Trying to Escape the Sun: Race, Beauty and Adolescence in America

Trying to Escape the Sun: Race, Beauty and Adolescence in America

A vivid memory of my younger self continues to haunt me. There I stand, weeping while in the shower, begging for Christ, my Savior, to not allow my skin to get darker underneath Tennessee’s summer sun. I was all too aware of what that sun would do to the melanin in my skin. I needed Jesus to save me from browner skin. I needed Jesus to save me from ugliness.

The power of prayer was, however, not strong enough to save me then. So, throughout my middle and high school years, I decided to save myself. While I lacked control over the color of my skin, I took control over the texture of my hair. Numerous early mornings over several years were spent with a four hundred degree flat iron in hand as I burned my curls away, silently hoping humidity and rain would not destroy my effort to be beautiful. 

Upon reflection, very recently, I discovered how greatly impacted I was by the standard of beauty presented to me throughout my youth— Eurocentric beauty standards. I came to this realization through literature written by womxn of color, history and sociology courses taken at my university, and conversations with peers of color. Eurocentric beauty standards are false ideals that claim European physical features (such as white skin, light or blonde, straight hair, blue eyes and a thin physique) are the norm and the standard of beauty. These hegemonic cultural standards are perpetuated through the media, such as films starring Scarlett Johansen and the like, and personal relationships. This Eurocentric standard of beauty was not only harmful to me throughout my life, it was, and is, harmful for many womxn of color. 

My own experience, and recent realization, inspired me to examine how white-centered beauty standards have influenced not only myself, but womxn in my personal life. I had the honor of interviewing a few of my dear friends and my mother to learn more about the plight of womxn of color living in a culture that excludes them from beauty.

My close friend and roommate, Kathleen, and I share a former disdain for the brownness of our skin. As I interviewed Kathleen, I learned that she grew up as the darkest skinned member of her family. She told me that many would praise her mother and older sister for their beauty (the two were fair-skinned Mexican womxn) and she felt insecure as she did not resemble them in that sense. “I didn’t look like them, so I never felt beautiful,” Kathleen admitted, “[I] didn’t feel like they were my family sometimes.” The same deep insecurity that pushed me to pray for whiteness also pushed Kathleen indoors as a child, away from the freedom and companionship of her cousins who played outside, as she hid from the power the sun had over her complexion.

The Eurocentric beauty standards that plagued womxn like Kathleen and I as children extend far beyond skin color. When I was in third grade, I counted my calories religiously: the lower the calories, the better. I began to skip breakfast and lunch despite playing competitive soccer three times a week. My desperation to be thinner, to see my bones, was influenced by images of womxn I witnessed on TV and in magazines. Gwen Stefani’s slim frame in her music video for “Hollaback Girl,” my childhood favorite, contributed to my conviction that thinness was a key attribute of beauty. Had my mom not aggressively confronted me about whether or not I ate breakfast, my self-starvation may have continued much longer. Still, even she understood the pressures of being thin.  When interviewed, my mother told me that her weight was one of her major insecurities throughout her childhood, too. She said that “if you are not a stick figure, you are fat” in Puerto Rico, where she grew up. Her family reinforced this idea as they were “mean [to you] if you were fat.” In addition, she recalls being excluded from certain friend groups in school because of her figure.

As with skin color and body type, Eurocentric beauty standards provided no in-between with hair texture. You either had “good” or “professional” straight hair or “bad” and “unprofessional” textured hair. I was a servant to my straightener up until my first year of college. The desire to be viewed as professional, to be pretty, to be liked, and to like myself motivated me to rise before the sun and vanish my curls. Unsurprisingly, this experience resonated with many of the womxn I interviewed. Jenni, the first friend I made in college, told me one of her physical insecurities in her youth was the darkness and texture of her hair. She mentioned that she “wanted to straighten her hair every day” and did so until her “mom grounded her from [her] straightener.”

When Jenni’s straightener was exiled, she hid her hair in tight pony tails. She remembers desiring to dye her hair blonde, too. Another friend of mine, Kimiko, also desired lighter hair. She confessed that the blackness of her hair “always felt stark” and “people pointed it out,” which made her feel self-conscience. For Jenni, her desire for lighter hair was driven by the fact that “all the boys liked the girls with blonde hair.” While the opinion of men, especially young ones, does not matter in retrospect, it certainly does as a child because their opinions have an impact on one’s self-perception. Hegemonic beauty standards teach young boys what is and is not considered desirable in a similar way these standards teach young womxn what is beautiful.

As I consider the stories of the womxn in my life, as well as my own, I am struck by just how much these beauty standards are bolstered through various forms of media and reinforced by family and friends. Each of us first learns beauty standards from the media. Another interviewee, Alexa, stated the “lack of representation in the media” created an “implicit feeling that…the color of [her] skin…was a deviation from what was normal.” Since most of the womxn I interviewed were raised in the USA, I wondered if only American womxn struggled with the idea that whiteness and beauty were synonymous. Throughout a conversation with my friend, Jamie, I learned that Western beauty standards are heavily reflected globally, as well. When Jamie is not attending university in the states, she resides in South Korea, where she has lived for about fifteen years. Jamie informed me that paleness is a virtue in Korea as well and noted that many womxn wear makeup foundation two shades lighter than their actual skin tone. You can see “the line of demarcation” between their faces and necks, Jamie joked. It seems that Eurocentric ideals fostered a dichotomy between white skin as beautiful and all other skin as unseemly. 

While it may be true that Eurocentric beauty standards are extremely harmful to womxn of color, it is also true that womxn of color are resilient. Despite, or perhaps for some, in spite of Eurocentric beauty ideals, womxn of color have learned to love themselves deeply and fully. We have chosen to unlearn society’s infliction of self-hatred upon us. We have educated ourselves on where cultural notions of beauty were created. We have created spaces for ourselves through art, employment, and media that embrace us fully.

During each of my interviews, my concluding questions were “when do you feel the most beautiful?” and “how do you define beauty?” The answers I received had nothing to do with skin tone, hair texture, or body image. The answers I received were eloquent words of empowerment, strength, and courage. Words from womxn that defined beauty on our terms. Beauty that is ever changing, and as one interviewee proclaimed, beauty that is our very own to determine and uphold.

My mother stated beauty is having a purpose; she declared she feels the most beautiful when she is getting ready for work. This is beauty. Jamie noted that beauty is comfort. She said beauty is whatever makes someone feel comfortable. For her, comfort looks like a bold pop of color in her outfit. This is beauty. Kimiko told me that beauty is strength. She said that womxn of color have to face hardship every day, yet we are still able to believe that there are things worth fighting for. This is beauty. Alexa said beauty is happiness. She said it is “feeling happy about [herself] regardless of [her] surroundings.” This is beauty. Kathleen described beauty as pride. She feels the most beautiful when she thinks to herself “I finally got here and I’m proud of the way I look.” This is beauty. Jenni defined beauty as love. She feels beautiful when she is around people that love her and will embrace her “no matter what.” This is beauty. I define beauty as growth.  I feel the most beautiful when I am learning, when my knowledge is expanding to a new dimension or when I am teaching others, pushing them to grow. This is beauty. Womxn of color are at the intersection of sexism and racism. However, we fight against mechanisms actively working against us. We fight for others, for one another, for ourselves, and we prevail, we conquer. Womxn of color are the foundation of families and societies. This is beauty. We are beautiful.

About the author: Andrea Isabel Diaz-Fournier is a third-year student at Seattle Pacific University studying Criminal Justice and Women’s Studies. She is the Education Programmer of SPU’s Intercultural Initiatives Committee, Catalyst, and the co-president of SPU’s campus club, Latinx Unidos.

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