Straitjackets of Beauty
The ever-changing ideals of beauty are a dominating force in society and the ways in which people perceive themselves and each other. Throughout history, societal conceptions of what is beautiful have changed and evolved. Today, with the media serving as the dominating force behind people’s perceptions of body image, social perceptions continually conform to the projected norms of the moment. Beauty is defined differently in every society, yet in the last half century, globalization has enabled Hollywood to set standards which are increasingly impacting the rest of the planet. A deconstruction of the Western conventions of beauty reveals the manufactured perceptions which are quickly spreading throughout all cultures of the world.
Black Beauty in the African American Experience
By Desi K. Robinson
The issue of race and beauty must first be examined through the crisis of publicly defined beauty. The debate on beauty should really be attributed to the frenetic, schizophrenic hailstorm that years of popular culture has created. Much of it comes down to good old-fashioned dollars and cents. It’s easy to speak of the evils of Eurocentric ‘white’ beauty. There is surely enough blame to hand out to the forefathers who indoctrinated blacks as three fifths of a human being. But even slavery was not solely driven by prejudice and dominance, but also by money. There is much exclusion in publicly defined beauty and a case can definitely be made for the appalling prejudice against the old, the fat, the ugly, and the unknown.
It is clear that a universal prototype of beauty has been defined as thin and symmetrical, for the most part. But the underlying, purposeful confusion and dual consciousness are what continue to drive the beauty market. There is so much more revealed to consumers in this day and age. Now more than ever, we are aware of how much of beauty and lifestyle in the media is enhanced by lights, make-up, smoke and mirrors, but we still aspire to it. Anorexia and bulimia were all taboos of the past; yet now, every other celebrity has had some bout with it and is an advocate for treatment. Cable has given us access to all the nips, tucks, stays in rehab, infidelities, attitudes and intelligence levels of the people we admire. So much of entertainment is questionable but remains a multi-billion dollar industry. In an era of Hollywood long ago, plastic surgery was a secret that died with the celebrity and her agent. Today, young girls are getting nose and boob jobs from the surgeons of the stars for graduation presents. Singers don’t actually sing and gangster rappers are not really gangsters. We revere the beauty of young girls and assume or impose onto them the sexual prowess and experience of an older woman who, ironically, is not as revered. We know and understand all of these inconsistencies and hypocrisies. It is the stuff of twenty years of Oprah. But why? This confusion and double standard that exist in our psyche are the monster that drives the industry. … We’re back to the dollars and cents.
Western society is a mechanism that is fueled by commerce and what better market to tap than one of superficial, emotionally wounded and increasingly low self-esteemed individuals who will always want bigger, better, faster, more beautiful lives? Why have a regular vacuum cleaner when you can have one with the motor of a jet ski? Why have a reliable car that will take you to and from work when you can take up three parking spaces with a Hummer? Why get engaged with a regular gold band when you can spend two month’s salary on a diamond you can see the future in?
Television shows like Extreme Make Over and The Home Edition, MTV’s Pimp My Ride, Doctor 90210and The Swan, all bank on the fact that we continue to aspire to have better bodies, bigger houses, and faster cars. What would we sell, improve, pimp or make over if we were led to believe that we are good enough as we are? Continuing to fuel the hailstorm of inconsistencies, double-standards, and self-deprecation is to drive the business of commerce. The larger shame of it, is that more under-represented groups like blacks, Latinos, Asians, homosexuals, and people with disabilities get further lost in the mix because the standards of beauty and lifestyle are often different for them and are not as clearly defined.
There has always been a history of the mainstream banking on black culture. As early as the 1830’s, singing in Blackface (where white men would paint their faces black and imitate blacks) had been common on American stages and was just one form of the coarse humor that many racial and ethnic groups were subjected to at that time (although it was not considered racially offensive in the early 1900’s). The mainstream’s adoption of urban and black culture remains true today and still contributes to the grey areas of defined beauty. Tommy Hilfiger has made a killing as a designer with his sidewalk to catwalk fashion, even being mentioned in the lyrics of several hip hop songs. Urban language is now on the tongue of every metro hot chick, with Paris Hilton uttering the now famous “That’s hot,” which was heard on the streets months prior. The word “dis” will surely make its way into Webster’s dictionary in the years to come, and you’d have to have been living under a rock to not have heard “bling, bling”(a term which refers to the sound that your shiny “ice,” otherwise known as platinum jewelry, makes) in the last couple of years. In 1980, Bo Derrick sexily galloped across the sand in the movie 10 with strands of beaded braids that black woman had worn many moons before. Derrick popularized and made acceptable a style long thought of as tribal, a style now being paid for by droves of spring breakers on holiday at the beach. Tanning salons offer packages where you could pretty much pack a lunch and spend the weekend in a booth, and it is fair to say that the identifiable full lips and ample derriere of black ladies past and present are now textbook plastic surgery cases of collagen injections and Brazilian butt lifts. But who decides? Who decided that Jennifer Lopez’s booty was going to be the one to break the bank? The vehicle of ‘celebrity’ is driven by projecting a truly unobtainable image of beauty to a society that continually craves to somehow be different or better than what they are. Go to The Bronx. J. Lo booties are a dime a dozen. Always have been. But the mechanism of ‘celebrity’ as a vehicle to promote defined beauty dictates what will be popular today and tomorrow. It is one thing for blondes, brunettes and redheads to be a revolving trend but, lips, butts, and skin tone? Changing body structure is more extreme than picking up a box of I Love Lucy red #19 hair dye. What is a black girl with naturally full lips, hips and butt to do when her birth-given structure is no longer the trend?
It is still very recent history that defines Vanessa Williams as the first black Miss America (1984), Tyra Banks as the first black woman on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (1997) and Naomi Campbell as the first black woman on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine (1990). Halle Berry became only the fifth black woman by 2002 to appear on the cover of Cosmopolitan since the magazine began using cover photographs in 1964. While women of every race are dealing with the larger animal of publicly defined beauty, the barometer can be further confusing for black girls who may or may not have ample backsides, now popular and acceptable, to feel they are beautiful if that trend subsides.
White sun worshipers are tanning themselves to a golden brown, but black girls in videos and popular television shows seem to mainly be represented as lighter skinned, more exotic-looking beauties with longer hair. More and more hair salons are catering to black women who have decided not to chemically straighten their hair in the same industry that has had an increase in long hair weaves and hair extensions for both black and white women.
Black girls and women are contending with what is expected or acceptable beauty for ‘them’ in tandem with BET (Black Entertainment Television), MTV, VH1, and society standards, knowing that their beauty exists, yet still hearing about the first representation of black beauty on this cover, that movie, or this show as epiphanal moments.
When you ask people their opinion about the images of beauty in the mainstream and the inclusion of minorities, many are very quick to negate what exists. It’s very politically correct to say, “oh she’s too skinny” or, “they should definitely have more black images of beauty in fashion.” But if not for our continued fascination to emulate and support what already exists, there would be no continued sales of music, concerts, films, DVDs, and fashion items.
We will always be a society that worships beauty. The problem is that publicly defined beauty is limited. The full range of it exists but is not often enough highlighted. We, of course, have images of black beauty from the hues of Sade to Grace Jones and the sizes of Halle Berry to comedian Monique and the tresses of Janet Jackson to the kinks of Macy Gray. But we must have honest dialogue about representations of all beauty to understand mainstream beauty as entertainment and nothing more. We fall into a dangerous trap if we do not, constantly trying to conform rather than experiment with beauty. We live in an age of special effects. Just as we watch the cinematic magic of film and know that ordinary humans cannot jump out of planes without parachutes and land on careening cars, we must accept that women are not flawless, hairless, perfectly fat and cellulite-free symmetrical beings. Perhaps we should journey toward more truthful education. The same way that we teach our children the concept of make believe, we also have to teach them, as well as ourselves, about the mechanism of fame and publicly defined beauty.
Hollywood has long served as a determining factor behind conventional ideals of beauty in the West. Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, the primary source of news and entertainment was the radio. Print ads served as one-dimensional figures of beauty for women and girls, but the power of print media pales by comparison to the power of television. By the 1950’s, television had become a central part of middle-class life in the West. By the year 1950, over ten million American homes had a television set. In still war-torn Britain, only eight percent of British homes owned a television by 1952, but as the decade advanced and the economy improved, these numbers increased drastically. As the popularity of television grew, the power of images took on an entirely new dimension; for the first time in history, people had three-dimensional images entering their homes on a daily basis. With the latest in news, sports, and entertainment came images like never before. Hence, the latest in fashion, cosmetics, and beauty were transmitted to the public at an unprecedented rate. No longer did women have to wait for the latest fashion catalogs from New York or Paris. Women had a readily accessible mirror to which they could hold themselves.
For years, perfectly made-up faces had been the picture of glamour in women on the silver screen. But television brought in a different attitude. Leave it to Beaver TV mom June Cleaver told the world that glamour was not a state reserved for movie stars, but rather, that even the middle-class housewife should look glamorous at all times. With June’s perfectly pressed dresses, starched aprons, high heels, and strings of pearls, the perception was quickly changing; all women should embody glamour at all times.
It is no coincidence that the mass marketing of cosmetics developed around this time. While make-up had long been a part of upper-class life, the 1950’s brought the first widespread use of make-up to the masses. While the picture-perfect images of women on television quickly became the standard toward which women and girls looked, the markets flooded with lipstick and rouge. The perfect complexions of our favorite Hollywood women inspired a clear-skin frenzy which continues to thrive to this day. The first cream concealer was introduced by Max Factor in the 1950’s. The brightness of the tones gave skin a very unnatural appearance, so companies started adding titanium as an ingredient to soften the shades. Hazel Bishop invented the first “permanent” lipstick in the 1950’s. Thereafter followed the introduction of “throw-away” lipstick tubes: inexpensive lip colors that could be easily afforded by the working class. Eye make-up hit the markets and its popularity soared; bright blues, greens, and purples were available in shadows, liners and mascaras. And, as the popularity of make-up grew, the first celebrity endorsements were born. Ava Gardner endorsed Max Factor’s Cream Puff Pressed Powder and Estee Lauder introduced to the masses Youth Dew, a fragrance which came in the form of perfumes, bath oils, and lotions. Today, the cosmetic business continues to thrive as a multi-billion dollar industry and trends continue to follow the norms set forth by Hollywood. The images of perfect skin, eyes that ‘pop,’ and lips that appear luscious and glimmering sell billions of dollars worth of products annually.
Marilyn Monroe was arguably the most famous woman in the Western media throughout the 1950’s. From magazine covers to the silver screen, the world was inundated with Marilyn’s curvaceous figure and innocent pout. With Marilyn as the ultimate picture of beauty, Western society foamed at the mouth for the voluptuous figure. As time has progressed, however, the picture of beauty for Caucasians in the West has changed from the hourglass figure of Marilyn Monroe to the board-like figure of Jennifer Anniston.
According to a CNN Science & Space Report on December 20, 2002, researchers at major universities in Canada and Australia compared height, weight, bust, waist, and hip measurements of 577 models from issues of the adult magazine Playboy from 1953 to 2001 and found that the figures had become “less shapely and more androgynous.” Marilyn Monroe’s figure stood at a voluptuous 37-23-36. Yet, according to the results of the study, which were published in the British Medical Journal in 2002, the images of attractiveness have increasingly shrunk over the course of just four short decades. In the 1960’s, the study states, models had already trimmed down from the curvaceous figure of Marilyn Monroe; the popular British model of the 1960’s, Twiggy, held a drastically thinner figure of 32-22-32.
On the contrary, the FTC issued a law prohibiting the use of indoor tanning equipment for any purpose other than cosmetic use. Despite the great threat to the health of the epidermis and the damage caused to DNA by indoor tanning, no medical study has been able to persuade the FTC from stopping this $2 billion per year industry in the United States. Ironically enough, before the latter half of the twentieth century, tanned skin was viewed as a symbol of poverty throughout the West. Farmers and other “low-class” workers developed tans from working outside. Fair-skinned girls were considered more beautiful because their affluence was viewed as attractive. Yet today, in a world dominated by Hollywood and MTV, fair-skinned women are conditioned to want to abandon their pale skins and endure the dangers of artificial UV light in order to develop darker skin.
White women in the West are held to certain standards which women of other races are not necessarily held. As black and Hispanic celebrities continue to rise in popularity, white women are finding themselves conflicted between the curvaceous norms set by Jennifer Lopez and the slender ideals toward which they have been conditioned to strive. Indeed, it is far more likely to find overweight black women succeeding in the media than it is to find overweight white women. While Queen Latifah is widely regarded as a sex symbol and Oprah Winfrey has made her millions despite the drastic weight gain and loss throughout her career, no busty or curvaceous white woman enjoys the same celebrity in the media. In Europe and the United States, Pop Idol and American Idol demonstrate these realities respectively. British music industry expert Simon Cowell has been notorious for rejecting white female singers on the basis of their weight alone, while simultaneously passing overweight black singers such as Frenchie Davis and Mandesa Hundley through the beginning stages of the competition with flying colors. Men, on the other hand, seem not to be held to any such standard; Ruben Studdard won American Idol II with no difficulties, despite his enormous stature. At six-foot-four and 350 pounds, Ruben quickly won the hearts of America as “the velvet teddy bear.” No overweight woman has won American Idol to date, and no overweight white woman has yet to earn her way into the Top Twelve.
Meanwhile, the plastic surgery industry continues to flourish. Liposuction, face lifts, tummy tucks, and breast enhancement surgery are currently at an all-time high. US citizens spent an astounding $12.5 billion on cosmetic surgery in 2004 alone (compared to $9.4 billion in 2003), while plastic surgeons in the UK gross approximately £224 million per year. And according to the American Society for Esthetic Plastic Surgery, 72% of all plastic surgery operations in the US in 2004 were undergone by white women. (8% were men and 20% were ethnic minorities: 8.5% Hispanic, 6.2% African American, 4.6% Asian, and 1.1% other non-Caucasians).
Why this pressure to conform? Perhaps because of the ways in which women and men are portrayed in popular media in the West. While men on our favorite television shows seem to float through life without any regard to their physical appearance, women are held to the highest standards for physical beauty. Despite his short pudgy frame and bald head, George on the popular 1990’s sitcom Seinfeldnever seemed to have a problem landing dates with beautiful young women. When was the last time we saw a woman of George’s level of so-called “attractiveness” landing dates with handsome young men? On the contrary, the beautiful women on shows such as Friends and Sex in the City often find difficulty in the dating world, despite their flawless appearances and confident demeanor. Even news anchors are held to standards of beauty; when was the last time the world saw an overweight woman news anchor, or one without a flawless face? CNN’s Betty Nguyen, NBC’s Katie Couric, and the BBC’s Sophie Raworth represent the ideal of beauty with their clear skin, flawless hair, trim figures, and gleaming smiles.
With images of conventionally beautiful women inundating the covers of magazines and the television and silver screens, it is no wonder that women in the West hold themselves to such ludicrous standards. The media delivers a powerful message to the world; that, with beauty comes power, happiness, and success. The media, in its infinite wisdom, has dictated for us what is beautiful and what is not, and society, in its lemming-like obedience, has bought into it all. The standards are laid out for us; given the messages these images transmit, it is not surprising that women and young girls will go to great lengths in order to conform. As long as we continue to raise our daughters on the ideals projected by the media, we will continue to live in a society where women are willing to go under the knife in order to enhance their physical appearances. Beauty, it seems, lies no longer in the eye of the beholder, but rather, in the lens of the media’s great camera.