Sarah’s World Beat: Glorifying European-Centric Beauty Standards—How Did We Get Here?

Before I started writing about glorifying European-centric beauty standards, I decided to try a little experiment. I googled something simple: a beautiful woman. I purposely didn’t narrow down my search by adding Black, Biracial, Multiracial, ethnic or anything else that would skew the results.

This is what Google showed me. What’s wrong with this series of photos?

European-Centric Beauty Standards

Not only is each woman White, but all have long, flowing locks of straight, and in very few cases, wavy hair.

I had to drop down to row six before I saw any women of color (WoC). I saw five, one of whom was probably Biracial and another we know to be Biracial (although she identifies as Black). This underscores my point above about hair: the only photo they could find of Halle Berry (bottom row, fourth from the right) that epitomizes beautiful is from ten years ago when she used to have long and straight hair.

European-centric beauty standard

 

When it comes to the complex issue of glorifying European-centric beauty standards, I think it’s crucial to explain how we got here and how difficult it will be to work our way back to a point where all ethnicities are considered beautiful and equally sought after.

Ultimately I am on a mission to explain why WoC have the complicated relationship with our hair we do. I realized as I was starting to write that blog (a few weeks ago), I had to start at the beginning, which I did in this piece called What is Race?

This led me to a bit of a history lesson. If race is a social construct, why, more than 500 years after Christopher Columbus supposedly “discovered” “the new world” are we still reliving the affects of slavery and colonization? So before we get to glorifying European-centric beauty standards, we need to discuss how we got here.

A clue: images like these don’t help. But the answer is far more insidious, as it’s been creeping up on us for the last 500 or more years.

The Brutality Against People of Color in Making European-Centric Beauty Standard, Well, the Standard

Two separate yet equally damaging events (over a very long period of time) took place in world history that have continued having ripple effects on how PoC see ourselves and how White people see us: Colonization and slavery, both of which are driven by capitalism.

Before we move on, I need to clarify three things.

  1. In general, the terms PoC and WoC are used interchangeably to describe people of African descent and anyone who is not White. For all these pieces I am writing about race, I refer to all people who are not White. I will be specific when I mean a person of African descent.
  2. When I refer to the Americas, I mean North and South America, and the Caribbean islands. Outside the United States, when people use the words America and Americans, they do not mean the United States but rather the two continents and the Caribbean islands. Americans and Canadians are the only ones who use America to describe the home of people residing in the United States.
  3. I go back and forth between past tense and present tense. I do this both accidentally and purposefully because while we’ve been led to believe colonization and slavery no longer exist, both still do. If you need me to explain this, please ask me in the comments and I am happy to.

Colonization

Although long assumed by many that Britain was the first to colonize a territory when they established the Jamestown settlement in 1607, the Portuguese preceded them by nearly 200 years. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal controlled the trade route between South Africa and Europe—specifically along the West African coastline.

This explains why the Portuguese were among the first on the scene to begin transporting West African people to the Americas to be used as slaves.

The purpose of colonization is simple: economic power vis-à-vis control of natural resources and consumables (such as minerals, spices, fabrics—i.e. silk in the far east and cotton in the tropics and semi-tropical areas—and in modern times, oil, rubber from trees, semi-precious and precious stones, etc.), in other words, anything that has a perceived monetary value and items that can’t be found or grown in the colonizing country, also known as the “mother country.”

Controlling a population of people in order to maintain economic power is done by direct control. Colonizers came in and controlled every aspect of daily life of those colonized.

Over time, following are inevitable outgrowths of direct power:

  • Indirect control
  • Slavery
  • Raping women
  • Conquer and divide
  • Removing and replacing

Indirect Control

In order to continue maintaining power, over time colonizers delegated locals to work with them to control the masses. Although their freedom and movement were initially very limited, it was considerably better than for those who’d been completely stripped of their freedom. Over time as loyalty was proven, liberties were offered to the group who controlled the masses. This scenario set up a situation where individuals fought to be recognized and chosen. Colonizers weren’t stupid. They were greatly outnumbered and by appointing people who knew the language, customs and lay of the land, they could achieve two goals: maintain power and conquer and divide.

Slavery

Every business owner eventually realizes there are only a four ways to increase profits:

  1. Increase the price
  2. Reduce overhead
  3. A combination of both
  4. Eliminate the competition

The ultimate way to maximize profits is by paying ridiculously low wages, or even better, not pay to harvest (be it fruit, cotton, tobacco, what have you), produce / turn what was harvested into a consumable, and/or ship / move goods. As the power base grew, competition was naturally eliminated.

In colonization, local businesses weren’t always wiped out, but supplies needed for agriculture and farming were only made available from the mother country, and often at a premium price.

In slavery, there was no opportunity for slaves to own their own land. Opportunities existed, although in small numbers, for slaves to earn their freedom. These instances were few and far between. If slaves were able to escape and move to a place where there was no slavery, they were very fortunate. Many died trying to escape.

Raping Women

Raping women in a culture that’s been dominated by another culture is as old as time. It served two very important functions: proved to the colonized and/or enslaved men they were impotent and it also spread their seeds. By spreading their seeds, this ensured two things: they had a loyal following and they could continue dividing and conquering, using their own flesh and blood. Now we have a situation of half colonizer / half colonized: it’s easy to see how the offspring of colonizers and slave owners would get preferential treatment, thus creating a natural divide between those who were related to the slave owners / colonizers and those who weren’t.

The message here was clear: although rape was a hard way to go, life was certainly easier when you’re in versus out. Beatings were less frequent, eating was more frequent, your kids were cared for a little better, etc.

Remove and Replace

Language and Education

By removing access to education, the colonized / enslaved were completely under the thumb of colonizers / slave owners. Lacking the ability to read, write and communicate in their own language, nobody could overthrow the controlling regime. This was more the case under slavery than colonization. While language was replaced, educated colonized people proved valuable to colonizers. During slavery, reading and writing were verboten. Some snuck books in and taught themselves to read and write.

Culture

Once the enslaved spoke the language of the slave owners, it was imperative to strip slaves of their culture and all forms of artistic expression that made their culture unique. It was replaced with the culture / artistic expression of the mother country.

A note about music: Slave owners figured out by removing the drum from slaves (in particular the talking drum), they stripped them of not only their music but also a means of communication not understood by the slave owners.

Religion

When slaves were brought to the new world, the once polytheistic gods who controlled every aspect of their lives: the sun, the moon, weather, natural disaster, happiness, sadness, etc. were replaced with one God. All slaves were forced to convert to Christianity. Although it happened under colonization, it was less frequent, with one exception. The Spanish forced Christianity on its South American, Caribbean colonies, and the region we know today as the Philippines. Hitherto the natives in South America and the Caribbean were polytheistic and the Philippines was Muslim.

History

Open a history book in grade school, high school, college or graduate school in any European country and former European colonies and what you’ll learn is about Europe. You’ll learn about the music, the art, the history, the culture of England, France, Italy, Spain, etc. Any mention of the brutality suffered at the hands of the colonizers and slave owners is brief and minimized.

In fact, if you think of words we use in our every day vernacular today: pre-Columbian is one that comes to mind, implies there was nothing before Christopher Columbus arrived to the Americas. We were / are taught that Africa and South America lacked civilization and structure before the Europeans came. The reverse is true. The continents of Africa and South America were far more advanced than Europe, with large and bustling cities. Many had electricity and running water, and separate water for sewer and drinking. By contrast, Europe was in the dark and drinking water contained both feces and sometimes the remains of corpses.

Who civilized whom?

Anyway, as it relates to history, the only way you’re going to learn about the history of Africa, Asia and the Americas—prior to the Europeans, through colonization and beyond—is by either by doing research on your own or by taking so-called ethnic studies classes.

By the way, people, it’s not ethnic studies, it’s simply history.

Who Caused the Brutality of People of Color?

Slavery mostly took place in the Americas, although there was some in Madagascar:

  • The British (after they were kicked out of North America, Americans)
  • The Spanish
  • The Portuguese
  • The French
  • The Dutch
  • The Danish

Colonization took place in the Americas, Africa, Asia, including the subcontinent of India, as well as Australia:

  • The British (ever here the expression, “The sun never sets on the British Empire?”
  • The Spanish
  • The Portuguese
  • The French
  • The Belgians
  • The Dutch
  • The Danish

Glorifying European-Centric Beauty Standards Didn’t Happen Overnight

As colonizers and slave owners continued raping women, miscegenation was a natural consequence. Along with conquering and dividing, came lighter complexions, less textured, sometimes even straight hair and more European facial features. Women from the mother country taught the colonized and enslaved women to hate their own hair, skin color, body type and facial features, and revere those we have come to associate with White people.

The message here was “you’re ugly and I am beautiful. Be more like me. Your children will live better and happier lives the more like me they look.” It’s easy to see how PoC came to believe they should strive for the European-centric beauty standard, isn’t it? Initially it could buy one’s freedom and once free, opportunities for employment hinged on it. Darker complected freed slaves had a much harder time getting work than their light complected brothers and sisters. Over time products were created to lighten skin and remove the curl (both temporarily and eventually permanently). The Whiter people looked, the easier life was and the more acceptance they had.

Did slave owners and colonizers care the divide they created around the world (not just in the United States) continued after the granted independence  to once colonized territories and slavery was abolished? No! In fact, it continues to behoove those at the top of the economic food chain to continue keeping us divided.

So you can see how we came to glorify the European-centric beauty standard. Now the question is, how do we recognize the problem isn’t between light and dark complected brothers and sisters and how do we move on and become united?

Stay tuned for those answers in upcoming Sarah’s World Beat columns.

 

My name is Sarah and I am one of the founders of Multiracial Media. Not only am I multiracial (Black, Asian and White), but I’ve also lived in or spent long periods of time in several countries, throughout the United States and now my husband and I live on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. I see myself both in terms of my racial and ethnic identity as well as someone who appreciates the food, culture and customs of all nations—like a citizen of the world. Sarah’s World Beat column reflects this.

If you would like me to write about your culture or country, please drop me a line and suggest a topic.

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Published on: May 30, 2017

Filed Under: Sarah's World Beat, Voices of the Community

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