While reading a magazine or surfing the internet we are exposed to many images, ideas and advertisements. There is, however, something striking about this input; it’s on average dominantly white. To an extent that it’s actually quite hard to find a real black model. And I don’t mean a biracial woman who has both black and white features, but a black woman who has the kinky natural hair, bigger nose and lips. Why is this I wonder? Have we downgraded black beauty to a ‘’black-not-as-beautiful’’? Why and when did looking white with the light eyes and straight hair become the ideal look for a woman? Are we even aware of this phenomenon?
Skin color variation
Let’s start off with some biology and why people actually have different skin tones. The color of our skin is determined by the amount of melanin we have which is visible as pigment. Not only does this determine the color of our skin, melanin is also responsible for our eye and hair color. This means that the more melanin you have, the darker your skin, eyes and hair will be. There is however a reason for this, the more melanin one has, the more he or she is protected from the ultraviolet radiation that the sun shines upon us. It is for that same reason that not only people living near the equator have a dark skin but also the people living on arctic lands, because of the reflection of the sun on the ice (Webexhibits, 2016). For that same reason you see people with lighter eyes squeeze them more and wear sunglasses more often, they simply need the protection. It is therefore also said that people with a darker skin have a smaller chance to get skin cancer caused by the sun. Looking at it like that, diversity makes sense.
(The darkest skin tones are found in tropical latitudes with open grassland, while areas further from the equator that are forested tend to favor lighter skin tones.)
The effect of colonialism
If we would create a more demographic map than the one above, it would look rather different. Africans no longer live solely in Africa, Australia hasn’t been controlled by the Aboriginals for a long time and the United States are no longer defined by the Native Americans. The main reason for the countries mentioned is colonialism, which started in the fifteenth century. Africans have been taken from their own life to be enslaved in North America, the British decided to take over Australia to make it a big prison and the Native Americans suffered the Trail of Tears and many still ongoing events. This shows how dangerous greed can be and how disastrous colonialism has been for these native inhabitants and indigenous people. Ever since colonialism was the trend and some Western Europeans decided to dominate countries that weren’t theirs, much has changed, including the beauty standards.
Because the wealthy white European people became the people in power who owned the riches – that were never theirs to begin with – of the world, they also put a stamp on the beauty standard. Being black was like being a slave – a caged person at the bottom of the society who had no chance of ever having success in life – and therefore being looked down upon, whereas being white was considered elite and beautiful resulting in having many chances in life. The white owned a so-called social capital because of their skin tone and therefore had the chance to convert it into economic capital, educational capital or any other form of social capital (Hunter, 2002). Generations after the intense time of colonialism and slavery still held on to this division of society and kept looking down on people of a lesser status. Holding them to a standard they could never reach because one doesn’t just look entirely different or white when one is black. The fact that the beauty standard, as well as a professional look, has been white(like) results in Afros being relaxed – which is extremely harmful for the hair – and skins being bleached with creams that have dangerous side effects. Besides the influence on appearance, it also strongly influences the women’s self-esteem, courtship and identity (Thompson, 2009), resulting in women going to great lengths to look like different from how they were born.
This is of course not the desired path to follow and evolutionary movements have arisen that use social media as a platform. Using for example the hashtag #melaninmagic on Instagram and Facebook pages like Beautiful Black Women of the World come in All Shades to celebrate black beauty. And even though ‘’black is beautiful’’ was originally said by John Sweat Rock, an African-American abolitionist, in 1858, we still seem to have a long road ahead (Black History Now, 2011) when it comes to recognizing beauty. Lukcily though, the world has gradually started to recognize that beauty comes in all shades and shapes.
My standards for beauty have never come from looking at white women, because I know my genes are nothing like theirs. My standard of beauty is often defined by other black women because their body types are more like mine. Does this mean I’m not to an extent affected by the effects of colonialism in beauty? Not at all, because unfortunately I fall prey to wearing weaves which is an extension of western beauty standards. Although my ideal beauty type is a black woman, there still remains certain unconscious standards I aspire to which stems from western standards of beauty. – Vidette
What should we do now?
Since the movements have started to empower colored women we see more beauty being celebrated. Whether it’s black, brown or white, we are all beautiful and this is something that should be celebrated and not be forgotten. I do however hope that reading a bit of the history helps you realize where our world’s ideals of beauty come from. Also, realize that the white ideal started because of some sort of white power play, i.e., complete nonsense. This ideal being invalid means that there is not one beauty standard that women should chase, but rather should carry themselves in their own powerful way of being authentic because there is not one label to define an entire group’s beauty. Also, remember that Shakespeare wrote this in 1605: ‘’Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind’’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Black History Now. (2011). John S. Rock. Retrieved on December 5, 2016, from http://blackhistorynow.com/john-s-rock/.
Hunter, M. L. (2002). ‘’If you’re light you’re alright’’ Light skin color as a social capiral for women of color. Los Angelos: Loyola Marymount University.
Shakespeare, W. (1605). A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Thompson, C. (2009). Black women, beauty and hair as a matter of being. Montreal, McGill University.
Webexhibits. Melanins, the pigments that color our eyes, hair and skin. Retrieved on December 1, 2016, from http://www.webexhibits.org/causesofcolor/7F.html.