Beauty standards for women have always been nothing short of unrealistic and unachievable, and are made up of racist and infantile images due to the rise of race theory, and the ever-present patriarchy. Feminine beauty has been transformed into an industry designed to keep self-esteem low and profits high and built catering to the white, cisgender, heterosexual male gaze. White supremacy and sexism – particularly the intersection of these two ideas – are still prevalent in modern society, resulting in ideas of the beautiful woman that are consistently paedophilic and racist.
As of today, more than 99% of women in the US voluntarily remove their body hair. Body hair removal is not a new practice, but many are unaware of the sinister rise of hair removal as a worldwide industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – even marked by an attempt to make it mandatory for women to remove their hair in the United States. White men became increasingly concerned with controlling white women to ensure their pristine image of innocence and gentility remained intact. After 1859, Darwinism was instrumentalised to suggest that the ‘savages’ (soon to be categorised into races) were, in fact, less evolved than white people and animalistic, therefore marking body hair as a feature of animality; genetics has meant that women of colour have thicker and darker body hair, and so hairlessness soon signified racial superiority. From this bred the idea of ‘devolution’, explored in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and led to a rise in the study of eugenics.
In 1876, due to the American Dermatological Association’s growing concern with ‘hypertrichosis’ (a condition that pathologised extensive body hair), magazines began promoting white, hairless women and even articles discussing the removal of ‘evil’ racial markers through the process of x-ray epilation. Jewish, Italian, and East-European women were favoured to undergo the process of epilation as they were still white, and this process would simply allow them to assimilate into Anglo-dominant white beauty. However, thousands of women died undergoing these hair removal procedures.
Due to the racialised concept of hair, soon ‘freakshows and ‘circuses’ featured bearded women, who were sought out to be ridiculed and displayed as animalistic. The Greatest Showman is loosely based on circus ringleader Phineas T. Barnum and glamourises the industry and in turn, trivialises the racial discrimination so central to the existence of circuses. The bearded woman, portrayed by Keala Settle, has her story told vaguely and irresponsibly. What the creators of The Greatest Showman failed to consider is that the bearded women exhibited at circuses were often, if not always, women of colour.
P. T Barnum’s bearded woman, Annie Jones Elliot, was white; Settle’s character is Lettie Lutz and therefore is a deliberate separation from the history of Barnum’s circus. White, bearded women in circuses were ridiculed on the basis of sex, whereas bearded women of colour were treated as devolved. By casting Settle (a white woman) there is willful ignorance around the racial motivation for placing bearded women in the limelight, which was to depersonalise women of colour – masculinising them and making them seem animalistic.
Further to the racist motivation for female body hair removal, it also stems from a desire to infantilise women and make them more girlish, as the growth of body hair is an indicator of puberty. Early signs of puberty include the growth of pubic hair in the crotch, the armpits, and even the face. Due to the male gaze, hairless vaginas are viewed as more beautiful, and this preference can be directly traced back to paedophilia.
Many women internalise the paedophilic male gaze, and due to this, body dysmorphia is common in pubescent girls, as they see their bodies changing into something less desirable. For this exact reason, young girls glorify dating older men in their teen years, an experience they do not realise is abuse until much later in life. There is no reason for an older man to have an active interest in younger, barely legal girls, other than a desire to act on paedophilic desires. The harm caused by these relationships is amplified for young girls of colour.
The industry of hair removal existing to make women of colour insecure of their heritage is not the only facet of western beauty designed to further white supremacy. Due to British and European colonialism, many communities of colour perpetuate colourist ideals as white people were often the ruling class over a proletariat class of darker-skinned individuals. Further to this, the lighter-skinned counterparts of said people of colour were often looked upon more favourably. In times of slavery in the US, darker-skinned Black people were enslaved for industrial labour; whereas their light-skinned peers were personal slaves to the rich, performing much more menial tasks like being a ‘mammy’ or a butler.
For today’s African-American community, this is shown in Black representation consistently portraying light-skinned characters positively, with more stereotypical roles reserved for those with dark skin, perpetuating the idea that lighter-skinned POC can assimilate in white areas better. Furthermore, many Black and Brown people have internalised this idea that light skin means more deserving of respect and has resulted in skin-bleaching on a major scale for those who desire to be in the public eye. Those who are born naturally with light skin often reference the privilege this gives them, with Nicki Minaj rapping in Goodbye ‘chains heavy but I’m light-skin’, alluding to the privileges she and her light-skinned counterparts experience.
The ideals of colourism stretch further than the legacy of African-American slavery and we can look to the South-Asian subcontinent for the impact of the British Raj. The Indian caste system, propelled into popular belief by British rule, often places darker-skinned citizens in the lower castes – it is no coincidence that Dalits (the untouchables) are often dark-skinned. Further to systemic colourism impacting the lives of citizens in South Asia, interpersonal colourism is much more frequent. In the modern-day, products like ‘Fair & Lovely‘ take the beauty market by storm, and the Bollywood heroines are poster girls for light-skin beauty. The subtle propaganda of the entertainment industry echoes the rhetoric fed to the Indian public during the British occupation. It is all too commonplace for one’s complexion to be specified on matchmaking certificates (often referred to as marriage CVs) as dark-skinned people are viewed as unfavourable for marriage due to eugenics.
White women tend to be more slender and slight in stature compared to women of colour, and it is this in combination with paedophilic ideals that have led to an oppressive beauty standard. White women and their position as both an oppressed class and an oppressive class have led to outrage against white feminists placing themselves at the helm of the body positivity movement. This aspect of white saviourism displays ignorance of the history of body-shaming.
The BMI (body-mass index) is a deeply inaccurate, and racist practice that has a heavy bias towards white people and has no acknowledgement of fat-to-muscle ratio, and ethnicity. Furthermore, prominent features of Black bodies were made into caricatures and paraded around for direct comparison to white bodies. Saartjie Baartman (Sarah Baartman), born in 1775, was a Dutch South-African Black woman who was exhibited and abused due to her wide stature and large bottom. Her body was even exhumed and kept for display in a museum until she was finally put to rest in August 2002 in South Africa, as requested by late president Nelson Mandela. Black women have always suffered and continue to suffer the brunt of body shaming, and are much more likely to be labelled as obese than other plus-size people.
White women are viewed as the more desirable choice for marriage and ‘breeding’ whereas the exoticism of women of colour meant that they were and are fetishised. This image of women of colour as sexual objects has led to the adultification of young Black girls and in turn the infantilisation of white women in order to deepen the separation between the two. The belief of white women as delicate and in need of protection allowed racial injustice to be perpetuated – Emmett Till’s brutal murder and Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird exemplify this.
It is the culmination of white women’s so-called pristine nature and the fetish for young bodies that has resulted in the thin white domination of the fashion and beauty industry. Magazine covers are centred on sallow, hairless, smooth white women with nary a blemish in sight – edited to perfection so that no fold of fat may be shown. It’s unnatural and unachievable for most, and yet so widely desired. The sexualisation of Black bodies continues as the beautification of white bodies lives on. Procedures like breast augmentation, Brazilian butt-lifts, and lip-fillers are on the rise but are viewed as making one’s figure more sultry. These procedures, when done on women of colour and white women alike, are enjoyed from a sexual standpoint, but would never be on the runway. Any emulation of Black beauty has no place in the beauty world. Black bodies are admired as sexual, and categorised as ‘f*ckable’ and ‘unf*ckable’ and therefore never respected, whereas white bodies are ‘innocent and pure’ – the height of respectable beauty.
Yellow-Fever and Paedophilia
On the flip-side of the adultification of Black girls due to fetish, the opposite occurs for Eastern-Asian women. Stereotypically, Eastern-Asian women are slight and have boyish figures, and the fetishisation of this is a result of both pseudo-paedophilia and white supremacy. The widespread sexualisation of Eastern-Asian women is said to stem from white American soldiers abusing the local women when they were stationed in Vietnam and Korea. This experience is echoed subtly by Cho Chang’s portrayal in disgraced author J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series; Chang is vaguely Asian, and is centred as a white man’s love interest and is left to mourn his death in battle. Furthermore, women of Eastern-Asian descent tend to age at a slower rate, and for many men, this is a desirable trait; this has led to the unprecedented popularity of Asian women in the ‘mail-order bride’ industry, which is very often interlinked with sex trafficking.
In order for global appeal, Eastern-Asian women often lean into the fetishisation and infantilise themselves for success – this is seen in pornography with girlish Japanese women performing what is often referred to as a ‘Lolita’ fetish, popular in hentai (pornographic manga). A more innocent, but nonetheless equally harmful, example of Eastern-Asian women performing stereotypes for success is the majority of female K-pop artists; they are docile and sing in saccharine, dulcet tones about matters of no real consequence. They receive immediate success and have largely male fanbases who enjoy the performance of childishness, doting on the stars and labelling them kawaii. Although kawaii is a distinctly Japanese concept, for those who fetishise Asian women as a monolith, the term resonates. Due to Asian media pandering to these desires, there is often a disconnect in real life for many Asian women whose partners face the realisation that they do not exist to perform their desires.
In conclusion, due to the intersection of racism and sexism, women of colour are seen as undesirable compared to white women – never beautiful and lovable, but there to fulfil white men’s darkest sexual fetishes. White women are too, subject to sexual oppression, but also experience the ability to trust that they have not been chosen for the sole purpose of being an object of desire. It is a constant fear that women of colour have that their partner may have chosen them due to a preconceived notion of their race, and within this fear, there is a loss of personhood. A relationship where one person is seen as a method of sexual satisfaction has no symbiosis and is entirely self-serving for the other. These fetish-based relationships contribute to oppression, and we must all shed light on these experiences and give women of colour their personhood back.
- Alok V Menon – The Racist History of Hair Removal
- How The British Reshaped India’s Caste System
- The Racist History of the BMI
- Genesis of U.S. Colorism and Skin Tone Stratification: Slavery, Freedom, and Mulatto-Black Occupational Inequality in the Late 19th Century
- Infantilising White Women and Adultifying Black Girls
- Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering
- Racism on the Runway – Why Catwalk is So White
Written by Sammy Yasmin
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