American Beauty

A friend of mine recently posted a picture one of his children had drawn of her family. Now my friend is a Latino single father by choice, and he has twin 5 year-old girls who are half-Black. In his daughter’s picture, however, all three of them appeared blond and blue-eyed. This gorgeous little girl has clearly received the message that there is something wrong with how she looks.

I find it shocking that in 2016 in a country renowned for its diversity, the American media continues to perpetuate Western beauty as the ideal. Don’t believe me? Look no further than the University of Washington’s cheer and dance program tryout infographic featuring a tan, white, blond girl. In researching for my blog post about it, I found that kind of infographic to be fairly ubiquitous among major university cheer programs across the country. Next time you check out at the grocery store, take a look at the faces on women’s magazines and you’ll find minorities wildly underrepresented. Fusion found that fashion magazines featured only 14% women of color in 2014. So far in 2016, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, and Shape have featured ZERO. Makeup companies like Loreal and Clairol have come under fire for digitally lightening, or “whitewashing,” the skin tones of celebrities like Beyoncé and Queen Latifah.

The constant barrage of images in print and on TV and film that promote Western beauty are so damaging to women and in particular, our young people. (I’ve chosen to focus on girls here, but I recognize that there is an equally harmful campaign that affects men and boys, not to mention the complete absence of non-binary people in conversations about beauty.) The media has normalized an unrealistic standard for weight, and it’s dangerous. Young women especially are at risk for body dysmorphia and eating disorders in attempting to reach an ideal that is inconsistent with both physical and psychological health. Equally disturbing, because that standard of beauty is essentially whiteness (light skin and Anglicized features), it’s unattainable for women of color. Seeking a Eurocentric beauty ideal, many girls feel compelled to chemically straighten out their natural hair texture, use skin lightening creams that can have horrible side effects, or even have surgery to “correct” their Asian eyes.

Thankfully, there are people inside and outside the industry working to change standards of beauty and make sure impressionable young people see themselves reflected in the media.  I’ve always loved Sesame Street – I even wrote a paper about Jim Henson as a social progressive for a college courseon American popular culture. So I was delighted to see a video of a little Black girl Muppet singing a love song to her African American hair (watch it here: https://youtu.be/enpFde5rgmw). I’m also a fan of the #BlackGirlMagic movement.  It’s a social media rally cry in which Black women show solidarity, fight stereotyping, and celebrate their success, beauty, and strength. Teen Vogue  has also made a concerted effort to diversify, putting Asian supermodel Fernanda Ly, Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg, and millennial role model Willow Smith on its covers.

Although it’s important for the self-esteem of young people to see more diverse images of beauty, it’s also essential to teach them that beauty is about more than physical appearance. A Mighty Girl (www.amightygirl.com) is a collection of books, toys, movies, and music “that offer(s) positive messages about girls and honor(s) their diverse capabilities.” Their goal is to empower and inspire smart, confident, courageous girls. Their Facebook feed is delightful, honoring female heroes of the past and celebrating the independent spirits of little girls like the one who dressed up as a hot dog for “princess day” at her dance class. I also love Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls (www.amysmartgirls.com). It’s an organization “dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves.” Their posts honor the inventive and imaginative contributions of women and provide lots of ideas for Smart Girls (and Boys) to find their special gifts and passions.

As a society, we certainly need to broaden our definition of beauty to include the infinite array of colors and body types of our nation’s people. Children especially need to learn that there is more than one way to be beautiful. We should also be teaching them that beauty is about more than being pretty. Just as there are many ways of being beautiful, so are there many ways of being. And that is truly beautiful.