Beauty, Skin Colour and Race

I was shocked yesterday when L told me that during his school days, it was common for both primary and high schools to run beauty contests for female students, swimsuit parade and all.

The closest thing to a beauty contest I can remember from school is the Grade 1 Nativity Play. All of us knew that the teacher would pick the cutest girl and guy to be Mary and Joseph. (Yes, we were conscious of our looks even as 5 year olds.) Meanwhile the rest of us lined the stage in white dresses and shirts shining torches into our faces (as angels of course, not ghosts ;)).

Like any pre-teen and teenaged girl, beauty was always a very raw and painful concept for me. High school was full of informal beauty and popularity contests – a formal one would have been crushing. The fact that I went to a predominantly white primary school and high school (single sex to boot) probably didn’t help the self-esteem cause. Moving to Sydney, a larger, more culturally diverse city, in my late teens certainly did.

During my recent blog-stalking forays (which I assure you are still on…), I came across posts by Shreeman over at Bideshi Biya and Between Worlds about their children’s desires to have white skin. Their posts brought back memories of sticking my arm out to my parents as a 5 year old and saying, “See this, I don’t want it, how come it’s not white like everyone else?”

Years later, mum told me how hurtful this question had been, how it had made her and dad doubt their decision to move to a lonely country on the other side of the world where, at least during those early years, they struggled to find acceptance in the wider community (particularly in terms of employment).

Difference is confusing for children. Especially if they’re the only one who is ‘different’ and they are not exposed to cultural diversity beyond their immediate family. But I remember it also being exhilarating; a source of wonder. I would walk to kindergarten thinking how bizarre it was that my parents came from this entirely different country, which I really knew nothing about. Being so young, I took my own life for granted, so the wonder was in the fact that my parents came from somewhere else and were different from all my friends’ parents, not in the fact that I ended up in Australia with all the friends I have.

As I grew older I began to see myself as different as well, especially in terms of appearance – a concept of difference which was no longer tempered by the surreal wonderment of earlier years.

The mainstream notion of beauty in the Australia of my childhood, and in Australia today, is the (straight) blonde-haired, blue-eyed bombshell. Whether we’re talking about the fun blonde or the sultry brunette, Australian notions of beauty are very much based on Western European/Anglo ethnic features. Indeed, cosmetic surgeries and enhancements predominantly focus on changing features which don’t fit into normative standards of beauty – large noses, frizzy hair, unwanted fat, unwanted body hair. Features usually associated with a non-white ‘ethnic’ look (except for maybe unwanted fat). On top of this, popular psychology tells us that we should make these cosmetic changes for the sake of our psychological wellbeing!

As technology advances, it seems that we’re increasingly ‘smoothing out’ our offensive features rather than embracing difference and diversifying our concept of beauty. It is scary to consider, if the genetic technology ever becomes available, whether people will choose white ethnic features for their unborn babies, particularly as that dominant image becomes more attainable, and any ‘deviating’ image becomes a sign of difference/low class/undesirable ethnicity etc . Many of these deviating features are already considered undesirable and unattractive – my Vietnamese-Australian beautician in Sydney even sells nipple whitening cream. Which makes me think: would non-white parents also chose, if they could, white ethnic features for their unborn children?

I may sound a bit extreme but this stuff really played on my mind as a teenager, and (obviously) these anxieties have not completely disappeared. Of course most people have self-image issues at that age. But for anybody who is not white, there is always the added bitterness of knowing that no matter how many products you buy, how much you spend on surgery, how many trips you make to straighten your hair…that underlying ideal equating femininity with fairness and white ethnic features is essentially unattainable because you cannot, at the end of the day, change your genes or change your skin colour (Michael Jackson tricks aside…though his is a classic case of adolescent race-based anxieties informing a lifelong obsession with his face/looks). There was a time when even the term ‘fairer sex’ would bring on tears of frustration, for the simple reason that it excludes me and anybody like me (i.e. not white) from feminine beauty’s first criteria.

Hopefully, before technology advances too far, our society will embrace all types of weird and wonderful human forms as beautiful. Otherwise we’re in for scary times.

11 Comments

Filed under Adolescence, Beauty, Race

11 responses to “Beauty, Skin Colour and Race

  1. Thanks for sharing from your experience! While I definitely agree that ‘white’ is the mainstream ideal and influence, it’s also interesting for me to see the hoards of white women who tan incessantly to be the color of my children. It seems women are never satisfied with their appearance, something I attribute nearly exclusively to media influence…

    I love hearing from your experience b/c it’s hard for parents to know exactly what goes on in the minds of their children… Like you, daughter’s frustrations have lessened significantly b/c we drive her 35 minutes to a more diverse school (she would be one of the only children of color in our local school) where about 1/3 of the kids are brown or biracial. Once she started interacting regularly in a place where diversity was normal, I did notice a difference in her feelings. Sometimes, though, she still tells me people look at her weird. *Sigh*

  2. Sadly this is not only confined to those being raised in the West. My brother and I were darker. My sister was fair skinned. I often heard relatives talk about how it was alright that the boys were dark but our family was fortunate to have a fair skinned daughter. Very wedding discussion had this topic within it. Racism and distinction based on fair skinned is a very ingrained principle within Nepalease culture and the broader South Asian and even Asian culture. My wife (a white American) tells the story of showing my picture to her Japanese co-workers while she was teaching in Japan. They expected to see a picture of a handsome white blue-eyed blond man and were oftentimes shocked. Not sure of their response they would just laugh. A very uncomfortable laugh. Sad.

  3. Nice post. I think society places way too much pressure on in terms of our looks. I know it will probably never change but it really shits me. I constantly feel that I will be judged for my weight. Others are judged for their skin colour. When I was trying on a sari in front of my Nepali girl friends, they were oohing and aahing over my “beautiful white skin”. Touching my arms and saying “I want your skin”. I just had to laugh. It’s got to be a complete joke. I told them “I want your skin!” Most Aussies want to be tanned and be brown more than white. I guess it will always be a case of wanting what you cant have.

    Your post also reminded me of something I saw on ABC’s Hungry Beast show. It was about Asians have eyelid surgery to become more western. It’s horrific. I think I’m going to do a blog post on it.

  4. Kay

    You know, I don’t buy that the concept of beauty is idealized in the form of a blond/blue eyed woman. Most of the beauty contest winners (as in miss world, universe etc) are brunnettes with caucasian features from Latin American countries and these days, India. Light but lightly tanned skin with brown hair/light eyes combination seems to be the ‘in’ thing today. But I definitely agree that light skin and caucasian features are idealized.
    I grew up in the Southern US where I went through a most awkward phase in high school :S Grew out of it when I moved to Canada (which is a much more diverse, accepting, and multi-cultural country. Go Canada!). Now that I’m in India, part of me thinks why I don’t get the harsh treatment that is usually reserved for foreigners by government officials and airport authorities because I kind of tend to fit the Indian beauty ideal.

  5. Hi all thanks for your comments.

    Between Worlds – I think if I’d gone to a more diverse school earlier on, these frustrations would have lessoned. But no matter how diverse your school, like you said, I guess there will always be those moments when you give in to the what the media and society tell you about your “inadequate” looks. As White Girl in a Sari pointed out, this could be based on a number of factors, and if you’re not Caucasian, skin colour and racial features are major examples. I remember reading this blog post ages ago (wish I could find it now) by a female black rights activist in the US regarding her hair – she had always had a fro during her 30s and, along with a group of fellow activists, had refused to straighten it out, partially as a political stance against the Caucasian ideal (also because it’s much less maintenance!). Still, she wrote quite honestly about how, when a major (white female) player in the fashion world came out and said that straight hair was all the rage and the political fro ‘outdated’, she still felt unattractive compared to fairer-skinned, straight-haired women who seemed to more naturally fitted into the beauty ideal, despite her political convictions and her recognition that ‘beauty’ is as much of a social construction as ‘race’.

    White Girl in a Sari – I’ve heard of the eyelid surgery too. It seems like such an extreme way of westernising non-western (“deviant”) features, which is what I was trying to touch on with the stuff about genetic technology. I would love to read a post about it!! When I was in SE Asia with a bunch of Anglo-Australian friends, the local girls we met would always make comments like, “I wish I had white skin like you” (to my friends) and “I wish I had large eyes like you” (to me). It is pretty unnerving – these girls went to such lengths to stay fair, including wearing sweaters and jeans covering their arms and legs in about 35 degrees heat and 200% humidity!!

    Shreeman – Thanks for sharing your wife’s experience in Japan. Isn’t it a bit depressing? 😦 AND it seems to me that the South Asian obsession with fair skin is more than simply an internalisation of western beauty ideals. I’m interested to know what your sister felt about these sorts of comments in Nepal? I’ve had female cousins complain bitterly that even now, even amongst their highly educated male relatives, the men will request that a girl’s family provide a photo of her “from every angle” before agreeing to marry her (imagine if a girl requested the same of a boy!!).

    Kay – Thanks for sharing your perspective! I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of the wider beauty world. The blonde=hot equation is a very localised point of view (confined to my observations of my friends and memories of high school…so not particularly representative either). It’s great to hear from somebody who’s living in India, where Caucasian features are not the dominant look, even if they’re definitely incorporated into the beauty ideal. Continuing a bit from my response to Shreeman, I often get the feeling that in India and Nepal, darker skin immediately renders somebody (especially a woman) unattractive. I can see how having fairer skin, particularly if you’re a foreigner, communicates status and privilege. On the flip side, having darker skin communicates low status (that’s how I’m trying to get my head around South Asian racism towards black people, to link in an earlier post). I’d love to hear more about your experiences in India, and how that fairer/darker skin dynamic plays out amongst South Asians themselves. Sometimes I hear people associating this bias for fair skin with the caste hierarchy, but is it true that higher-caste people tend to be fairer? Also, I notice from your blog that certain types of North Indian and Nepali girls are considered attractive because (supposedly) they’re ‘fairer’, but obviously they’re not considered high caste…Wish I knew more about this!

  6. Bharatiya Nari

    ” Whether we’re talking about the fun blonde or the sultry brunette, Australian notions of beauty are very much based on Western European/Anglo ethnic features”

    If that’s true its because thats what the majority of people have. I would see no reason why the mainstream notion of beauty should be anything other than what the features of most of the citizens of a country have. Do you?

    Luckily for us Desi women, many Black and White Western men also have a “fetish” for us and “exoticise” us. Something that post-colonial-deconstruction types might take offense at but I welcome it and plan to milk it to my advantage! LOL. What woman doesn’t want to be thought of as beautiful and exotic? Believe me, I would be complaining if I never got fetishized and was forced to wander alone in the forest of sexual choice, not being chosen.

    • Absolutely – of course mainstream notions of beauty are going to fit in with the majority. I guess I was exploring how it feels to be a minority in a culture that is extremely looks-obsessed (i.e. you feel ugly). More a personal take than a critique of society at large.
      Thanks for all your comments btw – very thought provoking!

  7. Bad Indian Girl

    I’m just nit-picking here, but I think that in old English, the word “faire” denoted beauty and not “fairness” per se (as we understand it). As in my “fair country”, “thy fair face”.

    “Fairer” in “the fairer sex” basically meant “the prettier sex” or “the more beautiful sex” . That women were thought to belong to “the prettier sex” is a whole another issue I guess.

    However, darkness is associated with inequity and fairness with equity. Indeed, “fairness” in this context is often used as a synonym for equity and justice.

    Perhaps this is a residue of the eighteenth/ nineteenth century’s legacy of colonialism and imperialism, where the white race was seen to be more “civilised” than the savage natives? Just a thought.

    Your blog has some very perceptive and insightful writing and I’m glad I found it. 🙂

    • Thanks for a really insightful comment – I didn’t realise the history of the word fair in old English. It’s certainly strange that fair/fairness also has this second meaning referring to equity and justice (which at first glance doesn’t seem to have anything to do with beauty). I agree that given colonial history and the corresponding rise in racialised thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries, the meaning/s of the word has transformed with time. Very nice perspective on things!
      Glad you enjoy reading my blog 🙂

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