by angela aujla“I remember sitting in my uncle’s living room and my mom was telling me how the neighbour had treated us (there are three women in our family). She found my eldest sister the prettiest, my younger sister the second prettiest, and I came third. It has since occurred to me what was going on. Wanda has light skin and green eyes, Ghada has lighter skin than mine, and I am the darkest,” explains Dina Georgis. Georgis’ comment reflects a “colour bar” evident in the beauty ideals of so many non-white cultures. This colour bar represents a beauty hierarchy wherein light-skinned individuals are at the top and the darkest-skinned are relegated to the bottom. Nada El-Yassir comments that “in certain areas in the Arab world, the lighter you are the more beautiful you are considered.” She also says that it is common that women in the upper classes dye their hair blond. In some countries the implications of this hierarchy go so far as to affect one’s social class and job opportunities. In other places, it leads to surgery to ‘correct’ certain phenotypical characteristics which stray from the European- based ideal of a small, straight nose, straight soft hair, big eyes (preferrably blue) and fair-skin.Brazilian anthropologist Roberto Damatta states that “In a mestizo society, the darker people are always stigmatized. The higher you get in Brazilian society, the whiter it is. Ever since the last Brazilian emperor married a blond Austrian woman, the aristocracy has always been very white and very blond.”
According to South Asian feminist Amita Handa, many South Asian women grew up constantly being told to avoid sunlight for the fear of growing darker. Growing darker, of course, meant becoming less attractive. Those putting ads in the matrimonial section of the newspapers make mention to light skin in order to upgrade their chance of finding a suitable match. All of the actors in popular Indian movies and magazines are light skinned, interesting since most Indian women are darker than those in the movies.
South Asian feminist Anita Sheth comments that light skin is so desirable in India that “The cosmetics industries continually pitch skin-lightening products to women.” Various cosmetic products promising to lighten one’s skin can also be found in Vancouver and Surrey’s South Asian shops. I have also observed many people within the South Asian Canadian community commenting favourably upon the beauty of light-skinned individuals. “Tea was at one time thought to darken skin-colour and hence was to be avoided,” says another Indian feminist, Anita Sheth.
There has been much debate among feminists and others about the pressures on women to be beautiful and thin, and how those pressures might lead to low self-esteem, eating disorders, and plastic surgery. In the case of many women of colour, however, the desire to be beautiful is not the only motivating factor in their behaviour. Their actions are also tied, whether consciously or not, to a host of other issues such as internalized racism and a long-standing colour bar of beauty.
Physician Franz Joseph Gall, who is also (dis)credited with the invention of craniometry, classified races according to criteria of beauty or ugliness. In his classification system, African faces, drawn with as much resemblance to apes as possible, are contrasted to European faces that are illustrated by Greek sculptures, such as the Apollo Belvedere. The visual distinction between the ideals of western beauty and deliberately debased representations of other races could be judged from a quick glance at his manual.
Through racist ideology, negative traits were ascribed to certain physical characteristics. For example, the western world associated the dark skin of African and Indian people with danger, savagery, primitiveness, intellectual inferiority, and the inability to progress beyond a childlike mentality.
The residue of these racist classifications can be seen in today’s conformity to western standards of beauty. “In Brazil, nobody wants to be black because the mass media equates black with poor and stupid,” says Cristina Rodrigues, member of the black cultural and social activist group Olodum. She thinks that Brazil’s fascination with light-skinned blonds is symptomatic of racism: “people want to be blond and white in Brazil because it is a symbol of power and wealth.”
Western society’s fascination with blue-eyed blonds (Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple, Lady Di, Barbie et al) certainly does not help foster self-esteem regarding beauty among women of colour who may not have other role models to turn to. I recall reading children’s stories where the ‘good’ princesses in fairy tales were always fair complexioned and light haired, angelic and pure, while the ‘bad’, ugly princesses were often darker complexioned with darker hair.
In Wayson Choy’s book, The Jade Peony, a little girl says, “I looked again into the hall mirror, seeking Shirley Temple with her dimpled smile and perfect white-skin features. Bluntly reflected back at me was a broad sallow moon with slit dark eyes, topped by a helmet of black hair…. Something cold clutched at my stomach, made me swallow.”
Assimilation has often been used as a coping mechanism by visible minority immigrants and other people of colour in countries such as Canada where the dominant culture is comprised of white people of various backgrounds. Obvious forms of assimilation include speaking English and wearing western clothing. A less obvious form of assimilation is changing one’s physical features and appearance.
Based on the personal experiences of many women of colour it is, sadly, quite common as young children to wish to be white and/or desire typically western features. One reason for this could be a desire to blend in, to not be noticed as “different” since being different or “other” often goes hand in hand with racist taunts and stares.
One woman describes how, due to their desire for a “western nose” rather than an Arab one, she and her sister used to sleep with their noses pressed up against the pillow every night, as did a number of her friends, as she later found out. More extreme examples along the same lines include the cosmetic surgery undergone by many Asian women to create folds in their eyelids, in mimicry of the western eye-shape. Japanese animation characters such as Sailor Moon who are drawn with excessively large eyes reflect this western beauty ideal. Other ethnically-specific types of cosmetic surgery include procedures to lighten brown skin and straighten the prominent noses of certain ethnic groups.
From fashion runways to beauty pageants to the movie screen, the western beauty ideal is closely adhered to, unless of course ‘ethnic chic’ happens to be in vogue or designers need ‘exotic’ models for a certain collection. There are many black models and actors, but more often than not, they are light-skinned black women with European-looking features. For example Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Halle Barry, and Whitney Houston.
There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with beauty ideals; all cultures have particular notions about what is aesthetically pleasing. Like other places, India and certain Arabic countries had their own culturally specific beauty ideals. However, these largely fell by the wayside after their encounters with colonial powers. With western colonization, Jane Austen replaced Rabindrath Tagore in university curricula and brown skin came to be ‘corrected’, if one so desired, with skin-lightening products.
Iman Al-Jazairi says “Looking at Arabic poetry and novels, it is interesting to see that pre-Islamic poetry up until western colonization at the eighteenth century, women were always described as having long, wavy, black hair, brown skin, black eyes with the white of the eyes very white. The body proportions were also bigger. During the later part of the nineteenth century and until very recently, light skinned, blond women have usurped the beauty standard in modern Arabic literature.”
With the increasing presence and influence of “others” in western metropolitain centres, the western beauty ideal is perhaps slowly evolving out of its conformist standards to include a diversity of cultures and phenotypical characteristics. The ideal and the history leading up to it, however, remains tainted with the legacy of colonialism, internalized racism and desires to “fit in” and belong to the dominant society.
Angela Aujla is a masters student in anthropology. If you have any comments you can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org