You can love what you see in the mirror, but you can't self-esteem your way out of the way the world treats you.” Gabrielle Union
Who is attractive? Some people might say that attraction is subjective but that's only partially correct. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder AND the beholder is beholden to their own socialization. Attraction then is largely a product of socialization. We live in a world of whiteness. Whiteness is centered, celebrated, and colonizing all around us. We've boarded a runaway train with half-hearted attempts to get off. Ever-since the creation of race (more on that here), whiteness has been the ideal. That's what happens when you arbitrarily select yourself as the permanent "best." That's literally what early white supremacists did. White people gestured at as the most beautiful, the smartest, the strongest, the most advanced, etc. We live in a not quite so different world in 2020 where both white people and people of color alike have internalized the narrative of whiteness as the ideal.
It's in our language. (All-American girl, boy-next-door, white lie, white knight). It's in our politics (apoliticism vs. identity politics; all branches of gov't disproportionately occupied by white folx). It's in our media (white people as protagonist, everyone else as supporting characters or villains). It's in our businesses (income inequality, generational wealth, disparate lending practices; profiling). It's even in our bedrooms or maybe not (colorism; hypersexualization or invalidation of people of color as partners; fetishizing multiracial kids). There are so many ways that whiteness is pervasive in our lives. White supremacy is and continues to be the most successful global project of all time. Globally Whiteness and its oppressive systems are continually reproduced and reinforced from dismissive political discourse of "Western" thought, Eurocentric beauty standards, colorism, and tribalism. Positing Whiteness as the epitome of the human experience has and continues to create arbitrary hierarchies, cause horizontal oppressions & in-group conflicts, and enforce a false dichotomy of worth and worthlessness. Whose deaths matter, whose tragedies are saddening, who deserves help, and whose stories are worth sharing. Whiteness and beauty seep into nearly all facets of people's lives, and how they live.
Have we stopped to think about what it means to be ideal? We need to interrogate what appeals to us and what we find attractive. Why? Why am I drawn to this person, to this attribute, to this behavior, etc. and conversely why am I either neutral to or turned off by these folx and these things? We'll find that many of the messages we've been fed our whole lives have told us who has value, and who does not. It has told us who is the main character, and who is their sidekick whose sole purpose to ensure the success of that aforementioned central character. There was a study that shared that white audiences reported feeling less connected, or unable to empathize as easily with characters of color. That's one layer as to how deep this goes. Who gets to be human? Who gets to be a person? Whose life is worth saving (looking at the public safety vs. public health framings of issues based on who they impact; disproportionate health outcomes & mortality rates; police arrests vs. shootings)? Who gets to be worthwhile? Who gets to partner and/or marry, and caregive children (racial purity pushes; anti-miscegenation sentiments; transracial adoption; gentrification and queer identities)?
This is all to say that we continually are rewarding a biased system of beauty that barely has space for all the people it's supposed to uplift, let alone everyone else. What happens if we redefine what beauty is as a collective? What if we expanded our horizons as to who allowed into our lives, who we spent time with, and who we loved? What if we chose to respect and value people both regardless AND with regard to their physicality? We claim to live in an increasingly globalized world but we're still largely siloed in echo chambers that are more like fun houses reflecting images of people who look, behave, and believe the same ways that we do. Maybe it's more like a one-way mirror or a billboard where the same image is plastered everywhere. Making the decisions that impact our lives; starring in movies, TV, and books; filling our ears over the airwaves; and modelling all the products we're supposed to want. How can we learn to appreciate the beauty of people across the spectrum of existences when we are constantly bombarded with a whitewashed monolith? Bodies having weathered varied lives in different shapes, sizes, shades, blemishes, scars, textures, and hairstyles with different abilities carrying souls, spirits, and minds unlike any other - adorned in textiles, modifications, and so much more. How different would our lives look if the people we found worthy, worthwhile, and worth it were a testament to diversity we espouse to favor?
Beauty has power. There are ways in which we talk about beauty as if its just the superficial aesthetic of a person but beauty has tangible benefits and consequential drawbacks when it's deemed to be absent. Beauty bias and pretty privilege go hand in hand conferring unsolicited and unearned tokens of affirmation to those labelled desirable. Many a study has confirmed the objective benefits to either conforming to society's conceptualization of beautiful, or being perceived as attractive. People are kinder to you. Will people hold the door for you, smile at you, greet/talk to you, trust you, give you a freebie or discount, help you, etc. People are more lenient, more forgiving, and more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. People think of you as wiser, more intelligent, more capable, more confident, and inherently more moral. The list of benefits go on and on.
That is to say, the world thinking you're beautiful provides a distinct kind of privilege (here with undeserved gifts, and the absence of certain negative experiences). Beauty comes with commodities as we're seeing with entire industries based on appearance - social media influencers selling their lifestyles and essentially themselves, content creators gaining followings for merely having the "look," and the ability monetize being appealing in a variety of ways. It's telling who gets to make money from how they look. It says something about us for what we let go for those we find attractive. It's meaningful that who we give our money to underscores who we deem has worth or is worth an investment.
Beauty is woven into the fabric of our life experiences. We are socialized to like order, symmetry, and brightness. Think about the way stories are told and how characters, locales, etc. are coded. Light, bright, yellow, blue, white as good. Dark, dim, gray, red, and black as evil. We feel unsafe or that things are of lower value when things are broken, run down, disorganized, etc. We are worried when a place is dimly lit, smells bad, or has too much noise. We are made to want new things, things that are unused, things that are the latest. Soon these things start blending with class and socioeconomic status, as it always does, and even more disparities come out. The newest versions, latest fashion, freshest trends, etc. all have a cost associated with them. Who can keep up with it all. Who can put a filter on their entire lives, both literally and figuratively, to make it appear prim, proper, and perfectly pristine. Who can afford to maintain the vanity necessary to get ahead. Beauty is part and parcel to the world we participate in. What would it look like to create new paradigms of beauty? What if we celebrated more definitions of beauty? What if we choose to tell more people how we noticed the beauty in them? What if we complimented people for things beyond their physical appearances, or communicated beauty in profound ways - in energy, talent, diligence, authenticity, etc. X
Tips for Diversifying the Beauty in Our Lives:
- Follow, like, and share content from creators with different identities
- Support businesses and organizations uplifting people with marginalized identities
- Notice and comment on media depictions of people & their identities
- Practice giving compliments beyond physical appearance
- Interrogate what you find attractive, where it was learned, and why