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Mental Health

How Western Beauty Standards Have Messed Up the Mental Health of Women of Color

I’m beautiful. I’m beautiful. I’m beautiful.

I wish I could tell you that those are the words I repeat in my head when I look at myself in the mirror. I wish I could say that instead of wondering if I knocked into my door and broke my nose, possibly fixing my middle-eastern nose to a slim European one, I thought about how gorgeous I looked in front of the mirror. I wish instead of thinking “Maybe you shouldn’t be tanning, you’re dark enough”, I thought, “It doesn’t matter, you’re beautiful no matter what.”

For the longest time, I’ve wished that when I looked at myself in the mirror, my smile didn’t immediately slip & my eyes didn’t fall. For once, I’d like to pass my reflection, look at her, and say:

“You look beautiful.”

But I, for the longest time, have not felt that way. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a “me” problem.

Growing up with the gorgeous girls with luscious blond waves, ocean blue eyes with princess sized waists gracing our television screens, magazine covers and books, it shouldn’t be surprising what young girls were beginning to view as beautiful. I mean, I should be a pretty great example of how the lack of representation as a kid affected my thoughts about my appearance because for the longest time I believed that you had to be white to be beautiful. I used to be jealous of my friend who had lighter skin than me because at least she could be “white-passing.” If she wanted to, she could say she was white whereas for me, well, everyone knew I was Indian. There wasn’t a single part of me that didn’t look Indian, and I absolutely hated that.

I’d like to say I’ve grown up and matured as an adult, but in all honesty, I think I, just like many other women of color, have begun to notice that it’s not just the color of our skin we wish to change. Although many cultures have also begun to worship the western beauty standards (we can thank colonization for that) in terms of manipulating young girls into believing that skin lightening treatments will make them and their lives beautiful (I’m looking at you Fair and Lovely) and blatantly stating how the fairer the skin, the prettier they are (definitely came from the Europeans), that’s not all the beauty standard is.

No, having fair skin is only the surface for how the western beauty standards have affected the mental health and appearance of women of color.

From East Asians wanting to get double eyelid surgery in hopes to achieve the western accepted, big, deep-set eyes, to South Asians and Middle Easterners wishing to get rid of their middle-eastern noses in hopes to have a cute button nose, to African Americans straightening their hair to be “acceptable” in society’s eyes, the western beauty standards have been subtle with their manipulation. Making us desire to change the color of our skin wasn’t good enough for them. The beauty standards want women of color to change their features to match those of a European women too.

Big, blue eyes. Slim nose. Blonde, straight hair.

Feeling beautiful is already difficult as a woman, but it feels like it’s a hundred times harder for women of color. It’s come to a point where many of us try to look as American as we can in hopes to make up for our lack of “European” beauty because that’s when we feel our most confident. Sometimes it feels like we have to try five hundred times harder to be as pretty as the average white woman, and even then, many of us don’t think we’re good enough.

It’s come to the point where the western beauty standards have begun to make us think that our race, the color of our skin and the features we’ve obtained from our beautiful ancestors is the number one reason someone wouldn’t want to date us. And if someone is interested, then there are a million questions afterward. Is this a fetish? Do they just find me “exotic”? Am I just something to “try out”? 

I’ve had friends tell me that as a woman of color, it feels like they have to make up for their lack of “European” beauty by having to excel in something else such as being a genius on the computer, a talented dancer, a skilled artist or a kicka** athlete. It’s like the option of being average doesn’t exist for women of color, and because so many of us believe that we have to make up for not meeting the western beauty standards (and assuming that those are the only standards beauty can survive on), we’re pursuing different hobbies in hopes to make ourselves “interesting” in the eyes of prospective suitors.

So not only have western beauty standards told women of color that they’re not beautiful enough, but the standards have convinced women that they must be good in something else to make up for it and even then, even then, guess what?

It’s still not good enough.

Oh, and have I touched on the fact how western beauty standards cause women of color to feel alienated from their own culture? Sometimes, the more we try to assimilate ourselves to the western beauty standards, the farther many of us feel from our culture. I mean seriously, we can’t catch a break.

Although western beauty standards are heavily rooted in many cultures, as mentioned before, there are diversions. Those diversions are looked down upon both western beauty standards and the beauty standards women of color have to face from their culture. For example, let’s look at tanning. I’ve noticed so many of my white friends complain about their “pale” skin (even though they’re all absolutely beautiful) and tan over the summer in hopes to get some “color” on their skin, which is fine, and women of color love to tan as well, as they should. The issue lies in the comments from their parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and people’s opinions who really shouldn’t matter, but at that moment they do.

My friend, who is East Asian, told me how often her parents have complained about her coming home “dark.” My sister’s friend, who is also East Asian, has mentioned her grandparents disliking her “dark” complexion every time she gets a tan. I’ve noticed people around me make slight comments at our “dark” complexion over the summer, looking down on it as if we just committed a sin.

Women of color are constantly at a disadvantage because we can’t win.

Beauty is supposed to be in the eye of the beholder, but honestly, it feels like every eye of the beholder has the same idea about beauty and it’s time that’s changed. Granted, little girls now are at a much better advantage considering representation in media has significantly gotten better, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. We need to start making women of color feel appreciated, beautiful and enough for society rather than constantly telling them to change themselves.

Like no. F*ck that.

For years, so many of us have thought of ourselves less than. We didn’t view ourselves as beautiful, we didn’t view ourselves as confident and we didn’t view ourselves as good enough for anybody. But we are beautiful. So beautiful. And I know, I know, how hard it is to believe you’re beautiful (thank you to the toxic media and beauty standards) and me saying a few motivational words won’t immediately make you feel like the most beautiful person on the planet. But I hope, to anyone who remotely related to anything that was in this article, that one day you view yourself as the person you are.

Beautiful.

Kavya is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh and pursuing an Economics-Math dual major alongside with a Creative Writing minor. She's also a part of Dhirana, Collision Literary Magazine and Women in Economics. Besides scrolling through tik tok, she loves reading, writing, the daily Netflix binges, and hanging out with friends.
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