The New Racism and the Changing Beauty Norm
I have a knack for getting into strange conversations. A few years ago, I discovered that a friend had just vacationed in Las Vegas. The only time I visited Las Vegas, I was fifteen and spent most of my time at the video arcade at Circus, Circus. Back then, Las Vegas had a reputation for being an affordable and passably wholesome family vacation spot. While Mom and Dad spent time at the blackjack tables and the slot machines, the kids immersed themselves in age appropriate entertainment like computer arcades. Later, everyone would get together for dinner at the “all you can eat for a buck” buffet. Undeniably, Las Vegas has always had a seamy side to it as well, and from recent viewings of the television show CSI, I understand that this seamy side is now on the ascent. Given that it’s been more than a decade since I’ve last been in Las Vegas, and that CSI’s portrayal of the murder rate and sordidness in Sin City might not fall in the category of news reporting, I was eager to find out from my friend John (not his real name) how the city had changed. Really, what I wanted to know was whether you could still eat all you want for a buck. I learned three things from John. First, the culinary reputation of Las Vegas has improved dramatically. You can still gorge yourself sick but it will probably cost you much more than a buck. Second, many new hotels now dot the Vegas skyline. These hotels are so impressive that, in John’s words, “they make the Mirage (which was the big new hotel when I was there) look like a Motel 6.” Third, while purportedly there to soak in the hotel pool and to look into possible timeshares, John had stumbled upon (so he claimed) and attended a pornography convention.
In fact, John was more excited about the pornography convention than anything else he had encountered on his vacation. He got to see pornography superstar, Ron Jeremy, in the flesh – so to speak, and marveled at how a man who is admittedly not very attractive managed to have all these very buxom young ladies hanging on his every word (Another friend was also involved in this conversation and we had to explain to Chuck (also not his real name) how Ron Jeremy attained his famous reputation.). John also got to meet other established, and up and coming, stars of the industry, and perused the many wares that vendors were there to promote. It was here that John noticed something very interesting. The industry was no longer dominated by White, blond, and buxom actresses. There were now actresses of all different shades – almost as though the industry had taken a course on diversity, found itself lacking, and worked to remedy the problem. What was even stranger was that the vendors seemed to have their own niches in the types of products they sold. One vendor sold exclusively products featuring African-American women, while another’s featured Japanese women. A third vendor’s products exclusively featured Filipino women while yet a fourth’s featured Brazilian women. As John put it, “whatever racial and ethnic group turns you on, they’ve got it covered and they’ll take good care of you!”
I didn’t think very much about this at the time, except to marvel at the capability of the pornography industry to seek out new ways of making profit. Fast forward a few years, and I’ve now moved to a different state and taken up a tenure-track position as a newly minted assistant professor of Sociology. Desperately needing to unwind at the end of my first academic year, I attacked the accumulated pile of People Magazine and spent several hours watching such educational channels as E!, the Style Network, and VHI. One of the job perks of being an academic sociologist has always been the ability to claim activity that could justifiably be seen as frivolous and brainless as research and as expanding your knowledge of the society in which you live. Ignoring my husband’s disbelief and scathing remarks, I plunged into this morass of popular culture. I began by making my way through People Magazine’s annual “Most Beautiful People” issue, which, in this age of super-sizing, now included a list of 100 beauties instead of 50. There were the usual suspects (Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Julia Roberts) and some new faces (Naveen Andrews, Danica Patrick, and Aaron Eckhart). Like pornography, I noticed that the “Most Beautiful People” list had also undergone quite intense diversification in recent years. The list now included many beauties of color, including four women of Asian descent - Ziyi Zhang (Memoirs of a Geisha), Vicky Zhao Wei (named most beautiful Chinese woman in a poll on sohu.com), Moon Bloodgood (Eight Below), and Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai. Furthermore, like pornography, two of these women were segregated into the category of “Beauties Around the Globe,” which also included actress Juliana Paes (Brazil), model Emma Too (Kenya), and singer / actress Haifa Wehbe (Lebanon). Strange, I thought to myself – surely, if you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful – why put someone in the special category of “Beauties Around the Globe?” It almost made it appear as though perhaps, you can’t quite compete with the other beauties on the list. It was then that I recalled the pornography convention. Why the segregation by race / ethnicity? Surely, the same principle applied. If you’re hot and desirable, you’re hot and desirable.
Ignoring yet more disbelief and more scathing remarks from my husband, I proceeded on to television. Apparently, lists are now the “in” thing, and every other channel was quick to pronounce their list of the “hottest celebrities,” “the hottest bodies,” “the sexiest of all time,” “the sexiest European stars,” and “the most brilliant sociologists” (okay, I made that last one up, but a girl’s gotta have her dreams). Yet again, in my absence, the creators of these lists had also seemingly undergone diversity training and the lists reflected it. Selma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, Bai Ling, Aishwarya Rai, Penelope Cruz … women of all different shades now populated the lists. Unlike People Magazine and the pornography industry however, the creators of these lists did not segregate their picks along racial / ethnic lines (“the sexiest European stars” segregated along geographical lines). However, at every single opportunity, the lists’ creators kept hitting it home to the viewer that there was something different about these women. Selma Hayek was described as a “hot tamale” and Penelope Cruz epitomized the “Spanish beauty.” The talking heads raved over the “mysterious and exotic” Aishwarya Rai, and one even commented on the fact that part of her allure is that when you first see her, you’re unable to place which country she’s from or what her racial / ethnic background is (he went on to declare that it didn’t really matter, he would willingly follow her to the ends of the earth). It got to the point where I could predict when the word “exotic” was going to make an appearance – not with Reese Witherspoon, not with Matt Damon – but with actress Gong Li – bingo! I returned to People Magazine and there it was as well. Haifa Wehbe describes her image as a “sensual, Arabic, exotic look,” while Juliana Paes explains that the Brazilian ideal of feminine beauty includes “a mix of extreme sensuality and sweetness … beach-tanned skin tone and a large but firm bum.” To top it all off, Moon Bloodgood lets the reader in on a beauty tip and explains that “Asian girls can’t live without Shu Uemura Eyelash Curler, because our eyelashes just point straight down and we don’t have a lot of them.”
What’s going on here? How did we get to the point where beauty and desirability are now racially / ethnically coded? If you’re a person of color, will you automatically have the label “exotic” attached to you? Is it possible to be just “hot” without being “exotic” or a “hot tamale?”
Beauty and desirability have always been fraught with politics. Several years ago, a student from Ohio, in not very polite or dignified language, posted a message on a website in which he excoriated Asian-American women for dating and marrying White men. In this student’s view, there was no defense for this type of behavior. By dating and marrying White men, Asian-American women were stating loud and clear that they didn’t think Asian-American men were good or attractive enough for them. It is never a simple issue of individual preference, he said, it’s an issue of race / ethnicity and power. This “problem” is not unique to the Asian-American community, where the statistic that 50% of Asian-American women marry outside of their ethnic group, is often hotly discussed and debated. Many African-American women can instantly name prominent African-American men who are married to White women. In a society where Whites are racially privileged, marrying Whites is often – for better or for worse – interpreted as a way of moving up. Questions of love, personal preference, or compatible personalities are rejected as being beside the point.
If you couldn’t or didn’t want to marry a White person, another option is to try and approximate looking like a White person. For years, aspiring actors, actresses, models and newscasters (and possibly porn stars – I don’t know, I’ve never come across studies about the experiences of porn stars of color) dreaded being told that they looked “too ethnic,” the presumption being that the viewer tuning in from Lincoln, Nebraska, would not be able to process what they were looking at. This was not a problem exclusive to aspiring media personalities. The average person was also judged on her attractiveness by a White norm. Light skin and “good hair” were physical traits highly valued by many African-Americans, and as Lawrence Otis Graham has pointed out, it is not a coincidence that the elites of the African-American community disproportionately possess these traits.
The White norm of beauty inevitably led to various attempts – sometimes humorous, sometimes drastic, but somehow always smacking of a sense of sadness – by people of color to look as White as they could. Some people got nose jobs, while others straightened their hair. Skin bleaching products and treatments – so vigorously advertised to African-Americans throughout the early and middle parts of the 20th century – are now enjoying a renaissance, not just within the Asian-American community, but with Asians living in Korea, China, and Southeast Asia as well. Some took “smaller steps” – as exemplified by Asians who dyed their hair blond or wore colored contact lenses. Anyone who’s ever taken social science or Women’s Studies classes in college has undoubtedly learned about the many negative impacts of trying to live up to the White norm of beauty by people of color. Little girls of color grow up learning that they will never look like Barbie, and that the world around them will never look upon them as beautiful. Many of these girls go on to suffer low self-esteem or worse yet, self-hatred. There were some hopeful signs though. Careful viewers of that mega 1980’s hit, The Cosby Show, would have noticed that the children played with African-American dolls, and that African-American art adorned the walls of the Huxtable home. The take-home lesson from these classes (and I’ve taken my fair share of them) is that we should learn to appreciate beauty on its own racial / ethnic terms and not evaluate beauty based on a White norm. The slogan “Black is beautiful” says it all.
Yet, attempts to look White persist. However, in accordance with the spirit of the time, these attempts to look White are now chastised and frowned upon. It’s become politically incorrect, and an affront to your racial / ethnic group, if you try to deny the physical features you were born with. When he decided to get a nose job Lawrence Otis Graham faced accusations of self and race hatred by his friends. And while his father and other family members did not confront him about his decision to modify his appearance, he nonetheless felt their silent rebuke. Figure skater and Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi landed an endorsement for contact lenses and was criticized for appearing in an advertisement in which she demonstrated the flexibility of the product by wearing blue and green contacts. After all, people huffed, Asians should be comfortable with the fact that they don’t have blue or green eyes and that they’re still beautiful. Kristi Yamaguchi was accused of ignoring the “I am beautiful, just the way I am” principle, and the advertisement was perceived as yet another misguided attempt by Asians to look White. How frowned upon these attempts to look White can best be illustrated by Eugenia Kaw’s experiences in trying to locate respondents for her study. Kaw wanted to interview Asian women who had undergone eyelid surgery. While she managed to locate a small sample, she found that many of these women not only did not want to talk about their experience, they did not even want it to be known by anyone – other than their plastic surgeon – that they had undergone this procedure.
Given the pain that many have suffered with, one could argue that this lauding of beauty from various racial / ethnic groups should be seen as a positive development. Little girls need no longer search in vain for dolls and media personalities who look like them. They are beautiful just the way they are – no matter what shade or hue and no matter what their eye color is or whether they have that extra fold of eyelid skin. There’s just one problem with this: we’ve replaced one unobtainable ideal with another. While it’s true that Asian-Americans cannot hope to look like Jennifer Aniston, it’s also true that most Asian-Americans cannot hope to look like Kristi Yamaguchi or Jeannette Lee either. Celebrities of color often talk in interviews about how good they feel about being a role model for young girls – that these girls can look at them and feel comfortable with the way they look – they’re finally seeing someone who looks like them. My usual reaction to such statements is a big snort. There is great variation within the Asian-American community, and no matter how hard these celebrities try to convince me, I know that I, along with many other Asian-Americans, will never look like them. Is it really an improvement that I now don’t look like Kristi Yamaguchi instead of Heather Locklear?
The prevailing argument is that at the very least, young girls are able to look at media personalities who look like them – this has got to help improve their self-esteem and bolster their self-identity as a member of their racial / ethnic group. And in the grand scheme of things, does this really matter? Surely people understand that these norms of beauty and desirability are ideal and cannot be attained by everyone – well, not necessarily. There is often a kind of denial happening within the racial / ethnic group itself when it comes to beauty and physical appearance. Few people within racial / ethnic group seem to want to acknowledge that there is plenty of physical variation among Asian-Americans. It’s almost as though everyone is under pressure to play well for the team and not let the team down. Celebrities can now get away with talking about “Asian eyelashes” as though all Asians have them and skating coach Audrey Weisiger (who is of Chinese descent) can matter of factly attribute a large part of Asian women’s success in the ranks of elite figure skating to the fact that Asians are small boned and don’t have breasts. Instead of feeling pressured to approximate the White norm of beauty, Asian-American women are now being pressured to approximate an idealized Asian norm of beauty.
There is also something troubling about the way that people of color are often labeled as “exotic” and categorized separately from Whites – whether it be in lists of the world’s most beautiful people or in pornography. The effect of this segregation is that we now have different norms of beauty that are “racialized.” People can now pick and choose which racialized norm of beauty most tantalizes them and fulfills their desires. I was often encouraged, in my dateless and un-hip state in college and the first five years of graduate school, that I could land a guy easily because there were so many guys out there who “had a thing for Asian women.” I was pretty sure then, and am sure now, that these guys didn’t have “a thing for Asian women.” These guys had a “thing for Asian women who fulfilled the idealized Asian norm of beauty.” These were the women they saw in the movies, on the television screen, in magazines, and yes, in pornography.
A couple of weeks ago, Miss Puerto Rico was crowned Miss Universe. The fact that she fainted at a press conference after the pageant was splashed all over the news and duly reported. What was also reported, but received much less attention, was her response to a reporter’s question. Miss Puerto Rico said that she believed the judges awarded her the title not because she was beautiful, not because she was elegant and carried herself well, and not because she was the best out of them all – but because she was the “complete Latino package.” She confessed that she had chosen to speak Spanish throughout the competition because she wanted to romance and seduce the judges – all part of this idea of the “complete Latino package.” I am pretty sure that this racialized norm of beauty is unobtainable for several members of the Latino/a community, the same way that the White norm of beauty is as well. Saying that one form of idealization is better than the other is really asking someone to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. Is it conceivable that we can someday reach a point where beauty and desirability are truly apolitical and non-racial? What would that look like? Until then, I’ll keep scrutinizing the idealized Asian norm of beauty and hope that one day, that norm will look something like me.
Carrie Smith teaches sociology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, and wonders if her school-marmly fashion sense makes it harder to feel like Jeanette Lee and scare her students.