While we talk a lot about harmful media beauty ideals like extreme thinness, appearance-focused “fitness,” sex appeal, and photoshopping phoniness, one of the most oppressive ideals excludes anyone who isn’t … white. We call it the whitewashing of beauty.
In a country where a full one-third of the population is black, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latina, the serious underrepresentation of women of color in media is really disturbing. Further, when you only account for the women of color shown in positive roles or depictions – especially those depicted as beautiful or desirable – the number is almost negligible.
The mainstream beauty ideal is almost exclusively white, making it all the more unattainable for women of color. Though beautiful women of color like Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, Rihanna, Jennifer Hudson, Halle Berry and others have achieved renown in U.S. culture, media representations of these women have become increasingly “anglicized” or “whitewashed” over time, with lighter-colored, straighter hair, lighter makeup, colored contacts and often shrinking figures.
Even when the women are being recognized for something other than their beauty, like, say, an Oscar nomination for incredibly talented actress Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious,” magazines like Elle still feel the need to whitewash her in order to feature her image on the cover.
While representation of women of color in media has increased slightly over the past decade, finding positive depictions of women with dark skin tones or natural hair is still nearly impossible in mainstream media.Further, when we do see women of color represented as beauty icons in media, they almost always already fit white ideals –meaning they already have light skin tones, light-colored, straight hair, ideally “white” facial features, thin figures, etc.
Essentially, WOC are viewing a distorted reality and holding themselves to the unattainable standard set by the non-reality of popular media – and most often, those standards are based on oppressive, power-laden ideals of whiteness.
Recognizing the ridiculous lack of diversity in representation of media, and particularly when it comes to portrayals of beauty, is absolutely crucial for people of all races.
Recognizing is the first step toward rejecting those messages and the negative feelings they inspire about our bodies. After we reject them, we can continuously redefine beauty for ourselves – on our own terms – with the help of the beautiful people in our lives who recognize other forms of beauty as well.
By Lindsay Kite, 2011. “Beauty Whitewashed: How White Ideals Exclude Women of Color.” Published at www.beautyredefined.net/beauty-whitewashed-how-white-ideals-exclude-women-of-color.