Latinas Discuss the Mixed Messages of Cultural Beauty Standards

Article originally written for Voices of Utah.

For some Latinx American women, the beauty industry has been a beacon of inspiration, color and expression. But for others the cultural standards of beauty can be exclusive — even discriminatory  — and spur insecurities.

Jasmyne Magaña is a 20-year-old student at the University of Utah studying political science. Magaña’s mom is white and her dad is Mexican. Though she’s loved by both sides, she said she struggled to find an identity that wasn’t “too white,” in the eyes of her traditional Hispanic family.

Comments about her lack of jewelry or American accent when speaking Spanish discouraged her from feeling connected to the Hispanic culture, or like she belonged in it at all. “I’ve had to teach myself about it,” she said.

Though she’s fluctuated between feeling like she belongs in the Latinx sphere or not, Magaña has witnessed the inflexibility of Latin American beauty standards personally. She recalled being asked multiple times by her Hispanic family if she was a lesbian, because when she was younger she didn’t like makeup and preferred to wear her hair up. “It’s influenced me more than I like to admit,” she said.

Classic gender roles play a big part in the overall culture of Latin America. They specifically affect Latinx women by more or less putting them in a box, laying out guidelines for what men want. For example, the perpetual stereotype of the “Spicy Latina” bothers Magaña as it does so many other Latinxs. Women should not be fetishized for showing emotion or speaking their minds.

How culture influences beauty standards

Like Magaña, Kiara Grajeda-Dina, 19, has felt pressured by various beauty ideals for as long as she can remember. She identifies as Afro-Latinx and has Mexican, African, and Aztec lineage. Grajeda-Dina has lived in Utah her whole life but said she’s been surrounded by her Mexican family and friends, and immersed in local Hispanic culture, including panaderías and salons.

Grajeda-Dina said she’s fortunate to have a mom who taught her and her sisters to embrace all body types and skin tones as beautiful. Because she and her sisters are part black, their skin gets quite dark in the summer, something Grajeda-Dina said a lot of Latinxs avoid. However, their mom encouraged them to do whatever they wanted, like playing in the sun.

But the same can’t be said for the popular mentality in Latin America, which celebrates a very precise definition of beauty that all but excludes those with darker skin. In a lot of ways South American countries that have European influence, like Argentina and Colombia, tend to look down on neighboring countries that have large populations of indigenous people and people with darker skin, Grajeda-Dina said.

The beauty culture in Latin America focuses on having a specific blend of Hispanic and European features including lightly tanned skin, long styled hair, an hourglass figure, large light eyes and plump lips. Grajeda-Dina said these features are exceptionally popular in the aforementioned South American countries as well as Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.

The unrealistic balance that popular beauty demands just isn’t possible for a lot of Hispanics. Grajeda-Dina mentioned that the majority of Latina women have medium-to-dark skin tones, are short, curvy, and express themselves in many more ways than the oversexualized image of what they “should” look like, according to both Latin and American media.

As reported by Reuters, the global beauty industry is expected to reach a market value of $805.61 billion within the next five years, so it’s no wonder that women all around the world are surrounded by ads for makeup, hair, skincare and diet products every day.

The erasure of certain features like large noses, natural hair and dark skin combined with the underrepresentation of different body types in the media leads to a society that isn’t exposed to the different ways to be beautiful.

Even Latina role models like Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara and Shakira often change their looks to be more marketable or desirable to an American and European audience. “It’s kind of hard to follow beauty standards of [Latinx] women who are still trying to follow American beauty with the pale skin and the long blond hair. It’s closer but it just isn’t it,” Grajeda-Dina said.

Grajeda-Dina remembered that as a young girl she had to actively search for characters that reflected similar features, skin tone, and culture as her own. She said that Disney’s “Coco” as well as “The Princess and the Frog” and “Moana” are examples of films that portray people of color in protagonist roles and also show their respective cultures accurately.

Grajeda-Dina said she’s happy her 3-year-old sister has opportunities to watch more people who look like her. “It’s super comforting because growing up I constantly had to go looking for stuff like that,” she said, “You would just have to wait for something to come out that was closer to something you could relate to.”

Discrimination within the beauty industry

The inner workings of the beauty industry aren’t perfect. Latinx people in all professionsare sometimes the only person of color or the only Latinx at their job.

Grace Cordero, 20, has experienced this tokenization and how racial stereotypes and misconceptions can exist anywhere. Cordero is Puerto Rican on her dad’s side but said her father never knew much Spanish and didn’t focus on passing down the language.  She said her lack of Spanish didn’t really affect her until salon coworkers started treating her differently.

Like many hair stylists fresh out of school Cordero quickly started working at a salon to gain experience. The salon was close to her home in Bountiful, a suburb of Salt Lake City that is reportedly 88 percent white and mostly middle-to-upper class. As a result of the town’s demographics, the vast majority of clients and stylists at her job were white and only spoke English.

Working at that salon had its ups and downs, but Cordero started noticing a pattern. She said she realized that because she’s Latina, her coworkers were giving her a disproportionate number of Hispanic walk-in clients. Cordero wasn’t upset about helping Latinx clients, but the fact that she was cutting their hair solely because she is Latina put her in an uncomfortable position.

“Just because they’re Latin doesn’t mean they should have to only go to Latin people,” Cordero said about the walk in clients whom she ultimately couldn’t help any more than her white coworkers. After multiple incidents in a row she said she came close to filing a report.

The anxiety that can accompany a language barrier was only strengthened when the clients also expected her to speak Spanish. Cordero was the butt of jokes about Latinas who can’t speak Spanish — something both she and Magaña said can be frowned upon by a lot of people in Latinx communities and families.

Cordero’s coworkers didn’t seem to understand that her role as the salon’s Spanish-speaking stylist didn’t fit reality. “They think you’ll be able to figure it out,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you know I’m Puerto Rican, you shouldn’t be treating people different.”

Beauty and appearance can be sensitive topics because they’re often extremely personal. Cordero said the salon not only disregarded her as an individual but the Spanish-speaking clients as well. “Communicating a haircut just isn’t the same,” she said. “There isn’t much room for error.”

Now Cordero is working at a different salon called Forget Me Knot, one that respects her as a stylist and doesn’t treat her like their token Latina.

Cordero, Magaña and Grajeda-Dina have experienced the competing messages of Latinx and American beauty culture and overcome discrimination and insecurity. In their own ways, each woman said what isn’t Latina enough for some is too Latina for others. They’re adamant that Latinx women can create their own definition of beauty.