Skin Color and Beauty: Historical Bias and Social Change

by Cindy Seo

For a long time there have been dolls with white skin but there were no dolls with black skin. The princesses in a fairy tale or Disney animation always have had white skin color or blue eyes. How did white skin and blue eyes come to be the factors that decide the beauty of human beings? Everyone knows that the beauty standard changes by the transition of cultural value, but how come it became so hard to jump over the wall of beauty standard for white people?

Every standard is determined by that era’s powerful nation or advanced country. The standard of beauty is not an exception, so I have to explain how the white people became to gain supremacy. Considering that Africa or Asia were all cradles of civilization in the past, we can imagine that they had rich soil, abundant resources, and calm weather unlike today. In contrast, the European countries were disadvantaged in these things, so they felt the ‘necessity’ to pioneer and find new country. This ‘necessity’ became the driving force so helped them to accumulate experience and capital, leading the Europe to the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution triggered the developed use of steel, and this eventually increased the productivity of food. This caused dense population and system maintenance, and led to superiority of power. The white people who became superior by this set of process became to assert the racial ideology which justifies their superiority and domination. This wrong ideology which made through long term colonized era is now still dominating the black people, even though they are virtually liberated.

The culture hegemony which uses media as its method is now even fixing the beauty standard of whole world. Since the characteristics of white people which emerge in movies or advertisements are directly connected to the beauty standard of white people, the non-white people who consistently keep in touch with mass media come to internalize that as their beauty standard. Then the non-white people who lost their own standard of beauty should always feel sense of inferiority and take discrimination for granted?

In the book World hunger explained to my son, Jean Ziegler says that hope exists in public awareness that slowly changes. Therefore, the long-term fixed beauty standard is hard to change but is not an unchangeable thing. As the ‘Black is beautiful’ movement once spread in the United States and endeavored to remove the wrong ideology of thinking the black people’s feature as essentially ugly, people who are living in current days should also self-examine from cramming themselves into biased beauty standard which is made by white people.

In order to change deeply fixed and rooted standard, influential stimulation is needed. The Miss Bronze competition was one of the endeavors and stimulations to change people’s perception on widespread beauty concept. In this case, the Civil Rights Movement was the driving force of the stimulation. As the black people’s right became an issue due to the Civil Rights Movement, people increased their thought to the discrimination that black people receive, and eventually became to challenge on beauty consciousness which has been the most discriminated part. Through this endeavor, people’s beauty consciousness on black people, which seemed immutable, wriggled, and positive outcomes began to appear.

As an example of these positive results and transitions, there are Barbie dolls and Disney animation. The Barbie doll has been controversial due to the problem of racial discrimination. The first black Barbie was made in 1967, but this was criticized since it excluded the black people’s indigenous characteristics. The early black Barbie was just colored in black, maintaining the features of white people. Until 1980s, the Barbie doll company adhered to its method of production regardless of the criticism of being called as white supremacy. However starting from 2009, the company finally began to produce black Barbie which realistically describes black people’s features. In addition, in the Disney animation ‘The Princess and the Frog (2009)’, people could see the first black princess coming on. Also in 2008, the United States chose a black man as their president. These series of events show how the world became more generous toward black people. This, in a manner of speaking, shows the miracle of hope that has been built through gradual change in public awareness.

What has decided the superiority and inferiority of civilization in the first place was geography. White people could be the white people of today since there was ‘necessity’ which came from poor geographic condition. If they did not have to worry about climate and foods, did they have to go out into the world enduring danger? It is hard to say so. Maybe non-white peoples’ features would have been the beauty standard if they had been able to grab hegemony. Therefore, there is no superiority and inferiority from the first time. It was just the results of historical coincidence and inevitability.

In the context of beauty concept as well, it is not important to think which color is superior and inferior. It is useless and meaningless since these things do not exist from the first time. The beauty standard should be rather established above the acceptance of the phenotypical differences among people. What makes this possible is an endless endeavor of awakening unbiased consciousness on race and beauty.

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Opportunist Beauty in Japan

Miss Universe Japan 2007 wins Miss Universe 20...

Miss Universe Japan 2007 wins Miss Universe 2007 crown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Mitsumi Yamamoto

Every year a number of Japanese students in my university decide to participate in a study abroad program (mainly to the US, Canada, and Australia). They usually start to prepare for the coming life in foreign countries by packing stuff or setting up their goals during spring semester in Japan. It was such a time when I often saw the female students dying their hair black again, although they used to have their hair dyed bright colors such as blonde and brown. I asked some of my friends how come they would do so and they answered, “Obviously that is because black hair represents Asian beauty.” Meanwhile within Japan, there is a huge boom about biracial people referred to as “hafu”, especially referring to people of half-Caucasian and half-Japanese (one parent being Japanese and one parent being of Caucasian heritage) (Okamura, 2009). Recently you can see hafu models and celebrities a lot on TV and in magazines, and many Japanese women try to achieve a western-looking face due to their adoration for hafu’s appearance.

Those two standards of beauty that Japanese women have, “Asian beauty” and “Western beauty,” seem to be the opposites of each other. However both standards exist simultaneously as the dominant viewpoints when thinking about what is beauty for Japanese women. Why?

This phenomenon can be explained with a case of African American women competing in the Miss Bronze or black beauty contests during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Civil Rights Movement flourished against discrimination towards black people. Maxine Leeds Craig, a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California-Davis, pointed out that  at that time black women in the Miss Bronze pageant would realize views of themselves depending on how whites saw blacks, but at the same time this helped them to see the structure of racism (Glenn, 2009). Therefore in order to accept and reject this hierarchy, contestants who had dark skin tone were crowned as winners of Miss Bronze since the 1960s, rather than those with light skin tone, who were considered as the closest color to whiteness. The black beauty came to be used as a demonstration of the value of black people.

Related to this case, what about the pageant of Miss Universe Japan? In spite of the domestic hafu boom, almost all participants of this contest attempt to show their beauty as Asian with typical images of Asian women (e.g., long black hair, slit eyes) (Miss Universe Japan). The same thing can be said of women who stay in foreign countries outside of Japan. Even if the women used to prefer western-looking (e.g., bright colored hair and round eyes) inside of Japan, they somehow start to focus on “Asian beauty,” showing their Asian features to foreigners.

Hence this coexistence of the seemingly opposite standards of beauty and switch between them depending on the situation look similar to the case of African American women. It seems that Japanese women, as representatives of Asian women, would think of themselves as inferior to whites in racial hierarchy and this consciousness would help accepting and rejecting this hierarchy. Therefore Japanese women who have chances to live in an environment filled with Westerners try to behave as one a representative of Asian beauty, although once they are in Japan, they still tend to have the feeling of inferiority toward white people with an ideal to Western-beauty.

References

Okamura, H. (2009). ハーフブームと『ハーフ顔』? [hafu boom and hafu face?]. Retrieved from http://www.kreuzungsstelle.com/column5_10.html

Miss Universe Japan. Miss Universe Japan Official site. Retrieved from http://www.missuniversejapan.com/

Glenn, E. N. (Ed.). (2009). Shades of Difference: why skin color matters. Stanford: Stanford University Press.