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.