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Cultural Appropriation of Female Beauty - a Racist issue, but also a Sexist one?

Famous or not, women are faced with a disproportionate amount of scrutiny in regards to their wrongdoings compared to men.

Source: Pexels

In the past decade, many famous artists and celebrities, mostly women, faced scrutiny in regards to cultural appropriation. Pop icons from Beyoncé to Katy Perry were criticised for appropriating different cultures in various forms of art, be it through music, photography or film.

While cultural appropriation remains a massive problem in our societies that is linked to the commodification of beauty of minority groups, today I will argue it is also tightly linked to unrealistic beauty standards that are set out by predominantly white-male owned art industries.

It is important to stress from the beginning that this article by no means wants to justify the acts of cultural appropriation, but only to open up the narrative that cultural appropriation not only has origins in racism, imperialism and colonialism, but also in sexism, patriarchy and misogyny.

Sexism 101

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When looking at pop culture magazines such as Seventeen, Bustle, Teen Vogue, etc. that featured articles on the topic of celebrities that were accused of cultural appropriation, 49 out of 53 examples given were those of women. This leads to the conclusion that mostly famous women, not men, are accused of cultural appropriation.

Famous or not, women are faced with a disproportionate amount of scrutiny in regards to their wrongdoings compared to men. These women have massive privilege for being rich and famous, but the reactions they receive from the public, as well as media, shows the massive disparity of privilege we give to male celebrities to not have to self-reflect on their actions compared to women.

More importantly, although there are certain examples of women individually choosing to appropriate a certain culture, there are certain cases of female celebrities being accused of cultural appropriation when in fact the decision was not entirely up to them.

We can definitely question the morality and race-awareness of these two women for accepting these jobs, but we also should not deny the weight male-dominated art industries have on the decisions these women make and then hold them solely responsible as the ‘faces of cultural appropriation’.

Take the example of Gigi Hadid’s feature in Vogue Italia, where she poses wearing an afro and many came to comment the model was appropriating black culture.

The model was also criticised for appropriating black culture in another shoot, for which she responded on Instagram saying: “Please understand that my control of a shoot is 1. non existent in terms of creative direction. 2. ends completely when I leave the set, and anything done to a photo in the post is out of my control fully,”.

Although certain articles accused both Hadid and Vogue Italia of cultural appropriation, it is in general Hadid who is individually held responsible in the face of the public for the wrongdoings of one of the world’s most famous fashion magazines.

On a similar note, Scarlett Johansson was accused of ‘whitewashing’ for her role as Motoko in Ghost in the Shell, which is based on a Japanese manga. Johansson faced the majority of the criticism for starring as Motoko, while in fact, her only decision was to accept the role or not, as it was the decision of film producer Steven Paul to cast her in this movie, the same way it was the decision of the photographer Steven Meisel to take the photography of Gigi Hadid wearing an afro.

We can definitely question the morality and race-awareness of these two women for accepting these jobs, but we also should not deny the weight male-dominated art industries have on the decisions these women make and then hold them solely responsible as the ‘faces of cultural appropriation’.

Racial ambiguity as the new beauty standard

Source: Pexels

One of the most recent female artists to face criticism due to their physical appearance is Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. In one of her latest music videos I Am The Stripclub, Azalea has been criticised for appropriating black culture, in particular ‘blackfishing’, a term coined through a tweet by journalist Wanna Thompson, used to describe white women that ‘cosplay’ as black women.

Many female celebrities faced criticism for blackfishing, while one of the names that keeps popping continuously is the Kardashian family, most famously Kim Kardashian, who has been accused of appropriating black culture and earning significant financial gains from it. Moreover, the Kardashians are famous for basically inventing the ‘Instagram look’, therefore profiting off the male gaze, through pursuing racial shape-shifting and mainstreaming racial ambiguity as the new beauty ideal, as previously argued by journalist Joanna Fuertes.

If racial ambiguity is the new beauty standard, could the pressure to adhere to today’s even more unrealistic social standards of physical beauty drive women in certain cases towards cultural appropriation? It is important to mention that this question does not want to dismiss the fact that blackfishing as well as cultural appropriation is a systemic race issue, but would like to stress the importance of looking at the problem through a multi-dimensional lens.

Cultural appropriation as an intersectional issue of Racism and Sexism

For white women, the act of trying to look racially ambiguous makes them accomplices in cultural appropriation due to their whiteness as well as victims of sexism and misogyny due to the fact that they are trapped in a vicious circle of adhering to unrealistic beauty standards. Meanwhile, there is still a push for women of colour to still assimilate to the Western beauty standard of a white woman. This can be seen from black female artists such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and others that dye their hair platinum blonde and straighten it, while some artists were even speculated to have lightened their skin tone in order to ‘adapt’ to the beauty standards of the industry.

If women are brainwashed to perceive their own features as less appealing, what happens is the mainstreaming of non-white features on white women, while women of colour assimilate to white beauty ideals. Moreover, women of colour’s own natural beauty are perceived as too ‘ethnic’, with many countries with predominantly non-white populations still perceiving the white Western beauty ideal as the standard.

Nevertheless, these are two separate trends that have occurred for very different reasons, but are both results of predominantly white male hegemony. Therefore, the privilege that white women inherently have cannot be denied.

Switching the current narrative

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In order to have true meaningful progress in feminism, we need to turn to intersectionality. If cultural appropriation links to today’s ideal beauty standard of racial ambiguity and the once-again unattainable beauty standard that rich white women such as Kim Kardashian profit from, we need to acknowledge the intersection of patriarchy and whiteness that occurred. In other words, recognising that cultural appropriation overlaps in race, sexism, but also in class.

Moreover, as long as we as individuals, as well as members of certain social groups, do not recognise our very own privileges as well as the potential discriminations we face, and do not apply our critical thinking towards understanding the bigger picture, not much will change. That is why it is crucial for the feminist movement to engage in common discourse, to listen, argue and debate and most importantly, to have a critical approach to our own surroundings.

White women should use the power and resources to fight the current narrative by not conforming to the beauty ideals they mostly profit from, but being allies to women of colour in the fight against racism and together, against the patriarchy. Stopping the mainstreaming of non-white beauty on white women and giving women of colour more space to be themselves and acknowledging their own beauty is crucial for the positive future of intersectional feminism.

Furthermore, when influential women are accused of cultural appropriation, it is important that these women take accountability in their actions, but also that the narrative in media does not lead to the immediate denunciation of these women as the individual villains of cultural appropriation, but rather recognising it as a larger systemic issue of racism and sexism of art industries that are predominantly rooted in white male hegemony.

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Vanda Bajs

Vanda Bajs

Media researcher, writer in progress. I express my opinions on feminism, culture, social justice and everything in between.

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