This is my latest post for Feminist Studies in Religion.
Fashion magazines annoy me when they try to tell us who is beautiful and who is not. The advertisements, glamorous fashion runway shots, and girls featured on the cover of fashion magazine all try to convey the standards of beauty that their customers need to follow. Some of these standards are Western, unattainable by the majority of young girls and women, and biased toward pale skin and a thin shape. They support the Euroamerican male appetite for feminine beauty, created in Paris, Rome, London, and New York City. These standards have led to numerous health problems for women such as anorexia, bulimia, plastic surgery mishaps, malnutrition, and feelings of inadequacy.
Added to these artificial standards of beauty are magazines like People who choose “the most beautiful person of the year.” The standards of beauty used to make the selection are arbitrary, personal, and generally governed by these Euroamerican standards. How can any magazine judge the beauty of individuals and determine the most beautiful person in the world when it sees beauty through the lens of Caucasian standards? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is there a way to rank or measure beauty and judge who is beautiful that is unbiased?
Ever since I was a young girl, magazines, television programs and books taught me who is beautiful and who is not. The standards of beauty were defined as white, pale, light haired women to whom everyone else’s beauty is judged. As an Asian American woman without “white skin,” light hair, and smaller eyes, there was no way I could have been viewed as beautiful 25 years ago. The white societal teaching of the day determined that white was beautiful. I did not fit the definition of beauty.
I grew up with young Korean girls who internalized that being beautiful was to look white. It was difficult to grow up wishing that we looked different. I had many girlfriends who wished they had bigger eyes. They would tape their eyelids with scotch tape so that they would have a double eye lid. Many of my Asian friends wished they had blond hair and blue eyes and lighter skin.
This is the same story that Julie Chen shared as a co-host of “The Talk.” Her boss told her her eyes “look disinterested” and she can never become an anchor on the news channel. Hers is the story of many Asian American girls and women whose beauty is rejected because Asian beauty is not equal to Western beauty according to societal standards.
Of course this means that those who do not look Western, which is the majority of the world, will never be viewed as beautiful. Therefore, I detest it when People magazine chooses the “most beautiful woman of the year.” This forces women to compete against one another for beauty, which often neglects the fact that women can be more than their looks and what they wear. It is usually some white actress who played an interesting role in a popular movie that year. I am not interested in seeing how the magazine validates its own whiteness as a standard of beauty and aspiration.
That changed this year when People announced that Lupita Nyong’o was the most beautiful person of 2014. She is a Mexican-born Kenyan actress who is dark skinned and beautiful. She has struggled with her own dark skin and wished it to be lighter. This is perhaps the result of the white powerful social media which keeps reinforcing that “white” is beautiful and we all need to strive for white beauty. Her win should keep us pushing for more: when will more beautiful non-white women be on the front of magazines in their fullness of being (not conventionally thin, air-brushed or lightened on covers)? We must make sure the media industry doesn’t pat itself on the back for Lupita and forget about real change (one beautiful non-white woman is simply a token, not real change). We need to keep asking for more!
For a long time, only the white, blond hair women were the winners of this prestigious title. The concept of beauty was viewed from a European culture whose standards are presented as universal but self ascribed. When the standard of beauty is based on fair skin and light hair, it ignores the beauty of women from more than half the world. This leads many young girls of color to grow up not accepting their own beauty because they do not meet the white European standards.
What kind of standard is this? This is body politics. The ones who judge are the white dominators. Therefore the rules are not fair and the judges are not fair.
This plays out various cultures. “Whitening skin” lotion is now sold in India. In many parts of Asia, people prefer lighter porcelain looking skin as an indication of class and status. Traditionally, it was the lower class who worked out in the fields as farmers.
Why does it matter? It matters because it affects young girls who are in the minority culture. The fact that a dark skinned beautiful woman can be acknowledged as the most beautiful person in the world is extremely important. It means that many people may now accept that people of all colors can be viewed as beautiful.
We need to challenge and redefine the conventional standard of beauty to include women of all colors, shapes, and looks. There should not be a white standard of beauty, but a standard that recognizes beauty from around the world and beauty from within. Once we begin to accept women from all ethnic backgrounds as beautiful, then we can begin to have young girls accept, welcome, and embrace their own inner beauty. This will have enormous benefits to their future and to the future of all people.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. She is the author of 5 books, Contemplations from the Heart, Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers, Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology & The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology. She is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora”.