The media and advertising have reinforced the idea that there is only one way to be beautiful (Photos: Metro.co.uk/handout).
For years, British women have been bombarded by the idea that thin, capable white women with European features are the epitome of beauty.
Women of color, who tend not to fit the narrow definition of beauty based on Eurocentric ideals, are systematically excluded from narratives of what beauty is. This can inevitably have a negative impact on their self-esteem and self-worth.
It’s impossible not to internalize these norms and consciously or unconsciously try to meet them, says psychologist Susan Cousins.
Growing up in Bristol, South Asia, in a predominantly white environment, I desperately wanted to look like my blonde, blue-eyed classmates. When I hit puberty, I began to dislike my Indian features; I was embarrassed by my hairy arms, I was compulsively plucked at the level of my bushy eyebrows, and I couldn’t stand my protruding nose.
In college, I was often told I was pretty for a brunette, or that I didn’t look too Indian, as if it were a compliment. I even remember hearing guys say they didn’t like me because they didn’t find Asian girls attractive.
It is no surprise that I, like many other women and girls of color, feel that we are not up to the task. A look at any popular magazine makes it clear that by society’s standards, being beautiful means being white.
Although representation of different populations has improved over the years, a survey conducted in 2018 shows that the problem is far from being solved. The study found that of the 214 covers of the 19 successful glossy magazines in 2017, only 20 had a colored personality.
And when it comes to marketing and advertising campaigns, we’re not much better. According to a study by Lloyds Banking Group, three out of five ads are wholly or mostly white. And where advertising is diverse, there is often a major backlash: people have threatened to boycott Sainsbury’s after its Christmas ad featuring a black family.
Why is it so important to be reflected in the master story of beauty?
We are constantly looking for representations of who we are, and if we don’t see that, we automatically see ourselves as different, says psychologist Tina Mystic.
We tend to think both ways. So when we understand that it is beautiful to be white, we imagine the opposite. What is the opposite of beautiful? It’s ugly, she explains.
Despite global efforts to improve diversity and representation, much remains to be done.
Even today, when black and brown women appear in magazines, advertisements and television shows, they tend to have fair skin, straight hair and angular features, perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards.
Sure, big bottoms, powerful hips and full lips are in fashion today, but only because the Kardashians created them. Many women of color, especially black women, have always looked like this, but it wasn’t until white women adopted these characteristics that they were considered acceptable.
If we want to move away from these standards of beauty that are accessible to just a few, the media, big brands and social media accounts that have a big next need to engage and broaden the way they present beauty, says Dr. Mistry.
We need to see and celebrate models and actresses with dark skin, natural hair, striking features and curvy bodies. Only then will women and girls of color feel valued and welcome in society.
Growing up, I knew it would be great for my self-esteem to see people like me in magazines and on television, unlike the Asian mint family in Eastenders and the Patil twins in Harry Potter. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
How have Eurocentric ideals of beauty affected other women of color?
I felt so disgusting and uselessI felt so disgusting and useless
It was a total identity crisis. (Photo: Maham)
Growing up in Scotland as a Pakistani, I didn’t like being Asian – I was very embarrassed. I dyed my hair and wore clothes to make myself feel whiter. It was a total identity crisis.
I remember me and my white friends talking to boys in the schoolyard. One of them told us who he found least attractive; he went through all the girls but didn’t mention my name. When I asked: What about me? He said: You’re brown, I don’t like you. Then I realized that I was less desirable because of the color of my skin.
I felt so disgusted and useless that I kept trying to figure out how to change. So I would wash my face. I looked at myself in the mirror while my face was covered in soap and begged God to let the white color of the soap stay on my skin.
I remember always being disappointed when I finished washing my face and seeing my dark skin.
I had the feeling that there was no room for people like meI had the feeling that there was no room for people like me
I recognize who I am, and I feel good. (Photo: Ludi)
Growing up, I didn’t see myself represented on television or in the dolls I played with, so I was very conflicted about my identity.
I remember going into makeup and seeing that there were so many options for white people, but mostly nothing for darker people like me. If there was anything in my shadow, I should be grateful. I really felt left out, like there was no place in the world for people like me.
I like what I see when I look in the mirror. I recognize who I am, and I feel good. But my younger sister, who is 15, doesn’t feel that way – she desperately wants to conform to society’s standard of beauty and wants fairer skin.
This is inevitable when society sends them the message that they are not welcome or valued. I’m just grateful to be older and not feel that way anymore.
I never thought anyone would want me.
I wanted straight blond hair and I wanted to be white. (Photo: Robin Mills)
As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine anyone liking me. I looked in the mirror and thought I was terribly ugly and fat. I considered my lump to be part of my darkness, and I think other people felt the same way.
I absolutely hated my hair – I wanted straight blonde hair and I wanted to be white.
I remember when I was 12 years old, I was offered braces because my teeth were so crooked, but I refused because I was already bullied for being Métis, I couldn’t stand being bullied for having train braces too – it’s sad.
Fortunately, beauty ideals have changed since I was a kid. I remember feeling more confident when Beyoncé started because she made me feel like it was normal to have wide hips.
But we still have a long way to go. I just hope that future generations can be more proud of them.
I just wanted to be skinny.
I was so unhappy because I didn’t belong. (Photo: Maya)
Growing up in North London, in a very white area, I remember my mother coming home from school and asking me why the other girls were so skinny.
I practiced a lot, but I was always bigger than them. I was so unhappy because I didn’t meet the standards of the Eurocentric body.
Now that big butts and fat thighs are in fashion, these features I hated at the time are allowed thanks to white guards.
I wanted to be Little Spice so bad..
It was really clear what was considered beautiful and what was not. (Photo: J’Nae)
I was obsessed with the Spice Girls when I was a kid. I wanted so badly to be a baby herb, with blonde hair, blue eyes and braids, but my friends insisted I was a scary herb because I was black, but I couldn’t identify with that at all.
I wanted to be a baby because she was considered beautiful and angelic and everyone loved her. I didn’t want to be scary or aggressive or stubborn.
Looking back, I find it very interesting. The fact that her name is scary has sent such a devastating message to young girls.
It was really clear what was considered beautiful and what was not. And in reality, not much has changed.
How can Eurocentric standards of beauty be countered?
- It starts with the question of what influence you are under. Look at your social media feed – do you see faces and bodies that look like yours? If not, change it. Vary your diet and check the bills that really make it.
- Study the brands of beauty products you use and check if they match your skin tone.
- It is important to remember that diversity and inclusion continue to evolve in the mainstream of beauty and wellness. Brands and companies have a long way to go, and change will take time and work.
- That’s why it’s important to keep reminding ourselves that there is more than one ideal of beauty.
- Body ideals and beauty standards are set by companies to make you feel bad about not having big eyebrows or a thin nose. They focus specifically on our insecurities. To counteract this, we must be critical of marketing and advertising.
- Connect with people who care about and value diversity. These interactions online or in real life will help you remember that faces and bodies can be different.
- If you have self-esteem and body image issues and feel it is affecting your daily life, seek professional help.
Dr. Tina Mistry, psychologist.
I had trouble getting my hair out
I never hated my skin, but I really wanted straight hair.
You never see girls with curly or African hair in magazines, so I didn’t see them as pretty. I have struggled my whole life to accept my hair because of the way it is presented in the media.
When I had a job interview, I dressed him up to make a better impression, and it was the same when I was dating guys.
I’m proud that I learned how to kiss my hair, but I really wish there was more information in pop culture about how to style curly African hair. It had a huge effect on my self-esteem.
Fortunately, people are talking more in recent years and it’s harder for them to discriminate.
It took a lot of work to make me feel comfortableI don’t know….
I keep trying to learn what I’ve been told about myself. (Photo: Angelina)
Growing up, I obsessively straightened my hair and chose a foundation color that was too light because I wanted to look paler. I was always so relieved when my white friends said they were darker than me, which is so confusing.
I’m Polynesian, so I have wide hips, which I am. I always thought I would never be as beautiful as the skinny white women around me. It took a lot of work to get comfortable, and if I hadn’t been educated on Twitter, I’d probably still be clinging to those insecurities.
Of course, I’m not sure yet, but I keep trying to learn what I’ve been told about myself, but it’s not true.
Being surrounded by like-minded people has also helped me a lot.
Read more: Beauty
I wish I was paler than.
I was constantly told to stay out of the sun so as not to darken. (Photo: Sunita)
I thought I was lucky to be a model, but in reality it was a real struggle to find a job, and I was always the token brown girl in the middle of a sea of white people.
When I appeared in the fashion shows, I had to bring my own makeup because the makeup artists never had my shade. It was so demoralizing to see so few women of color, especially South Asian women, in industry and on magazine covers.
At home I was constantly told not to expose myself to the sun so as not to darken, while my cousins were enchanted by green and hazel eyes. I was not appreciated and I did not fit in.
I wish I could say that my young self is proud of his tanned skin, thick black hair and strong dark eyebrows. I would tell her that she doesn’t need to wear colored lenses or dye her hair; it’s not a novelty, a fetish or a fashion trend. She’s beautiful inside and out.
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.
We seek to explore how, where and why individual and structural racism affects people of color.
It’s important to improve the language we use to talk about racism and to keep having difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.
If you have a story or personal experience of racism you would like to share, please contact us at [email protected]
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