The Racism Of ‘Hot Dudes’ Instagram Accounts

Several months ago I saw an article in Time about an Instagram account that had gone viral overnight. The name of the account immediately piqued my interest. And how could it not? It was called Hot Dudes Reading — and their feed offered exactly what the name promises: men that would be considered by broader Western society to be attractive (and generally fit, well-groomed, with nice hair, etc.) out and about reading books, mostly on the train, mostly in New York City.

I quickly discovered that there are a variety of “Hot Dudes” Instagram accounts. Hot Dudes With Dogs, Hot Dudes In The Kitchen, and Hot Dudes And Food are some of the other more popular accounts (although Hot Dudes Reading has by far the most followers). Initially I considered these accounts to be a delightful indulgence, and a thought-provoking one by flipping the script on the male gaze. But soon I noticed a troubling pattern: “Hot Dudes” Instagram accounts have a notable race problem when it comes to male beauty standards.

Put bluntly: the photos depicting white men frequently get significantly more likes than photos of men of color.

Which is really to say that we all (well, in this specific instance, all of us who use Instagram — over 300 million, as of February) have a race problem when it comes to male beauty standards. After all, Instagram users are the ones who “like,” or more interestingly, don’t “like,” certain photos on these Hot Dudes accounts.

This racial issue (known also by its other name: racism) first became evident to me when I noticed which photos don’t get as many likes, but then I also noticed that photos of white men strongly outnumber photos of Black or brown men on these accounts. At first I thought it was perhaps just a coincidence of a week or so’s worth of photos, and was perhaps confined to just one of these Hot Dudes accounts. Scanning through these accounts more thoroughly, I found that this problem was absolutely the rule — and, unfortunately, nowhere near the exception.

Exploring each of these accounts (Reading, With Dogs, and In The Kitchen, respectively) revealed a different aspect of our society’s racist conception of male beauty.

Our Racist Beauty Standards For Men, By The Numbers

As of my October calculations, Hot Dudes Reading had 719,000 followers (now a whopping 779,000), the most of the accounts I examined. They posted 13 photos in October, only two of which were of men of color. The other 11, of white men, each received more likes than either of the two photos of men of color; and some of the discrepancies in likes were shocking. The more popular of the two photos of men of color received 25,739 likes. The most popular of the photos of white men for October received 48,184 likes.

I can hear you asking, “Yeah, but what if the most popular white dude reading was just like, really, really hot?” Okay, sure. But let’s take the average of the likes the white dudes got: 38,616 likes — it’s still well over 10,000 likes above our hottest man of color. That’s a hell of a lot of a certain kind of liking going on.

Hot Dudes With Dogs erased men of color from their feed altogether for the month of October. Of the 34 photos they posted of men with their canine buddies, exactly zero were of Black or brown men. Hot Dudes With Dogs has far fewer followers than Hot Dudes Reading, with a total of 257,000, but with more than twice the number of posts for the month compared to Reading, they couldn’t find one attractive man of color to include in their line-up? I had to go back nearly six months to finally find a Black man, whose photo had received 5,940 likes. The lowest number of likes for a white dude in October was 6,278, and, per my calculations, the average likes for white men was 10,331.

Finally, I offer up Hot Dudes In The Kitchen. Only one Black man was featured on the account for the month, and his photo received only 737 likes. The average like count for the other 26 men who were featured (all of whom were white) was 1,075.

Breaking Down The Biases

Why is it that the “certifiably hot” men of color are somehow less hot than the white ones? And why are so few men of color considered certifiably hot to begin with?

It’s a question not centered enough in the current dialogue on male beauty. When we see commentary on men and beauty standards, it typically focuses on the theme that “men have body issues, too” — as with the 2014 Huffington Post piece, “Body Image Issues Are Not Just For Women.” These kinds of stories primarily draw attention to the fact that while we normally associate concerns about weight and overall beauty with women, they’re issues that both men and women contend with.

What’s missing from the conversation is any discussion of race.

To tease out how Blackness fits into our society’s estimation of male beauty, I spoke with Danami Champion, a Black graphic designer and filmmaker in Minneapolis (with noted style consciousness), who told me all of this is “just ingrained in our psyche.” When I asked Danami specifically about why people seem to think that even normatively beautiful men of color aren’t actually beautiful, he told me that when confronted with a beautiful dark-skinned person, we’re at a psychological crossroads: “It’s challenging the thought you already have in your head about what we think ‘beautiful’ is. You can look at it from a superiority/inferiority point of view. ‘Yeah you’re cute, but you’re not this cute. You’re not ‘white cute.’”

Danami’s insights are supported by research. A 2004 study on male attractiveness and race showed that women who ranked Black, white, and mixed-race faces found that men with darker skin were considered to be more masculine — but white men were considered more attractive.

This white beauty bias, sadly, begins early. In 2010, CNN teamed up with child psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer to conduct a pilot study regarding children’s views on race. For the study, young children of multiple races were shown illustrations of young girls from very pale white, to darker Black, and asked which was the “dumb” child, which was the “smart” child, and which were the “ugly” and “beautiful” children. In most of the questions, a majority of the children associated lighter-skinned drawings with desirable adjectives — including “beautiful” — and associated negative adjectives — including “ugly” — with the darker-skinned drawings. This was largely true of both Black and white children in the pilot study.

A former classmate of mine, Brandon Palmer, who is mixed race and gay, said that the issue of Black or brown erasure from the concept of beauty is pervasive in the gay community. The issue, he told me, should not only be thought of as one among women who are attracted to men. Brandon explained that it’s not uncommon for Black gay men to receive comments about their attractiveness, but often compliments are coupled with an othering or fetishistic comment such as referring to a Black man as “chocolate,” among other terms we don’t generally see used to describe humans.

The erasure of Black or brown men from our collective perception of beauty engenders our society’s fear of dark-skinned men; our culture’s separate categories of beauty for men of color become so separate that what is beautiful for white men becomes fearsome or undesirable for men of color. Brandon pointed out that strength signals virility and beauty for white men, but for men of color, it means they are someone to be afraid of.

In a 2013 essay about white women’s fear of men of color, writer Jessica Valenti wrote for The Nation about her colleague Mychal Denzel Smith’s observation regarding the role this fear played in the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Smith pointed out that in his trial, Zimmerman’s attorney used the testimony of a white woman who had had her home burglarized by young Black men as a part of the defense. In calling this white woman to the stand, Smith stated that Zimmerman’s attorney presented the jury with “‘The perfect victim,’ which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of Black criminals.”

The way we interpret male aesthetics also tells us who to feel threatened by, who to admire, and who to avoid. Ultimately, it can also decide who deserves to die and who deserves to be “protected” from perceived danger.

Beyond The Breakdown

After my conversations with Brandon and Danami, I took another look through the Hot Dudes Instagram accounts. I felt more disturbed and ashamed for having participated in this display of beauty pageantry than I ever had. While I doubt that the curators of these accounts are intentionally propagating racism when they add photos to their feeds, that is likely exactly the problem.

After all, there’s significant research that shows nearly all of us hold racist thoughts, even if we don’t behave in overtly bigoted ways in our daily life. According to Harvard research about implicit bias, implicit racism is something that all of us express on some level (across the board for all races, genders, political affiliations, etc.). Perhaps one reason these biased beliefs are so common, and why they are implicit and not necessarily evident to the person holding the beliefs, is because we’re not thinking about our racist thoughts and habits enough — and we’re certainly not talking about them enough.

The short answer to the question of why men of color are not considered “beautiful,” is that our society is so steeped in deep-seated racism such that we can’t even admit that Black and brown men are beautiful. Our aesthetic imagination has been forcibly narrowed to a point so small that it can only accommodate white men. And even if we do allow for beauty that isn’t white, it’s qualified as “Black beautiful” or “Asian beautiful” or “Latino beautiful.” We’ve created a language of second-tier beauty to ensure that men of color are kept separate from “true” — i.e. white — beauty.

While I understand that most of us are not particularly engaged or in a critical mindset when we’re scrolling through Instagram, that’s just all the more evidence that these race-based preferences are deeply ingrained; we collectively prefer white men without even noticing it, or stopping to reflect critically on our personal and societal history with this phenomenon.

We can’t make the excuse that it’s “just Instagram”; our behavior online is very often a reflection or extension of the way we interact with the world away from our screens. As a white woman who noticed some of my own biases when I researched these Instagram accounts, I was forced to finally take a look at the ways in which what we think is beautiful — or what we will admit we find beautiful — says a lot more about ourselves than it does about the men we’re evaluating.

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Lead image credit: José Moutinho, Flickr

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