Unless you’re in possession of an uncanny confidence that isn’t directly proportional to how closely your aesthetic matches a European standard of beauty (in which case, congratulations and please don’t hoard the secret), you are, instead, probably in possession of the same self-loathing that haunts all of us to some degree.
You are not good enough. Thin enough. White enough. Your eyelashes are too short, your ankles too fat, your smile too dingy, your hair too curly, your body is just, too much.
It’s different for everyone — because our bodies are so very different — but the takeaway is the same: Everything needs to be fixed.
This cycle of self-admonishment is never more dangerous or ubiquitous than with young girls of color; they are without the critical analyzing skills needed to condemn the messages that are bombarding them day in and day out, and they are, by definition, never going to achieve what is called “beautiful.” The system of Western beauty was created without their faces and bodies as part of the equation.
In the 2013 essay, “The Beauty Ideal: The Effects of European Standards of Beauty on Black Women,” Susan Bryant describes this phenomenon not as a troubling phenomenon but as a societal scourge:
“The detrimental effect of these European beauty standards on black women is a societal issue that is often unaddressed on a multisystem level. Black women today are subjected to incessant messages about European ideals of beauty through family, peers, partners, the media, and larger society. If young black women stand in contrast to what society dictates as attractive, they may find it difficult to grow to accept themselves. As a result, the internalization of racialized beauty standards can perpetuate into a lifelong, intergenerational culture of self-hatred.”
This fundamental dissatisfaction with one’s body may seem shallow, but it’s part and parcel of institutionalized racism, subjecting women of color — particularly the darkest women of color — to concentric rings of oppression:
“Because black women, especially dark-skinned black women, deviate furthest from European beauty standards, they are more likely to experience self-hate, distorted body image, depression, and eating disorders. They are also likely to suffer feelings of inadequacy and report emotions of anger, pain, and confusion toward traits such as skin color and hair.”
This paper also quantifies the intersection of “light-skin privilege” with heteronormative ideals, starkly illustrating how deep this beauty ideal runs and how imperative it is that we dismantle it:
“Darker-skinned black women, as a result, are the least likely of all black women to be married and thus the least likely to have the economic security of a two-income household, further exacerbating the previously addressed negative economic effects of their poor employment prospects.”
These pressures are so intense that women, and in particular women of color, are going under the knife at rising rates. In the face of such oppressive standards, what can be done to break the damning cycle?
Silencing The Hateful Noise
Capitalism cannot exist without our insecurity. The YWCA released a report — Beauty At Any Cost — which found that women spend $7 billion on beauty products every year. Advertising has increased its budget, too. The beauty and cosmetics industry spent $2.13 billion dollars on magazine advertising alone in 2013.
Of course they did. The success of the system is predicated upon us never achieving the ideal. The existence of bronzers, concealers, toners, shapers, lifters, and cinchers remind us that we can try to get close to the standard, but we will never meet the criteria. It’s a Sisyphean sprint to disappointment and self-loathing.
But even with this knowledge, even as we see the puppet masters tugging the strings bound to our brains and bodies, still we fall prey to the pressures.
I feel trapped, and I can’t escape the insanity alone.
If we view the desire to attain unrealistic standards of beauty as a real and present danger, we can start to develop a viable solution for preventing suicide and other forms of harm that grow from that insecurity.
Often, adults are unconscious of the non-verbal ways we affirm superficial notions of beauty. Practicing body positivity takes practice, believe it or not. As a Black child, I often heard women criticize each other and themselves, saying that they were getting too dark or their hair was getting too nappy. I have heard my white female colleges call themselves “ugly” or even “disgusting” because they gained a few pounds that are only noticeable to them.
I am more-than-guilty of negative self talk, too. On more than one occasion (hell, more than a few dozen), I’ve had to stop myself in the middle of a conversation when I am criticizing myself for being ugly, simply because my complexion isn’t perfect, my stomach isn’t flat, or my neck is too stumpy. When I work out, it’s usually not to lower my cholesterol. It’s mostly because I want to look the way she does in that bathing suit. I want to fit into the clothes at H&M too, dammit!
All that said, there are things we can do in our personal lives to combat this issue from a mental health standpoint. It sounds cliché, but the first step in silencing the hateful noise is to hear yourself. Pick a mantra that turns your gears, that makes your body sing. Maybe it’s, “I am beautiful just the way I am” or “My [insert hated body part] is/are strong/supple/soft/perfect.” It doesn’t matter as long as it resonates with you. And no, a bunch of mantras and self-affirming post-its all over your home won’t solve everything — the issues run too deep for that — but I still venture that you’ll be surprised at how much it improves your feelings of self-worth.
We owe it to ourselves to let the noise go and let the world deal with it.
Or perhaps we can help break the cycle before it’s ever begun — and this begins with young girls of color. As adults and parents, it is imperative that we don’t pretend the phenomenon doesn’t exist — we must actively praise her natural beauty. If a little girl presents a doll or drawing or presentation of herself that is clearly aspiring toward an image that drastically contradicts her natural physical appearance, talk about it. Compliment little girls with kinky hair and keep an eye on their desires to emulate a celebrity who doesn’t share their complexion or body type; promote images that celebrate all women as beautiful. Love each other with memes, hashtags, your shopping dollars, and which companies you choose to promote.
In “The Beauty Ideal,” Bryant wrote:
“. . . the internalization of racial beauty standards is a societal problem that begins in childhood and has a significant impact on the self-perception and self-worth of black girls and women throughout the life course. Not only are black women negatively categorized by society for both their gender and race, but they can also be subjugated within their own communities. “
Combating this will take more than just being nicer to ourselves. We can be empowered by lifting each other up. Make a commitment to compliment 10 women each day with something unique and unrelated to oppressive beauty standards. I work with children across the country and the healthiest female friendships I have witnessed are those where girls tell each other amazing things about their skills, contributions to the world, compassion, and generosity. It is okay to tell a girl she is beautiful, but it is fundamentally more important to tell a girl that she has the power to make the world better. There are other concrete examples, too. Some of the more successful self-esteem interventions have involved targeted workshops, mentoring, and journaling.
Under The Knife
Oppressive Westernized beauty standards have surfaced another issue, too: the ever-growing trend of cosmetic surgery.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more than 11 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures were undertaken in 2013 alone. Since 1997, there has been a 279% increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures. Surgical procedures (like liposuction and breast augmentation) escalated by 89%, while nonsurgical procedures (like botox and chemical peels) saw a surge of 521%. Americans spent more than $12 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2013.
In particular, a trend troublingly known as “ethnic cosmetic surgeries” is on the rise. From 2005 to 2013, the number of cosmetic procedures performed on Asian-Americans increased by 125%, Hispanics by 85%, and African-Americans by 56%, compared to an increase of 35% for Caucasians. In part, as New York magazine pointed out in an excellent piece on this trend, these numbers are attributable to minorities enjoying increased spending power. And of course, not all surgeries being undertaken have to do with fitting a Western ideal. Still, the figures suggest a problematic phenom.
A recent Korean short called Body Form explores and exposes the realities of socially acceptable self-mutilation; the 11-minute short is a powerful timeline of indoctrination.
You should watch the film, but in short, Body Form traces the evolution of a little girl into a teenager, haunted by an obsession to render her face into a mask-like visage we see on all the adults in her life; they’re emotionless, possessing exaggerated pointed noses, carved cheekbones, and gleaming porcelain skin. As the film progresses, she desperately pursues the “surgery” but is first denied by the doctor — she can’t afford the procedure — and then her family. She, of course, seeks a riskier route to achieve her goal: an experimental procedure that ultimately fails.
We will literally kill ourselves to fit inside the box labeled beautiful. Happiness and health are sacrificed on the altar of acceptance, of desirability, of an unachievable dream. The best, most loving parts of our soul know that skipping meals to lose weight, hiding from the sun to prevent getting darker, and chemically altering our hair to escape our negro-ness is detrimental — dangerous to our bodies and minds — but we still do it.
We have to ask ourselves where to draw the line. What is the difference between self-mutilation and cosmetic surgery? This question always gives me pause — those suffering from body dysmorphia are the prime example of why surgery is beneficial to mental health; they are able to align their actual identity with the bodily vessel they’re living in.
There are people who have breast reductions for health reasons. An Appalachian child with a few missing teeth may not need porcelain veneers to live, but they can go a long way to improve her earning potential. Gastric bypass surgeons claim to have saved countless lives. An innocent bystander who gets shot in the mouth could potentially live on without reconstructing their face, but that surgery is likely warranted for their mental health. I acknowledge that it’s a complicated discourse.
But then . . . there are those who are solely seeking out a standard, slicing open their bodies, filling it with artificial self-esteem, stitching things back, pulling things tight. Bleaching skin, shaving bone. There is virtually no end to the things you can do to change yourself if you have the money.
And this is all under the auspices of pursuing happiness?
Many readers may find my next contention problematic, but here I go. I am completely against any surgery to remove/alter parts of our bodies we don’t like. Whether you think God is a man, woman, bird, or a figment of people’s imagination, we are in the bodies we’re in. No amount of dissection will change how we see ourselves. There will always be some thing, some part that doesn’t quite fit the standard. Even the women who are paraded as the prototype often succumb to the pressure of attaining/maintaining a certain look. Just like with a disease or an addiction, the only solution is to deal with the root cause: the proliferation of an unattainable beauty standard.
So where does self-improvement end and respectability politics begin? Respectability politics says that women would not be subjected to certain treatment if they only dressed and carried themselves differently. This mindset contributes to rape culture and the ongoing cycle of patriarchy that we deal with now.
We have a responsibility to protect young girls from potential harm, but who gets to decide whether a nose job is harmful or not? Clearly the young woman in Body Form is an extreme example, but her path is parallel to a growing number of girls who share her longing to shed the face and/or body they’re born with. Although Kylie Jenner’s admission to getting lip fillers fueled even more young girls to seek surgical solutions to their body issues, the wheels were already set in motion before her now infamous journey. A 2014 report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons revealed that over 63,000 girls age 13–19 had a cosmetic procedure.
The solution is abolishing the ideals that undermine our personal agency and perceptions of self-worth.
But what does that look like? When a woman’s worth is predicated on being sexually desirable, and being sexually desirable is predicated on attaining the perfect body form, and none of us will ever achieve that . . . how can we ever experience self-love? How can we take steps toward a more meaningful engagement with the idea of beauty standards?
What we do next is important. The way we talk about ourselves and other women is key. A solid first step is acknowledging and confronting our own perpetuation of this detrimental standard.
If nothing else, please take this away from reading these words: You have have a meaningful skill, passion, or thing to contribute that will add value to the world. You are already beautiful. If you don’t agree, let’s work together to help you see that — let’s actually work together. Tweet, share, email me, call me (you can ask for my number). We have to be in this together for it to be effective. I will write a bunch of positive post-it note messages and send them to you if that helps. We really just have to take better care of ourselves and our little sisters.
Lead image: flickr/FUMIGRAPHIK-Photographist