Those unaffected by racism might like to tell themselves that it is swiftly becoming a thing of the past, but they would of course be wrong. It’s often much easier to give ourselves a pat on the back for all the progress we’ve made: the ‘separate but equal’ mentality of post-civil war America seems over, in a world where discriminatory practices are illegal.
However, racism prevails in our society in much subtler ways that have a huge impact on western ideas of beauty. Beauty standards are a much contested issue, especially in the fashion industry, and we need look no further than to many major fashion brands to see the lack of non-white faces in our media. This is as least in part due to what actress Lupita Nyong’o has described as the pervasiveness of a ‘Eurocentric’ ideal of beauty.
Eurocentrism is part of a dangerous mindset that asserts there is an objective standard of beauty – whether that standard is a beach body, a contoured face or white skin – rather than seeing it as a subjective, diverse and highly varied collection of aesthetics.
Nyong’o spoke up recently after a photographer edited out her natural hair and lightened her skin in a photoshoot for Grazia. The final image, featured on the cover of the magazine, presents an image of Nyong’o more fitting to the Eurocentric ideal than her actual Kenyan-Mexican heritage. It is unacceptable to so starkly edit any woman’s appearance in a photo without her consent, but in this case the photographer, consciously or not, removed a part of Nyong’o’s appearance that is characteristic of black people: the ‘kinky’ hair that has been the subject of many a slur during the struggle for racial equality.
Even more shocking is the fact that Nyong’o isn’t the first woman in the past few weeks to have to remind the media ‘don’t touch my hair’, as the struggle has come to be known. Musician and artist Solange also spoke out when her Orion braids – which have significant meaning to her personal story as well as national heritage – were edited out of the cover of The Evening Standard. This is clearly another case of how photos are frequently edited to fit a certain type of beauty that is subconsciously thought of as the universal ideal to non-minority consumers.
Not only does this editing de-legitimise the importance of marginalised black national heritage, but it also teaches readers that this standard of beauty is what we should aspire to, no matter the insult it presents.
This, in turn, influences how we use social media to represent ourselves, and to what extent we show off or hide those parts of ourselves that stray from what is deemed ‘beautiful’. A tragic reduction of diversity in the media is the result, with people being encouraged to suppress their heritage and natural beauty.
We’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to tackling the racism embedded in our society. Women like Nyong’o and Solange are challenging the beauty standards in our society by speaking out against these forms of racism. We can do the same by looking for it even as we scroll through those Black Friday deals or pick up a copy of a magazine, and calling it out wherever we see it.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Common