It’s time to reclaim beauty

And that begins with recognising that our seemingly natural preferences are deeply implicit products of oppression.

Madhura Padwal Tamara Mathias
6 May 2017
Flickr/Os Rúpias. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Os Rúpias. Some rights reserved.We met at university abroad.

We were bound to meet, a natural pair – the Indian girls – wonderfully brown in a sea of apologetic white privilege. Our peers were just what you would expect from a student body at an elite European university: liberal, crème-de-la-crème folks, as eager as we were to diversify their social circles, and full of warmth when it came to embracing ‘the other’.

So-called cultural barriers seemed to dissipate as we laughed amiably over chai-tea and naan-bread. Our weekends were full of Indo-German bake-offs and butter chicken. We were a western university’s dream team of diversity; so varied in race, gender, outlook, and sexual orientation, we often joked how poster-perfect we’d be for next year’s academic brochure.

From time to time a politically incorrect blunder was made: a brown person was asked if they were Indian, and then the reply, tartly given, in the negative. They were American, or Canadian or Sri Lankan. All brown people weren’t Indian, you know.

A recent census report predicts 2042 as the year that will see the Caucasian population in the United States dip to 49%, making them a ‘minority’. The statistic, unsurprisingly, has become a staple of US rhetoric that lies along a spectrum spanning covertly racist right down to outright white supremacist. As Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American comedian jokes, “49% only makes you the minority if you think all the other 51% are exactly the same!”

The steady diet of Brit lit and American sitcoms that we were raised on meant that we always knew that ‘the other’ existed. Somehow, right until the moment we stepped into an international students’ meet-up, it didn’t occur it could mean us.

Of course, we live in a purposefully conscientious world today, where pedigree is often conflated with liberalism. Belonging to the tribe of Foucault-reading folk who indulge in woke debates over sparkling wine is something to aspire to. We ourselves have never been more outspoken in our criticism of the absence of people of colour in Hollywood and television. And where have the politics of egalitarianism been more apparent than in the fashion and beauty industries? Ethnic discrimination has been so fiercely battled on the runway that inclusivity is now contrived almost to the point of painful cultural appropriation.

It is Beyoncé, Priyanka Chopra and Sofia Vergara who smile at us in glossy serendipity from across the largest of our billboards, spaces once reserved exclusively for blonde hair and blue eyes. How proud we are at this display of diversity! The successes of these women stand testament to the fact that, at long last, colour is in, and gloriously so.

It was a white man, unsurprisingly, who busted that particular myth for us.

“Of course I’d date Asian,” a Caucasian friend of ours once declared munificently, following a discussion on why a Japanese girl he knew didn’t make the drinks-and-dinner cut. “She’s just not the sort of Asian I’d date.”

That got us thinking. Where did this discussion of ‘sorts’ creep in? What formed the basis for hot or not, when it came to women of different races?

Late nights on the internet spent reading Facebook group posts and Reddit threads devoted to uncomfortable discussions about race led us to a revelation. While it is true that the new millennium has seen the broadening of what constitutes ‘beautiful’, nearly all of our chosen ‘minority beauties’ seem to fall into a mould. That template remains disturbingly Eurocentric.

The whitewashing extends far beyond digitally lightening faces on magazines and posters. Recall the popular floral wreath filter on Snapchat: like many filters, it elongates your nose, makes your face thinner and your skin lighter. And why are beauty bloggers and industry bigwigs alike besotted with the contouring phenomenon – a transformative makeup technique that ‘sculpts’ one’s face by giving the appearance of a thinner nose, smaller face, and higher cheekbones? Ironically, this very technique has deep associations with black drag culture and, much like hip hop, jazz, or cornrows, stands guilty of appropriation. 

Consider the faces that are applauded for their representation of a more diverse, ethnically inclusive beauty. Indian actress, L’Oreal ambassador, and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai tops every ‘most beautiful’ poll. Pakistani singer Momina Mustehsan who became an instant heartthrob following her viral Coke Studio song. But Bollywood actors Kajol and Radhika Apte, popularised through their power-packed cinematic performances, are dubbed ‘talented actors’ while being relegated to the status of ‘unconventional beauties’. It turns out that the default, the conventional, and the desirable are all Caucasian or nearly Caucasian.

The very features that should have singled out minority beauties as representative of their ethnicities seem to be subdued. Instead, we appear to pick out those most closely resembling the Caucasian prototype in a manner that those of dual heritage have referred to as the ‘politics of passing’. Enter the ‘white girl dipped in chocolate’, a la Halle Berry and Deepika Padukone.

Typically black features, such as kinky hair or large noses, are muted. It is only when white women make typically non-white features trendy that they find acceptance. Suddenly, everyone seems to think that we all owe a debt to Cara Delevingne for making full brows a hot trend while remaining completely oblivious to how entire races have spent lifetimes plucking theirs to pencil-drawn sparseness. Full lips, once ridiculed on people of colour, are now ordered at a cosmetic surgeon’s office because Kylie Jenner seems to have done more for the pout than the thousands of generations of African women before her.

This is as much an issue of marginalisation by a mainstream culture, as of shamed self-identity. How many times have we ourselves taken “You don’t look Indian” as a compliment, understanding it to mean that we seem whiter, somehow more beautiful than our gene pool inherently restricts? Why is it that the features we are most complimented on are light eyes, sleek, straight hair, pink lips, porcelain skin and straight, slender noses? In striving for racial ambiguity, what are we really saying?

Our friend’s offhand classification of Asian ‘sorts’ finally made sense. In fact, it applied across the board to women of colour who have been deemed beautiful by the progressive world when, really, the progressive world just placed a bulk order for white with a twist.

On the outset, politics and power might appear to only, if ever, be remotely related to beauty. That beauty confers tremendous social advantages to its possessor isn’t just a worn out, jocular aphorism – it’s a robustly proven scientific fact. Beauty inspires awe, a kind of reverence that can render its admirers supplicants. Sample any Bollywood song, and you’ll find men crooning their slavish eagerness to cross seven seas, fulfil every whim and fancy, give up everything, all for a mesmerising beauty. If beauty can command servitude, then its absence evokes disgust. To be ugly is to be less than human, worthy of inexplicable yet justified derision.

Wouldn’t the authority to define beauty lie at the heart of the process of subordination, then? The history of slavery across the world is testament to this; one of the many ways in which our colonisers asserted their authority was by systematically dehumanising native people as ugly, savage, beastly beings, fit for servitude.

While the dismantling of colonial beliefs is a burgeoning movement among the liberal non-white diaspora abroad, the discourse in India seldom moves beyond a trite – almost bored – conversation about our obsession with fair skin. Where debates elsewhere have shifted towards the intersections of class, gender identity and expression, religious identity, and ableism, our vapid discussions back home have done nothing to wane the ever-increasing demand for fairness creams or matrimonial ads for fair brides. South Asian communities are rife with anti-blackness; the routine violence and racism faced by African students and tourists on Indian soil are extreme evidence of that toxicity.

“With the caramel baes!” read a caption on Facebook that ran below a picture of us on a night out with a group of white friends. It was meant as a compliment. But it made us wonder, were we only beautiful when we were considered exotic? Could hegemonic Eurocentric standards of beauty be subverted into acceptance solely by fetishizing a feature or trait?

Take the Estée Lauder Double Wear Foundation range, one of numerous cosmetic lines that create products in the same vein. Each darker shade sounds increasingly more edible than the previous – ‘Rich Caramel’, ‘Amber Honey’, ‘Truffle’, ‘Espresso’. In comparison, the light shades are named ‘cool bone’, ‘ivory nude’, and ‘dawn’. It’s almost as though the marketers of the foundation are trying to make duskiness more appealing by the introduction of appetite-satiating names. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but thoroughly objectifying nevertheless.

Fetishizing, or exotifying, is still tacitly ‘othering’ our beauty. It continues to consider white as normative. Fetishisation, more often than not, employs racist and sexist stereotypes; for instance Asian women are prized for having young faces, petite bodies and being submissive. And of course, leave the candour to porn sites: a look at the titles of interracial adult videos reveals exactly what tropes lie at the heart of this fetishisation.

It’s easy to conflate fetishisation with appreciation. The difference is that the latter neither objectifies nor dehumanises us. It embraces our many distinctive features without contrivance or pretence.

On the bright side, there are those who’ve got it right. A detour to the MAC Cosmetics website that showcases ‘professional quality makeup must-haves for All Ages, All Races, All Sexes’ tells a different story; their range of make-up bases are numbered, not named. You’re able to glide your cursor over a gradient of skin tones, without once feeling the need to fit into a palatable category.

Vanity is a sin for those who have the privilege of being considered beautiful. For most people of colour, it is a luxury we are never afforded. It is time we reclaim our beauty, its many diverse forms and shapes, and the power that comes with it. And that begins with recognising that our seemingly natural preferences are deeply implicit products of oppression.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData