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.