The influence of Western beauty standards on non-Western communities

Sajeea studies the narrow measures of beauty we consider the norm and why we should fight against them

Standards of beauty are constantly changing, but why are so many features of what makes an individual ‘beautiful’ in 2020 still attributed to Western norms? To understand this, it is important to dissect the history of where they come from. Many of the social norms that we adhere to in our daily lives are a direct result of colonialism and imperialism. For years, the depiction of beauty has always resonated with a colonial idea of beauty that favours the white race, particularly in women. Fair skin, light eyes and small bodies have always been considered the beauty ‘norm’. This image plays a major role in the development of body image and self-love.

The effects of colonialism are ever-lasting and this is true not only in beauty but in culture, religion, and politics. To date, many colonised countries continue to experience the impact of the Eurocentric standards that were set in their everyday lives. From the education system to the justice system, colonialism remains at the core.

Standards of beauty are constantly changing, but why are so many features of what makes an individual ‘beautiful’ in 2020 still attributed to Western norms?

As a result of colonialism, the conception of fairness and light skin has become a measure of beauty and perhaps contributes to why white women are considered the ‘epitome of beauty’. For years fair skin has been equated with an ideal which reinforces anti-blackness and racism, thus isolating minorities, especially those with darker skin tones. White skin is not only preferred in the beauty industry but in social and professional industries too. Racism in the workplace is all too common for minorities and prejudice based on skin colour is present in almost all industries. A 2019 Racism at work survey published by the University of Manchestershows that over 70% of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) workers have been racially harassed at work in the last five years. 60% said they had been treated unfairly due to their race and 30% reported that they had been bullied or been asked insensitive questions due to their race. Not only this, but applicants experience racism before they even start. A study conducted by Professor Anthony Heath found that minority ethnic applicants send approximately 60% more job applications to get a job interview. Such findings are extremely telling of the racism minorities are subjected to and correlate with the pre-conceived racial prejudices implanted by colonialism which are further enforced by society.

In addition to discrimination on the basis of skin colour, minorities are also marginalised due to certain features – features that are then often gentrified and appropriated for the profit of the majority. For example, certain hairstyles and body types are considered ‘unprofessional’. Box braids and afros are reasons employers reject future applicants from work. Not only this, but children have been banned from schools because their hair is considered different to the ‘norm’: which begs the question, what is the norm? Features such a hair, body type, and skin colour are not those we choose to have nor have the ability to change (in most cases), but because the ideal is set as a reflection of Eurocentric features, many are considered to be ‘abnormal’ or ‘different.’ In fact, these natural and normal attributes of minorities were never made to fit a Eurocentric model in the first place. Features such as thick hair, facial hair, curvaceous bodies, big noses, or big lips which are naturally attributed to POC and Black people have been used against them due to colonialist ideologies of Western standards being the benchmark for beauty.

Children have been banned from schools because their hair is considered different to the ‘norm’: which begs the question, what is the norm?

What is even more problematic is the topic of cultural appropriation. An example of this is cultural garments being used as costumes. For decades minorities have been continuously criticised for what now has become ‘trendy’ because the majority have claimed it as their own, further reenforcing the prejudices that prefer the white race and thus accept such ‘trends’ and ‘movements’ when they are carried out by them. Take the Kardashian/Jenner family whose ‘look’ is largely widely influenced by Black culture. Their bodies which are reflective of those of Black women have become a new craze, once again instilling unrealistic definitions of beauty – which are unachievable, even for them.

Looking at South Asia in particular, the effects of imperialistic rule are prominent even today. The distaste for dark skin is deeply rooted in the cultural values and traditions. These ‘preferences’ are seen in the media and film industries especially in the leading entertainment industry: Bollywood. The lack of dark skin represented onscreen and the treatment of darker-skinned actors reflects the ideology of society as the films work to adhere to the preferences of the people. The majority of the industry is fair-skinned which is a great injustice in terms of representing the people watching those films.

Most films feature fair actors, with songs and advertisements also promoting the message of fair skin being superior. Products such as Fair and Lovely, a skin whitening cream, are marketed by famous actors that are in positions of power and influence. These products are advertised to encourage people to invest in whitening their skin as white skin is equated to success, happiness and ultimately: beauty. Meanwhile, dark skin is depicted as unworthy and unwanted.

The recent release of Netflix show Indian Matchmaking also highlights the horrors of marriage within South Asian communities, enhancing the idea that in order to marry and find a partner, one must be fair. The show showcases inherited colourism, a result of colonial rule. When colonised, the countries own culture and norms were looked down upon. Unfortunately, many longed to ‘fit in’ to adjust to the new rule – and in doing so they adopted the views of the coloniser creating space for self-hate and a lack of self-acceptance within themselves. Perhaps conforming was the easiest route to survival.

They adopted the views of the coloniser creating space for self-hate and a lack of self-acceptance within themselves. Perhaps conforming was the easiest route to survival.

So, what are the dangers of such influences within communities that do not fit the standard? For many it is an issue of identity and belonging. The influence of the West has created unachievable standards many of which, through no fault of our own, cannot meet. Additionally, colonialism displaced many people creating a diaspora of people including myself in a constant debate of where they truly belong. Alongside this, there is a huge issue around the fetishisation and exoticisation of minority women. Exoticism is defined as ‘the quality of being attractive or striking through being colourful or unusual’. This very definition relays how problematic the notion of exoticism is. It results in the exploitation of minority women by dehumanizing them. Today we see those exact features being gentrified and used for aesthetic purposes. The new trend of features such as fox eyes (generally attributed to East Asians) has become a popular ‘trend’ when in fact East Asian women are subjects of casual racism and discrimination.

Colonialism has had devastating effects on colonised countries and their peoples. Although it will take more than one article to improve this, it is important we start. Dialogues encouraging the importance of representation are necessary in ensuring the cycle of toxic beauty standards are not perpetuated. I see many already taking a stand to embrace themselves and their roots, including influential women like Jackie Aina, Deepica Mutyala and many more. They are challenging conventional standards of beauty by showcasing their culture and roots, teaching women like myself that instead of trying to fit the current beauty standards that are based on an unrealistic criterion, we should make our own.

What do you think about the issues Sajeea is raising? Have your say in the comments.

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