Observations and Unanswered Questions About Race and Standards of Beauty
I began writing this in Mexico City on 20 December, 2015. I was moved to put these words together as a result of some observations there, as well as taking a look at an event that was splashed across the Internet during my stay.
At the time, I had already been in Mexico for three weeks, starting in Cancún, and then onward to Mérida and Mexico City. There were two things that I had seen and continued to see all around me wherever I went: advertising and Mexican people. No real surprise, is it? Nowadays, wherever one goes, there is advertising on display, in the background that is filled with the people who live there.
One seems never able to avoid advertising on billboards, on posters, on public transport, and in shops.
Fairly early on, I realized that there was a disconnection between the advertising that I saw and the people around me. Yes, all the words on the ads are Spanish. They would have to be, if the companies promoting them want the people to understand what they have written.
But what about the people whose faces are being used to promote the products? They didn’t look anything like the people around me. The people around me were brown-skinned and have the facial features that usually accompany brown-skinned people, whereas the people in most of the advertising pieces are fair-skinned — let’s just say white — and they have the facial features of white people.
Granted, by virtue of the arrival of Spanish conquistadors just shy of 500 years ago in 1519, there is a range of appearance in Mexican people, including those whose features are indigenous as well as those who are more European. By and large, the people I saw around me looked like this:
By contrast, the people being used in advertising look like this:
This observation led me to ask my first question: Why does the advertising use white people to promote their products to brown people?
During my time in Mexico City, I went to a museum that was displaying a temporary exhibition about the history of calendars in Mexico. I was struck by the same phenomenon when I saw these images. Do these people look brown (indigenous Mexicans) or do they look white (European conquerors)? Considering the historical nature of the exhibition, this phenomenon has evidently been going on for quite some time.
I had mused about this for a while, though it was more in the background than in the foreground of my thinking. Then I went online to use Facebook. This is where I get to confess that I do not usually watch the news. It seems that anything I really need to know about in the world — as well as a lot of stuff I never need to know — is going to be posted at some point by one of my Facebook friends.
There it was: Steve Harvey had announced the wrong winner in the Miss Universe Pageant, and, as they say, the Internet was exploding.
With nothing but time on my hands, idle curiosity got the better of me. What had happened? I clicked on one of the many links and watched the events unfold.
I’m sure that some of my feelings were in sync with most other people who were watching it, either live or recorded. How did Miss Colombia feel? How did Miss Philippines feel? How did Steve Harvey feel? Yes, I was there with everyone on that score.
There was something else going on for me, though, and it tied in with my thoughts about the advertising that I had been looking at here in Mexico.
Though I have not yet been to the Philippines, I have lived in San Francisco for 46 years. The San Francisco Bay Area has a significant population of Filipino people. As a result of my years in San Francisco, I have some sort of sense of the appearance of Filipinos. It struck me that this Miss Philippines somehow did not seem representative of the Filipinas I have seen.
I took to the Internet to do a little research and found that she, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, has a German father and a Filipina mother. So, with a German father, she is half white. As a result, her appearance is a blend of European and Filipino features.
It raised a couple of questions to me: Does she have to be half white in order to be considered beautiful? Is that what it took to get her to where she is now?
When my friend Stephanie read these questions in the first draft of this piece, she responded by writing, “I think the pageants have been embracing more diversity in defining beauty. The first black Miss Universe was crowned in the 70s and I think this year there was even a contestant with dreadlocks. But this concept that a contestant would be 100% ethnically representative of her country is a little strange to me. I saw an article a few weeks ago about the half black contestant from Japan, which was also controversial. Isn’t it a beautiful thing to see mixed race representation in this age where our societies are becoming global?”
My answer to Stephanie’s question: Yes, it is, indeed, beautiful to see this. She brought up a good point.
Mexico and the Philippines are not the only countries where this has been happening. In my travels to many countries in Asia, I have seen similar advertising. Many models in Japan and India have an appearance that is at least partly European. They are set apart from their countrymen and countrywomen by their physical appearance by virtue of the fact that they look more European.
Many women in Asian countries wear hats with large brims or use umbrellas as a means of keeping the sun from darkening their skin. Dark skin is associated with having to work in the fields, which is considered to be demeaning and of a lower and undesirable class. Light skin is associated with having a life that is more elevated, more refined, and not associated with manual labor.
In the USA, African-American women use skin creams and hair products to make themselves look more like white women. In many circles, lighter skin is considered to be more desirable. This reflects my experience as a public school teacher for 34 years in San Francisco. For 22 of those years, I was teaching in schools where the predominant population was African-American. This gave me ample opportunity to hear students talk to and about each other with insults that were all about skin pigmentation and hair consistency.
In response to this, my friend Stephanie referenced what she calls the “natural revolution,” and she explains it by writing, “The ‘natural revolution’ is about a generation moving past the idea that in order to be respected in a majority white society, women need to conform to a standard white appearance. In the end, people are beginning to realize that hair is just hair. Women with naturally straight hair may choose to wear styles that add some body and curl, just as women with naturally curly or kinky hair may choose to wear styles that are straight. And some on both ends of the spectrum choose to wear their natural hairstyles.”
I am fortunate to have a life in which I have friends from a wide variety of backgrounds that include race, national and ethnic origin, sexual orientation, and religion. My travel to more than 125 countries has given me myriad opportunities to experience firsthand the kindness of people who represent the entire spectrum of humanity. I sincerely want peace and equality for all the diverse people of our planet.
With that in mind, I ask myself questions that have no answers — or, more likely, the answers will vary depending on the person who offers them:
How do we achieve peace and equality when some people are considered to be “more equal,” “more beautiful,” ultimately more worthy of respect than others?
What kind of effect does this have on people who do not see themselves in the media that is being used to promote products to them? What do they say to themselves when they see that the reflection in the mirror does not live up to the standards of beauty being promoted to them?
What do they, as parents and teachers, say to their children and students?
With greater frequency of biracial, bicultural — even multicultural — families, how are parents facing the task of teaching their children that all aspects of their family heritage are equally deserving of love, honor, and respect? That all are beautiful?
Is there a place in our lives for the notion that the true beauty in a human being is located within, and is more demonstrated by the way that we treat each other than by appearance?
As I was in the process of writing this piece, I encountered the following, which was written on 3 January, 2016: “10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White”
It served as something of an affirmation that apparently I am not the only one who has noticed and thought about this.
Many thanks to my friends Elizabeth and Stephanie, who took the time to read the first draft of this essay and to offer me thoughtful commentary about it.