Thursday, September 16, 2010

Attention Women: New Beauty Standards in Effect

The Global Accords Governing the Fair Use of Women (to use a Twisty phrase) have apparently mandated new standards of beauty that, like the previous standards, few women naturally meet but should try to emulate anyway.

In this CNN article, we learn that because the US in general, and the fashion industry in particular, is now awesomely post-racial, "ethnic" (read: non-white?) women are now the new "it" standard of female beauty:

"More voluptuous figures, fuller lips and darker skin, features traditionally associated with women of African, Latin and Asian cultures, are 'in.' Over the past decade, an appreciation for ethnic beauty has been on the rise, and these natural features are becoming popular among Caucasian women who desire to look more 'exotic.'"

First, note the total conflation of the above-mentioned features with "African, Latin, and Asian cultures," as though there are not distinctions among these groups. For instance, are Asian women stereotypically "voluptuous"? All of these "exotic" lady features are clumsily grouped together mostly for purposes of contrasting them with the default, Caucasian women. The article continues on, noting that white women are injecting their lips with chemicals, wearing special underwear that makes their butts look larger, darkening their skin, and otherwise modifying their bodies to meet this new beauty standard. No discussion is given regarding the "exotic" women who themselves who fail to meet these new standards.

It then cite a lady Harvard psychologist who claims:

"'Our standards of beauty are changing and ethnic women are at the forefront today. It emulates our growing sense of cultural awareness.'"

Now, let me be clear. I think it is past due for the fashion and beauty industry to recognize the beauty of women of color and size. Yet, everything in this article indicates that what is going on here is the replacement one standard of beauty for another, a replacement that is touted as somehow racially progressive because it is ethnic women who all women are supposedly trying to emulate.

Then, a fashion director at US Weekly, the magazine that brings us articles like "Summer's Sexiest Bikini Bods," (Hint: they're not fat bods) chimes in:

"'What's not to love, embrace and emulate about ethnic beauty? The use of curvier, more rounded figures looks refreshing.'"

Now wait a sec. I'd bet large sums of money on there being a quantifiable limit on how just how curvy, rounded, and ethnic a women can be or look and have it still be considered "refreshing." This is the same industry, after all, in which one analysis showed that 78% of young women's magazine covers contained a message about bodily appearance (compared to 0% of young men's magazines) and in which 26% contained "conflicting messages (e.g. a message about losing weight next to a cookie recipe) regarding weight loss and dietary habits" (PDF). You have to love an US Weekly fashion director who essentially backs up with her hands in the air as though neither she nor the magazine she works for is in any way complicit in centering and privileging skinny hot white women in the fashion industry and beauty market.

And then, the article quotes a random "32-year-old single man," who qualifies as an expert about all of this because.... um? women exist for the hetero male gaze?, who informs us:

"I mean let's face it, ethnic women have this exotic appeal -- it's the curves and the fact that they don't have this carbon-copy look like anyone else. That's definitely sexy in my book."

That "carbon-copy look"? That's an interesting way to put it. Elsewhere in the article skinny attractive white women like Cindy Crawford are referred to as having a "cookie-cutter" image. It is as though the ubiquity of skinny attractive white women in fashion magazines has utterly convinced some people that the only women who actually existed up until now in the real world were skinny attractive white women. But wait, fellas, now there is this other type of woman that you can consume/fetishize!

A Screen Actors Guild Casting Data Report showed that 73% of all 2008 TV/Theatrical roles went to Caucasians, 13% went to African-Americans, 6% went to Latinos/Hispanics, 4% went to Asians, and .3% went to Native Americans. In addition, 70% of all female roles and 56% of all male roles went to women and men under the age of 40. From a racial/ethnic standpoint, these percentages are relatively close to each racial/ethnic group's representation in the US Census. Nonetheless, setting aside the also quite relevant issue of whether these minority representations in the media are stereotypical and negative, the ubiquity of white (and young) characters contributes to the centering of whiteness as default, un-raced human being and thus, the ideal.

If we define racial progress as whiteness no longer being defined or assumed as the default, standard way of living and being, de-centering white women's beauty as the standard all women should aspire to would seem to qualify and should be celebrated. If we define fat acceptance as celebrating "curvier, more rounded" figures as "refreshing," then this trend is progress.

But this article tells us that the white standard of beauty for women is being replaced by a new one that conflates certain features with "ethnicity" and fetishizes them as "exotic." Some women, the "exotic" (or exotic-looking) ones, have an "it" factor, and some women don't. Some women get to display their natural attributes and have them be defined as beautiful, while, as this article indicates, other women are beginning to seek plastic surgery and other forms of body modification to make them more beautiful. Despite what may look like progress, we still have some women who are trying to live up to a standard pushed upon them by fashion magazines and the beauty industry that, for many, is inauthentic, making it little more than the usual faux Girl Power shit that posits that the only way to inspire and build some groups of women up is to tear others down.

It's not clear what the "it" in "it factor" tangibly is. No definition is actually given "it." What is abundantly clear is that whatever "it" is, it exists on the outside of a woman's body, rather than the inside.

Culturally aware?

More like culturally predictable.

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