A conversation on body image

When I was growing up, I didn’t wish I was white. I didn’t look at my Barbie dolls and ask my parents why I didn’t look like her. I didn’t envy my white friends and think, “If I was their race, my life would be better.” Of course not.

It was never that obvious.

Here’s what I wished: I wished that my eyes were blue and not so narrow, because the ideals of beauty I saw and read and heard about had wide, sky-blue eyes. I wished that my nose, which is wide and flat like my father’s, was more narrow and perky. Even though I loved my long hair, and I felt flattered when all the girls would ask to play with it, I wished it weren’t so stick-straight, and that it would fall in waves or curls like theirs. I wished that my lips weren’t so full, that my smile would be more of a thin, dimple-inducing curve (oh, and I felt left out because I didn’t have dimples). I worried that my voice sounded like a boy’s, and I wished it could be high and cute like other girls’.

I didn’t wish I was a white girl. I just wished I was exactly like a white girl.

I still do, sometimes. I have to catch myself at those times when I try to compare myself to the racialized beauty ideals I see – on TV and magazines and all those expected places, but also in less obvious ways. For example, even if a makeup counter doesn’t have a (white) female model pictured somewhere prominent, you pick up pretty quickly what their model woman is when the “flesh tones” are all pinkish-beige, and the lipsticks are all about plumping up your lips (which assumes that your lips aren’t already full). Or what about fantasy novels that overwhelmingly feature European medieval settings, or draw from Western folklore, thus effectively whitewashing their characters even if the author doesn’t intend to exclude people of color? (That’s changing lately, but it’s still hard to find non-European derived fantasy novels that don’t Other dark-skinned people as savage or evil, or rely on “wise old samurai” Asian stereotypes. I would actually really appreciate recs, if anyone has them.)

Not long ago, I read a response to Pam Noles’ essay on the whitening of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, in which the (white male) writer said that consciously adding racial diversity to fantastic fiction was unnecessary, and implied that it was the fault of people of color who simply couldn’t imagine themselves in the place of the protagonists.

There’s a lot to be said about the assumptions and privilege behind that kind of attitude, but let’s bring it back to my original topic: body image. It’s easy enough for someone to tell women (and girls) of color to just imagine themselves in place of the women whom society gives the title of the ideal, to find our own beauty amidst the cultural images. But it’s hard to ignore the bombardment of images in our culture – which is not only visual media-centered, but also disproportionately relies on female bodies as the visual object. Furthermore, the subtler messages still push us toward a white-centric ideal: pale skin (or a golden tan, which cuts out black women), long and smooth hair (not kinky), wide eyes (not slanty or with Asian-style eyelids), high-pitched voices. Even the women of color who are lauded for their beauty often fit these criteria – think of how we tend to focus on light-skinned black women more than dark-skinned, such as the biracial Halle Berry. I don’t have to think “I wish I was white”; instead I just find myself wishing that I was like white women.

This is how I got the message about what’s pretty, even when I was in elementary school and uneducated about race issues. It’s only as I’ve grown up that I’ve realized what kind of racist biases underlie these ideals, but it’s been easy for me to learn about them, because they aren’t new concepts – just new names for ideas I was already familiar with.

I’m yellow-skinned and squinty-eyed. I don’t fit. But I do win back a few points, due to the fetishization of Asian women. We’re “exotic.” We’ve got that mystical “Oriental” beauty. We’re passive and pliant and all “me love you long time,” right? And if you haven’t heard the myth of Asian women’s vaginas being smaller, sideways, or otherwise especially fuckable – well, lucky you.

Oh, and let’s not forget – we’re especially hungry for white men, because yellow guys are effeminate/small-dicked/old-fashioned and sexist (yeah, they’re the sexist ones …). We’re the exotic Other, open for sexual plundering by vanilla guys looking for something exciting. I know the attitudes; I’ve been the target. I also know that I can be used to feed them because I’m with a white man. There isn’t a single thing in the world I would trade my relationship for, but god if I don’t wish I could tear it free from all the racist bullshit baggage.

I’m talking about this now, not because I have a solution, but because … well, because I want to talk about it. It’s something that we all know – POC or white – even if we don’t think about it consciously or know the name for it.

The power of identifying it, however, is that it’s easier to reject it – I can see how false these ideals are.

Also, I’m talking about this because I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t fit. None of us do. If it isn’t because we’re the wrong color, it’s because we’re those “freaky” trans who break from gender traditions and aren’t feminine enough, or manly enough. Or because we like girls – but, dammit, not in that pseudo-bisexual way that’s all about getting a guy’s dick up and not about actually having relationships with women (and, of course, having sex with him in the end, and only being with women if he’s there to watch). Or because we don’t have the able body that society likes to pretend is the only kind that exists, conveniently forgetting that almost a fifth of us don’t have “normal” ability. Or we are white, female, and feminine – but too “fat” to fit a size 2, or don’t have surgically enhancednaturally gravity-defying cleavage, or aren’t six-feet and 110 pounds.

I just want to talk about this. We don’t talk about this nearly enough – we all see and know and absorb these impossible beauty standards, and we hear some lip service from the media about how yes, they are impossible, but we don’t get actual attempts to fix it so we’ll stop being dissatisfied with how we look. So we end up detached from our own bodies, looking at ourselves from a critical distance and hating how they’re shaped and being dissatisfied with what color they are and wishing we could change them instead of just. You know. Living in them.

So, if you’d care to, talk to me about how you don’t fit. What kind of messed up things society tells you about being female (or not) and having a body, because for some reason those things aren’t good enough on their own, even though they should be. Feel free to share whatever you want. I’d like to listen.

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This entry was posted in Gender issues, Popular Culture, Racism. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A conversation on body image

  1. Kelly says:

    I’m going to lay all my cards on the table; I am female, I look white and I don’t usually wear anything larger than a size 7. I acknowledge that in many situations, without even any action on my part, this works in my favor. Just like anyone else though, I don’t have everything-certainly not what our ideals say I should have.

    My father was born into a Chippewa tribe in Michigan. My whole life I have had chubby cheeks that people really liked to pinch and poke at. I always thought-if I could have those high pretty cheek bones like other girls people wouldn’t pinch my cheeks, they would talk about how pretty I was. I have since grown to like them, though, after having a chance to meet my family from that tribe and seeing where they came from.

    I am almost 30 now and I am starting to feel that undeniable “age issue” only due to outside pressure. My breasts are prone to gravity, my hips are no longer “girlish”, I don’t kill myself at a gym everyday so I am a little soft here and there and my eyes wrinkle a little from all the laughing I’ve done so far. I like the way I feel, in fact I love it, because my body and mind are imprinted from everywhere I’ve been so far. I get the impression that my radio, TV, magazines and movies don’t really agree. At some point I won’t be able to shop in the juniors dept. anymore, but I am at a loss for where to find the hordes of everyday stores offering fun clothes that are targeting women my age like they target younger women.

    What my TV does tell me, I don’t like or identify with. Am I supposed to be a “desparate housewife” (with only white girlfriends) now that I’m this age or am I doomed to trying to live up to finding some single, (again,only) white girlfriends in order to commiserate about being unmarried while we’re having tons of sex in our city?

    I like who I am, I like my values, I like that my life is nothing like the pictures they paint in the media. I just can’t help but notice that even though I know there’s nothing wrong with me or anyone else, it pisses me off that there are so many things trying to tell us that there is. Sorry so long-I sincerely thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. sbg says:

    I don’t fit because clothing will never go below size 8. Hell, it probably won’t go below size 10.

    I don’t fit because I’m 5’2 1/2.

    I don’t fit because I refuse to wear makeup to “enhance” my looks.

    I don’t fit because I have far too much hair on my body.

    I don’t fit because I won’t giggle at a man’s jokes when they’re not even remotely funny.

    I don’t fit because I have a husky voice.

  3. BetaCandy says:

    I’m going to comment, even though my experience isn’t nearly so bad as some, just because I think this is an important conversation to have.

    I’m white, but short, plump, and brown – I’m frequently told I look like Patricia Heaton (wife on “Everyone Loves Raymond”). At least my visual type shows up on TV and movies from time to time – usually relegated to “sidekick” roles instead of Lead Babe, but still. We’re a little bit fetishized as spitfires who say what’s on their intelligent minds, but as stereotypes go, that’s a helluva lot better than what some people are forced to endure. In fact, I prefer it to the Lead Babe stereotype that gets foisted on Barbie-esque women who meet the social ideal.

    I realized early on that even being Barbie-esque wouldn’t solve any problems I was having in life, so I embraced how I looked and made the best of it. But people have occasionally offered me pity because I’m “too short” or my brunette hair can’t be made blond without first being turned into hay. All the problems in the world, all the challenges I face as a human being, and all some people can see is what a shame it is that I’m not Barbie.

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  5. Sara says:

    I think this is the first time I’ve ever admitted this aloud, including to myself. I know it must be — I briefly considered blogging about it the other day, but put it away because I’m not sure I was ready to deal with it.

    I am white.

    Except I’m not. I’m actually biracial, half Pinay, with an entire family (a really huge one, actually) of full-blooded Filipino/a.

    I can’t relate to them at all. (Except for the food, which is really good.) I can hardly understand my own grandfather, not because his English is bad, or because his accent is especially heavy, but because I haven’t learned to listen to people with accents period. And so we don’t talk, because I feel embarassed if I have to ask him to repeat something more than once, and I think he either picks up on my embarrassment or gets embarrassed himself.

    I am white. I was raised primarily by my white father in a primarily white town. I was one of fewer than ten “ethnic” kids in my entire educational experience, from kindergarten through my senior year in high school. All my friends were white; my entire life was white.

    I never saw myself as different from them. I was so whitewashed that it’s hard for me to see — that, well, when I think of “normal” or looking “normal,” what I actually mean is “normal for white people.” Even now when I look in the mirror, I don’t particularly think of myself as looking Filipina — even though I have an obvious Pinay nose, and have darker skin, and have hair that does nothing particularly well except existing. Even my mum, who’s fully Filipina, didn’t strike me as being “different.”

    I don’t know where I’m going with this actually. I’m just — I don’t know, trying to learn how to relate to my Pinay identity, I think. Because it hasn’t been an identity for my entire life, and yet I’m just now beginning that the rest of the world will look at me and see a Filipina (or an Asian) girl, not a white girl. It never occurred to me that being expected to know Japanese, or to eat dogs, or be great at math was specifically because I was different; I mean in high school, my friends would laugh off my smarts as being in my genes, but it never … really sunk in, I guess. Because I didn’t think of myself as Filipina.

    Do I have white privilege if I identify as white and think of myself as a “normal” (i.e. white) person? Even if I’m obviously biracial, if not wholly Filipina?

    That might be off-topic — sorry — this has just given me a lot to think about.

  6. Katie says:

    Wow, Sara, can relate. I’m White and Korean and grew up in an entirely white town. I encountered all the racism you might expect, but have little immersion in Korean culture. It’s very strange – I hope I’m not coming off too Tragic Mulatta – to be in this position. I have this essentially White acculturation and much of White privilege but a strong sense of being Not-White, with little positive identity to replace it. At least that’s how I feel on bad days.

    As for body image, definitely got/get exoticized a ton. For many, though, there’s weird disjunct because I’m pretty big and sharp-tongued and Asian women are, naturally, all tiny and demure. I truly hate our cultural obsession with (and refusal to admit to the obsession with) White features. I hate that I try to dress in ways that make me look “long” or “lean” (read “skinny”) and that I feel compelled to bleach facial hair. I feel like this thrall to Whiteness pervades even the most innocuous things, like the language of what “accentuates your best features.” What might those features be? why, big eyes, or long legs, a small narrow nose and high cheekbones, a small waist or an ample – but not too ample – bosom, something that seems suspiciously akin to a laundry list of Nordic features. This argument can get infinitely reductive, I know. It’s just…always getting under my skin.

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  8. Kelly: Thank you for sharing your experience. I don’t have much to say because I don’t think there’s anything to add, but I do appreciate your bringing up the “age issue.” I forgot to do so, which shows my own perspective (college age), but even so, what you wrote resonated with me. I’ve been thinking about where to get my clothes lately – juniors department or women’s? – as a related question to the issue of my status as either an adult or a “young woman.” I’m 21, so I feel like I’m in ambiguous borderland. And, of course, the transition to adulthood/”age” is potentially much more detrimental for women than men …

    sbg: You’re right, you don’t fit with the assumed standards of “beautiful” looks and behavior. But I think you sound great, and I share some of your “non-beautiful” traits.

    Sara and Katie: Thanks for bringing up this issue. I’m not quite in the same situation as you – I am fully Chinese – but boy do I see myself in your words. I’ve lived all my life in rich, mostly Christian, and overwhelmingly white suburbs. I’ve absorbed the dominant white way of viewing the world, including its treatment of race and racism. My transition to anti-racism (the real stuff, not the feel-good “colorblind” approach) was relatively recent because I was so indoctrinated. My family and I have experienced racism, sure, but I certainly didn’t notice some of it, or consider it very important, due to my absorption in the dominant perspective.

    I have this essentially White acculturation and much of White privilege but a strong sense of being Not-White, with little positive identity to replace it. At least that’s how I feel on bad days.

    I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    Is this white privilege? No, I don’t think so, because any privilege we experience is temporary and contingent – dependent upon us toeing the line and not causing a fuss, and especially not drawing attention to our non-whiteness. The approval we receive stems from our distance from our non-white heritages, which allows the white people around us not to feel threatened, and perhaps even take comfort in the idea that we are people of color who agree with their racial attitudes. But being more in touch with our non-dominant cultural backgrounds, or turning to anti-racist activism, would cause us to lose this pseudo-protection. It is, I would say, similar to the “privilege” women experience when they obey cultural rules of femininity and subordinate themselves to men; that is, they certainly gain some benefits, but are not in a true position of power.

    That’s my take. I’d appreciate any further thoughts either of you have.

  9. bellatrys says:

    Also, don’t forget being-a-girl and not wanting-to-be-male, just…wanting everything that goes with being-a-boy like being able to have adventures and whatever job you want and being treated with respect and not being stuck being the outsider or the one expected to be the squealy victim or the drag on the fun or the Responsible One who will stay and do the chores while the boys go out and play make-believe in the fields…

  10. notcute says:

    My problem is that I fit in too well. I am white (so white that I can’t tan and have had several people ask if I was an albino). I am 5’2″. I have long, blonde, straight hair and blue eyes. I am skinny, (and it is unlikely I’ll move out of Juniors any time soon, though I’m 19.) I have medium-sized breasts. I inherited a “young-looking” face from my mother. I am one of the lucky ones, I have so much privilege and it’s only now that I’m really trying to learn how NOT to abuse it. But I am bisexual. And very few people look underneath that exterior, or want to. The adjective used to describe me, almost exclusively is “cute.” I am never pretty, as a woman might be pretty, I am cute, as a child is cute. Strangers are always eager to help me when I don’t need it. No one wants to see my pain, like when they see the bleeding angel on my back and after an uncomfortable silence, they say “that’s cool.” When I talk about sex, people look at me like I grew another head. They are shocked when I use harsh language or get angry. This is because I am “cute.” Cute things don’t get hurt, or angry, or swear, or have sex (much less have a non-het orientation.) Cute things are helpless. And I refuse to be helpless anymore.

  11. Robin says:

    Totally off the topic of body image and onto the reccs of fantasy/sci-fi with non-white heroes and primary cast. Nalo Hopkinson. She’s a Toronto-based author who writes fantasy, science fiction and horror with a strong basis in Caribbean folklore.

    Hope you’re still reading comments on old posts!

  12. Robin: I am, and thanks for the rec. I can always use more SFF books with people of color.

  13. Sarah says:

    I’m white (like, glow-in-the-dark white) but not the tall, thin, leggy, blonde “ideal” white girl that gets a lot of screen time.

    When I was little I got used to the fact that I’m on the short side (both my younger sisters have been taller than me for most of our lives) but I wasn’t okay with my body type (muscular! I could probably body-build if I weren’t lazy :p). I wanted to be petite and light and flimsy and girlish. (You know the character Lessa from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series? She was tiny and “fiery” and got hefted over men’s shoulders and ravished and stuff.) I wanted to be heft-able and ravish-able too. Instead, I got dropped by 2 guys at a camp counselor “team-building exercise” last year; I *warned* them I was denser than I looked ’cause of the muscle and bone, but apparently that concept didn’t sync with my “girl” identity. And if you’re not “petite” you aren’t “fiery” either, you’re just bitchy or opinionated. >.< And, I guess, droppable.

    Now I’m slowly getting used to the idea that if there’s going to be romantic carrying in the relationship, I’m going to either need a strong guy or to do it myself (I like the thinner guys, so the latter’s probably my best bet.) Sigh. If I swooned like a romantic heroine I’d have to settle for the hero dragging me off in a fireman’s carry or something… not terrible sexy. :p

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