Written By: Masuma Ali
Edited By: Anna Mohan
Throughout history and up until the present day, women of colour have been held to, and have experienced difficulty in satisfying the Eurocentric beauty standards which dominate our societies. Constantly being marginalised and excluded because of their darker coloured skin, curlier hair or their more pronounced facial and/or bodily features, women of colour have been left feeling helpless. Recently, we’ve begun to see incredible movements, organisations and key individuals speaking out against these colonial beauty standards as well as owning and flaunting their curvier, curly-haired and darker-skinned bodies.
Being unapologetic for how we look and not succumbing to these beauty standards is the first step to eradicating them completely.
Beauty has always been subject to the ‘hegemonic standards of the ruling class’, making it an ‘elusive commodity’. What makes a woman beautiful has consistently been decided by empowered white males. White European features are glorified and exploited in our societies and media; they constantly surround us and have effortlessly produced our definition of beauty. Furthermore, popular media conditions women to believe that their worth depends entirely on their physical appearance and thus, the Western beauty ideal has become an aspiration for many young women of colour. These beauty standards are reminiscent of the colonial era that deemed white people as superior. These historical standards are further reinforced by the Western domination of popular culture through the economic and neo-colonial power that followed, this still affects our societies and cultures today.
Frantz Fanon (a renowned French West Indian political philosopher) argued that colonisation did not only result in territorial and economic gains but rather, it left a significant psychological impact on the colonised population from interactions with the coloniser. Essentially, the colonised population’s vision of the world was infiltrated by epistemological colonialism. Fanon defines people of colour as having souls in which ‘an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality’. Wardhani et al argue that
‘Western beauty standards are a kind of structural violence because the colonists have distorted and removed the distinctive cultural features by changing the perception that white is the ideal colour’.
Ultimately, colonisation has resulted in many needing to wear a white mask form of culture because the only way to overcome the inferiority felt is to imitate the seemingly superior culture of the coloniser. This is further iterated by Edward Said’s Orientalism theory (1978) in which he contends that Western thinkers have long since manufactured a fabricated image of the Orient (countries of the East) as being the uncivilised and primitive ‘other’ to contrast it from the progressively civilised Occident (the West). Therefore, it becomes the West’s duty to civilise and humanise this ‘other’ population by imposing the Western language and culture over them. This causes indigenous populations to adopt Western culture and forfeit their own.
Colonial beauty standards have worked throughout history to erase the visibility of black beauty. During the times of slavery, lighter-skinned black women with European features and straight hair were usually kept as house slaves and those with darker skin, curlier hair and other facial features were field slaves. African American internalisation of this constructed racial classification caused ‘The Lily Complex’. This complex can be defined as the disguising and concealing of one’s physical self in order to be accepted within the norm of attraction. Black women went to great lengths to appear more “white”. Often, they straightened their hair using margarine or axle grease. They also used relaxers to straighten their hair, aiming to "tame" their natural hair texture. However, the 1960s and 1970s saw the surfacing of natural black hair, stipulating a political assertion against white beauty standards with the most popular hairstyle at the time being the Afro.
Using a combination of Standpoint theory and Afrocentric Theory, Patton provides a critical tool to analyse body image, hair and race. Standpoint theory encourages the inclusion of all people and perceptions instead of overturning the existing hegemonic order, while Afrocentric theory offers an alternative way to challenge the ostracism and racist beauty standards faced by women of colour. The Afrocentric theory has allowed for Africans and the African diaspora to be centred within research and practice, unlike the mainstream analysis which prioritises European frameworks. Afrocentricity strives to be placed equally beside other cultural theories and not above them.
The application of these theories finds that outside of the African American community there is a lack of appreciation for their beauty due to the stark contrast between what black beauty is defined as and what white beauty standards entail.
This demonstrates how the features of black women are constantly measured against the white European standard of beauty. The media that bombards us on a daily basis glorifies light-skinned black women with straight hair and light coloured eyes – an incomplete, and detrimental representation of black community.
Historical resistance to white beauty standards saw the Black Power movement of the 1960s iterate slogans like ‘Black is Beautiful’ to challenge stereotypes that insisted that black was unattractive. These efforts were battered from the late 1970s because assimilation of hairstyle and dress was promoted as being crucial to achieving American success. Black women had to straighten their hair, follow the latest fashions, wear wigs and weaves instead of keeping their hair in afros, braids or dreadlocks, which would have been perceived as portraying a lower socio-economic status.
However, since the 1990s until the present day, African Americans have been practising resistance and appreciating their beauty differences. Both Standpoint theory and Afrocentric theory are paramount to revealing the experiences of black women. Standpoint theory offers a space for alternative narratives and also considers how gender, race and socioeconomic status influence real lives. Afrocentric theory discloses experiences of oppression and resistance by centring the experiences of Black people. These theories allow for the demolition of the idea that black women are a monolithic group because alternatives are embraced and intragroup diversity is encouraged. Using a standpoint/Afrocentric theoretical matrix, Alice Walker argues that
‘womanism also advocates for the inclusion of the traditionally oppressed and marginalised’ and recognises that ‘the experiences ethnic minority women have had to deal with regarding race and racism are central and key points in womanism’.
Considering the theories referred to and Walker’s womanism ideas, Patton suggests a Womanist Liberatory Black Beauty Liberation campaign. This would involve a black or woman of colour's beauty issues becoming centred rather than marginalised in order to honour her beauty that has been rejected and disregarded.
There must be a revolution of beauty.
Creative styling being accepted by celebrities or radicals is not enough because marginalisation still occurs. White beauty standards need to be decolonised using the standpoint/Afrocentric theoretical matrix where the ‘visible invisible centre is decentralised’ enabling black women to define their own beauty standards and not be confined to white centre. Patton further argues that white women and black women need to work together in order to resist their ascribed identities. Respecting each other’s different histories, white women and women of colour must unite because both are striving to achieve a beauty standard that has been outlined for them, rather than defining their own.
Despite it being 2021, there is much to be done. The likes of Kim Kardashian wearing historically black hairstyles like Fulani braids/cornrows and treating it as a "trendy" hairstyle disrespects and ignores the years of ostracism that black women have faced for wearing their natural hair. Black women were deemed unprofessional and “ghetto” for wearing cornrows, the sudden popularisation of this style because a Kardashian wore it, erased the struggle that many women have faced. Despite being "called out" for cultural appropriation, she defended her choice as cultural inspiration and many white women followed the trend created by experimenting with black hairstyles. White women can benefit from the beauty standards that women of colour hold but the same beauty standards also work to marginalise women of colour from the same spaces. This highlights the ways in which white beauty standards still dominate our societies today – cornrows are seen as beautiful on a white privileged woman but undesirable on a black woman.
By remembering, referencing and acknowledging pre-colonial definitions of beauty, we can slowly work to crush the Western beauty standards that dominate societies today.
Using role models from the past to form a resistance coupled with the Afrocentric/standpoint theoretical matrix referred to earlier, women of colour can overcome the beauty standards that have owned them for many years, allowing all women to proudly wear their own decolonised definitions of beauty without hierarchies or marginalisation.