinking about how badly you wanted fair skin.
I did. Constantly.
Eurocentric beauty standards are, you guessed it, standards of beauty that exclude physical features that don’t line up with what we consider European features, such as darker skin, kinky hair, monolids, certain nose shapes, fuller lips, etc. The difference between these features being rejected in the definition of beauty and, let’s say being plus-size, is that one is directly connected to race, and the other isn’t. Now whether or not everyone can become a size two is another question (which definitely deserves to be asked), but I think we can all agree that one cannot squat their way into being White or eat celery out of being Asian. Beauty for a long time, as been this private club that only certain people can be a part of, club that people of colour aren’t allowed VIP passes for. This concept hurts people, mostly women of colour, because they are under a way harsher scrutiny.
Jenna is a 26-year-old Korean young woman who was born and raised in South Korea, and who moved to Montreal in her early twenties. When I asked her around what age she started to feel insecure about her facial features, she replied around the time that she had moved to Canada: ‘‘I was 21 or 22’’, she replied. I was surprised at that answer, considering American media definitely travels all the way to Asia, meaning that American beauty standards do too; She continued to say: "It didn’t matter before, that much." Which makes sense, I guess, when you think about the fact that Korea is majorly Asian, meaning that since people looked like her, it wasn’t that productive to compare her features to other people’s.
For Luce who’s a Haitian girl born and raised in Quebec, she was eight when she realized that her appearance didn’t line up with the world’s definition of beauty. When she admitted to her childhood crush that she liked him and was rejected, because of her skin colour and hair texture, ‘‘That was the first moment [she] was aware of [her] blackness and realized that [she] was not considered pretty enough to date anyone.’’
The White Bistoury
In 2018, the most popular plastic surgeries in the United States were breasts augmentation, followed by liposuction, which speaks for itself: women are self-conscious about their breasts and their weight. These are insecurities that touch women of all ethnic backgrounds, and as a society, we should look at that. But number four and five on the list are rhinoplasty (aka nose job) and eyelids surgery, also known as blepharoplasty. Obviously, these procedures aren’t exclusive to any group, but Black and Asian people are often shamed regarding these features, because they sometimes don’t line up with the European image that is praised by the media. People of colour often use plastic surgery to achieve a more European appearance, and that is no secret. When I asked my subjects if they had ever thought about having plastic surgery, the answers varied. For Jenna the answer was clear: ‘‘oh, a million times: jaw surgery, nose, double eyelids, forehead, boobs,’’ she had thought about it quite a lot. For my other subjects, they had never thought about it, even if they disliked or strongly disliked their apperance.
For some, it was semi-permanent techniques such as hair relaxers that were used. As a Black girl with curly hair, I relaxed and straightened my hair religiously for six years, to the point where my hair was seriously damaged. Now, I have been natural and heat-free for two years and a half, and I am so proud of it. Nonetheless, this was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life. I am no Rhianna and I don’t have the money to buy a bunch of pricy wigs, which means that more often than not, I wear my hair in its natural state, which is very curly, aka the opposite of what society considers acceptable.
Luce relaxed her hair for the first time when she was 14, causing serious harm to her scalp; ‘‘[But] even if it did, I was still happy to look a little “prettier” because I would not be teased about my hair,’’ she said.
Hair relaxers and skin lightening products became, over the years, billion dollars worth industries, making a lot of profit, specifically from African and south-Asian countries, while doing harm to the customers, who are mostly women. Skin bleaching creams and soaps have been proven time and time again to be very damageable for the skin because of the chemicals they often have in them; Yet, 77 percent of women in Nigeria alone admitted using them on a regular basis, in 2011. Women are, in alarming rates, purposefully engaging in dangerous behaviors in order to fit into this narrow vision of attractiveness.
When asked if she remembered a specific moment from her childhood where she was affected by Eurocentric standards of beauty, Luce shared how paranoid of the sun she became around the age of 10, when the summertime came around: ‘‘my mom hated the idea of me going to summer camp because she was afraid that I would get too dark,’’ she said. She ultimately stopped going to summer camp, the fear of getting darker being too hard to live with.
A big issue that I have when talking about social inequalities to children is how a lot of people, usually more privileged people such as White, straight and cisgender people, think kids are too young to hear about them. As if children shouldn’t hear about racism because they are too young to know the dynamics of it, and therefore, don’t see or experience it. That couldn’t be further from the truth because, as mentioned, we were quite young when we first felt like we weren't pretty enough because we weren’t White. Silencing this narrative to ‘‘protect’’ kids, really just makes them feel alone in their pain.
So Deep You’re Drowning It
Later during my conversation with Jenna, she mentioned to me that, in the past, she had used what is known as ‘‘eyelid tapes,’’ a small sticky stripe that you put on your eyelids to give the illusion of a double eyelid: ‘‘I was in middle school, so like 12 or 13,’’ she says, ‘‘I was very excited [to get them]. I didn’t know how beautiful I was back then, I didn’t love myself’’. When I asked her why she didn’t mention this sooner, considering it was contradictory to what she had said about starting to feel insecure about her ‘‘ethnic features’’ only in her twenties, she took a pause and replied that she had forgotten about that aspect of her childhood: ‘‘you don’t even know you adopt [these feelings] because it’s everywhere, I wasn’t conscious of the way I felt.’’
That answer honestly hit me right in the heart, because I could relate so much. As a little girl, I remember hearing the discussion about body positivity, encouraging mostly White women to embrace their curves and rolls. I understood why plus-size women felt insecure because I wasn’t blind: the pretty girls in movies are always skinny. But I also understood the opposite, the positive narrative that was, yes not as loud, but still there, nonetheless. I understood why it was needed and I guess I wanted these women to love themselves. However, I never heard the same about dark skinned people. The pretty girls in movies are never Black or Brown, not even the average pretty but very nice girls. As a kid and for a good part of my teenage years, I was convinced that me hating my Blackness was just normal, that it was inevitable and that it would forever be like that. Hating my skin was so deep into my mind and into my everyday life that, just like Jenna, I wasn’t conscious of it anymore. I remember the exact moment when I started to become aware of my weight and how I was chubbier than all my friends, but my skin? From as long as I can remember, I have always hated it, and so I lost track.
When talking about our childhoods, Jenna remembered watching The Devil Wears Prada: ‘‘I remember judging my appearance and asking myself why I didn’t look like Anne Hathaway’’, she said.
I remember looking down at my hands as a kid, alone in my living room as I was watching any teenage rom-com and getting frustrated because I wasn’t White. This hatred can often feel like white noise in the back of our lives, at times louder or quieter, but always there.
What about Beyoncé though?
How crazy is it that at this exact moment, you are breathing… and so is Beyoncé! And so is Rihanna, Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez. They also are sex-symbols and are seen as attractive so your theory doesn’t make sense, they will say. While it is true that pop culture has made progress in terms of including more people into its definition of beauty, the definition is still rather narrow, and even more when you look at what it takes to be a ‘‘pretty woman of colour’’. The issue is the lack of diversity, within the diversity itself. To be Black and beautiful means to look like Beyoncé, which implies having light skin, the money to afford wigs in the 4 digits range, a small waist but a good pair of breasts and a big butt. When you tell Black girls that if they want to be considered pretty, they need to look like Beyoncé and nothing else, we have a problem. The same way goes for Asian girls and women who are looking up at K-pop stars who have very fair skin, often have surgeries to change their eyes and noses and who are extremely thin.
Now I want to be clear and say that I am aware of the pressures put on White women and girls; they also have a quite the hill to climb when it comes to reaching self-love regarding their bodies. You could ask any White Instagram babe and she would probably tell you that she battles with body image too, and even if she has long blonde hair, a perfect smile and a tiny waist: her struggles would be just as valid as anyone else’s. However, it is simply hiding the truth to say that in a world where Eurocentric features are praised, women of colour don’t have a literal mountain range in front of them. Not only do they have the same concerns as White women regarding features like their boobs, their weight or their teeth, they also have insecurities about their eyes, their skin tone and hair.
Where do we begin?
Obviously, representation helps. The fact that the ‘‘pretty girls’’ in movies always look the same, is a problem. Just the fact that girls and women of colour aren’t being told that they are beautiful or attractive nearly as much as their White counterparts is something that needs to change. It is way too easy to dismiss this topic with the argument that ‘‘women should be seen as more than their physical appearance’’, because the reality is: we live in a world that judges women’s physic all the time. Saying ‘‘it doesn’t matter if Brown girls aren’t told they’re attractive because they are being valued for other things’’, is illogical because, again, that’s disregarding the very real self esteem issues Brown women, for example, have because of this lack of representation. It is also very hypocritical, because it won’t change the fact that White women are still being praised constantly for being more attractive than women of colour, therefore, not putting an end to this issue.
With that being said, I think the first step to acknowledging as people of colour that we have been impacted by Eurocentric beauty standards, is looking at our fantasies and at our dream bodies and ask ourselves if there is a recurring theme. If all your ‘‘body/appearance goals’’ are literally your opposite and/or are all White, that might be a hint. Another way is to look at our desires and ask ourselves why we want to look that way. If the answer isn’t clear or if we simply think it’s because ‘‘it’s prettier’’, then maybe we aren’t quite there yet. After this conversation, Jenna still wants to have plastic surgery, she is comfortable with this idea but ‘‘can recognize that it is to look more European’’. It is crucial to inspect our feelings and their sources. Thinking that monolids are unattractive just because they are, as if it is an objective statement, is wrong. The first step towards self love is understanding the root of these insecurities, what causes them. And in this case, it is simply racism. The goal is to become conscious of the society we live in, hopefully the earliest as possible, because it can follow you your whole life. And before you know it, you’re a 70 years-old Black woman in a hair salon, straightening the 7 hairs you have left on your head, surrounded by posters of light skinned women wearing dirty blond wigs. Is everyone capable of fighting these demons? Only time can tell: ‘‘I became more conscious of the pressure, and the fact that my feelings are that way because of social pressures’’, said Jenna at the end of our conversation. And while it might seem like a tiny step, I think that is a very good start.