The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Growing up as an Indian girl I remember spending holidays and summers staying inside and avoiding the sun in fear of becoming ‘too tanned’, searching up how old you had to be to get a nose job at 12 years old, trying to ‘dye’ my hair with hydrogen peroxide at 13 years old and covering my hairy arms and legs up in the summer months, no matter how hot it was, in embarrassment. I wanted to look like the girls I saw on TV, in films and magazines. I wanted to look white, or as I have now learnt, I wanted to look like the Eurocentric beauty standard.
Eurocentrism is the worldview that assumes Western culture as the norm and the standard against which all other cultures are judged. This white supremacist ideal which places Europeanness as superior leads to the marginalisation, exclusion, and discrimination of others. Not only has eurocentrism affected things like our education system, but our beauty standard has also been ‘colonized’. Western beauty ideals include being fair-skinned, tall, having light-coloured eyes, light-coloured straight hair and a hairless body.
Colourism is an issue that stems from Eurocentric beauty standards and is prevalent in many different cultures. On my first trip to India, I was shocked to see the number of advertisements featuring Bollywood stars as big as Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra encouraging people to buy skin whitening creams such as ‘Fair and Lovely’ and promoting the idea that white skin is deemed the most attractive. The issue is so large here that the World Health Organisation estimated the skin whitening industry to amount to $500 million in India alone.
Colourism in India stems from colonialism and classist ideologies. Under British rule, the white-skinned British officials favoured the similarly lighter-skinned Indians by giving them more important administrative and government roles whilst leaving the more tedious roles to darker-skinned Indians. These practices embedded the belief that whiteness is associated with all that is civilised, beautiful and powerful into Indian society.
Having straight hair is another Eurocentric ideal imposed upon women of colour. When I was younger, I noticed that I was getting more compliments and feeling better about myself whenever I was allowed to straighten my naturally curly hair as a ‘treat’ for special occasions. This turned into me being locked into the cycle of straightening my hair basically every time I washed it from the age of 13 until now. I associated straight hair with being prettier, neater and more feminine while my thick curly hair was messy and unattractive. It doesn’t help when movies like ‘The Princess Diaries’ teach children that to be as pretty a princess, like Mia Thermopolis, you must iron every single curl on your head straight.
This issue is the most prevalent among black women and girls who are continually discriminated against in the workplace, schools and even airports for their hair texture. Research conducted on behalf of Dove found that more than half of the 500 black children surveyed had been sent home from school for wearing their hair naturally or in a protective style such as braids which is apparently seen as ‘unprofessional’ and ‘distracting’. This goes deeper than just condemning a hairstyle, it is condemning their choice to identify with their historical and cultural heritage.
The list of western ideals goes on and, as I’ve already touched upon, the media plays a big part in aggravating these issues. There has always been a serious lack of representation for women of colour in popular film and television. Female leads predominantly go to white women who often play the fun, quirky and beautiful love interest while on the rare occasion they are involved, women of colour are relegated to playing side characters who are often tokenised, stereotyped, or villainised. A serious impact of this is that young girls of colour are unable to find and relate to positive images in the media of people who look like them growing up which can lead to self-esteem issues and body dysmorphia.
Although this representation is improving, according to a UCLA study which shows that people of colour made up 27.6% of leading roles in the top 200 films of 2019 compared to only 10.5% of leads in 2011, it is still not enough. Colourism still exists and light-skinned actors are continually cast to play roles based on darker-skinned women. Even things as small as Snapchat’s ‘beautifying’ filters promote Eurocentric beauty standards by lightening your skin, largening your eyes and making your nose smaller.
Identifying that these beauty standards are fundamentally Eurocentric, while being a vital step, is far from the end of the battle. What must now be done is to resist and finally overcome them. The key to this is seeing how ridiculous the whole idea of a beauty standard is. Beauty is subjective and one needs only to look at how standards have evolved to see this. The same bigger lips that black women were teased about, and tanned skin women of colour were taught to hate, are both now glorified on white women. The irony of this is almost too perfect and it exposes how much of a sham the whole thing really is. A beauty standard controlled by institutions, with pre-determined aspects that exclude the majority of the world’s population, cannot contain true beauty.
What must be kept in mind in discussing beauty at such length is that appearance and beauty are not as important as the media and society will have you believe. Where appearance is perhaps most important, is when it is used to express your true identity, to align yourself with your culture and heritage, the exact opposite of the superficiality of its significance in the media. Of course, resisting and overcoming these pervasive beauty standards is easier said than done; I still find myself straightening my hair every week. The important thing is to maintain an awareness of these issues and be willing to (un)learn the standards that have dominated our society.