Decolonise Your Style How Colonial are your Beauty Standards?

Ariana Grande
© picture alliance/PictureLux & AP Images

Who is chatting?

Hengameh Yaghoobifarah (journalist), L. Ayu Saraswati (scholar of women’s studies) Aleya Kassam (writer) and Dina Dina Makram-Ebeid (sociologist) discuss with you how colonialist and sexist body images feed one another. How can we decolonise beauty standards that promote cultural appropriations such as Blackfishing?

Concept and further authors: Regine Hader, Elisa Jochum
 
On WhatsApp and Telegram #DecoloniseYourLife ends on 7.12.2019. Here you can continue to follow all chats, and discuss with us.
  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Kardashian © picture alliance / AP Photo

    Hey everyone, I‘m very happy to discuss the topic of beauty standards with you.
    For a long time, Eurocentric beauty standards have set norms in many countries – even in places like China or Iran, where people have their own histories of beauty and norms. Light skin, straight hair, small noses, blue eyes and slim bodies have for decades constituted the aesthetic goal.
    In the past three to four years, ideals of beauty have shifted a little. Artists, models and influencers like Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Ariana Grande have turned the appropriation of Black features – such as fuller lips, bigger butts and darker skin – into a trend. These new ideals have names like “slim thick”. The expression refers to an hourglass silhouette with a flat belly and a thin waist, together with wider hips and bigger butts.
    Another trend, especially on social media, is Blackfishing. White people and non-Black People of Colour adapt Black features to such an extent that they actually pass as light-skinned/biracial Black people. All of this happens in an anti-Black and overall racist environment, too. This appropriation does not change anything about those people’s anti-Blackness – it even makes them more defensive when criticised.
    The body positivity movement encourages women in particular to act according to the notion “my body, my choice”. Yet the choice to appropriate stereotyped features can become oppressive toward Black women and Women of Colour. How do you experience this issue?

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Ariana Grande © picture alliance/PictureLux

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Ariana Grande remade © picture alliance / AP Images

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    I think the appropriation or “stealing” of Black culture has been happening for more than the past three to four years. The popularity of skin tanning cream or hairstyling bespeaks the desire for Blackness (or a version of Blackness) that people can consume and on which can be capitalised. What has recently been highlighted is the posting of this practice on social media, through a neoliberal gaze. Nonetheless, the beauty practice remains the same.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    This sort of appropriation fetishises beauty and objectifies people … You are reduced ... rendered less than a full human. The truth is that these same beauty standards that Whiteness – by way of appropriation – can flaunt and benefit from, are the same ones that lock Women of Colour out of spaces. These norms serve to demean, oppress and dehumanise.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Agreed!

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Black women’s bottoms have been, as Aleya mentioned, fetishised for centuries! Displayed on world’s fairs, in magazines and, of course, recently on social media!

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    The average Kenyan woman is trying to live a joyful life. One that has meaning and stability – a full life. Not all Kenyan women are looking at Kim K on social media, obsessing over the idea of “slim thick” bodies. The tendency to buy skin whitening creams is just as prevalent. So even the idea of this topic and the way it has been framed centres Whiteness ... and emphasises the White gaze.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Returning to @Ayu: The appropriation of Black culture has existed for several centuries, yes, but, in my opening statement, I meant the specific trends of “slim thick”, Blackfishing etc. Could you specify to what you refer when you say that the practice of appropriating Black beauty culture has been highlighted through a neoliberal gaze?

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Seen through the previously dominant gaze, say, the male gaze, female beauty merely served to objectify women’s bodies – women equalled victims. In the context of a neoliberal gaze, women subscribe to the beauty practices out of their own self-investment, as something good that they do for themselves. They are not victimised but can even claim “my body, my choice” instead. But this concept is itself problematic, of course. These choices are limited and limiting. They intersect with racial, sexual, national, class ideologies, for example.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    The colonial continuity of this fetishisation definitely does a different damage in African and Asian countries than it does in Europe and the USA. The question is also: how much of what we do is a choice when we live in a capitalist, neoliberal society whose reactions to us are inextricably tied to how we look and present ourselves? The autonomy over our bodies is relative when we are dependent on jobs, housing and other resources.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Beauty is a systematic way to discriminate against women.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    Absolutely. When what my hair looks like dictates whether I get that job or not. Where my skin colour means that I literally earn a higher salary because said skin is lighter. These so-called choices have real-life implications.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    It is about allocating resources based on one’s look.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Could you tell us about body positivity movements in the countries where you are local? What is the discourse like? You can choose which place you want to describe (maybe not the USA because many discourses already centre on it). Whichever context, about which you feel you can say the most!

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    That question is interesting for me: where am I local, haha! Born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. Have called Canada and the United States home. But now live in Hawaii ... legally part of the USA but ... I think, however, people still want me to consider Indonesia “home” so maybe I’ll answer that?

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    Home is Kenya. Here, the decolonisation of beauty begins with hair. Previously, you’d be expected to perm your hair as a professional ... now more and more women feel comfortable wearing their hair as they wish ... dreads, braids, afros, natural ... and, of course, I suspect that this is also related to the increasing number of women making the hiring decisions.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    I might be missing a huge thing but where I am from, Egypt, there aren’t a lot of discourses around the body yet. I’m not sure whether this is good or not. In a way, a wide variety of social classes accepts bigger women. Yet the higher the integration into the capitalist world, the more people are obsessed with new products to become whiter and thinner. But maybe this is part of the reason why the discourse is still muted.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    It is not a huge thing everywhere yet but it definitely is also a symbol of class mobility to be thinner. So it’s complicated.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Beauty standards in Indonesia still revolve around two things: skin colour – light skin. And weight: slim. Whenever in Indonesia, I feel more pressured to conform to these norms than in Hawaii. You are not bombarded with ads for skin lightening creams or shows and conversations about lightening your skin. The perspective on weight is definitely different, too. We go to the beach and see different body sizes and shapes. So, even though there is a pressure to have a bikini body, it is clear that such a body does not constitute the average appearance. But, in both places, beauty standards are still problematic.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    In upper classes, there is now more of a movement to accept one’s hair as curly, not straight, and social media groups encourage this. Though neoliberal ventures have quickly hijacked even this movement: look at respective attempts to sell the right natural products to curly-haired girls! So, yes, I suppose I’m going to be boring and say that it is not just about decolonising us/them but also about how colonialism (and resistance against it) plays into clear-cut class politics in our countries as well.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    If there is an influence of beauty standards on the youth here, it is rather coming from Black American pop culture and from around the African continent than from anywhere else. But this is also entirely dependent on class.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    From my perspective of a diaspora kid who only sees Iran when they go there over the holidays, I feel like body policing is way more annoying there than in Germany – in terms of gender conformity (I’m non-binary trans) and shape (I’m fat) and thus also in terms of dieting. But then again, in Iran, I‘m mostly among my relatives (very normative, straight, not feminist) and, in Berlin, mostly among my queer feminist friends. So it‘s hard to compare. But plus-size clothing in Iran is harder to find in stores than here (even though most plus-size shops only exist online anyway) and it is more common to get beauty surgeries like nose jobs there.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    Oh, and don't forget capitalism! 

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    The roots of all evil.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    I lived in Canada for a few years and you know what ... I experience much more joy and freedom around my body here in Kenya than I ever have in the West. It feels like we are miles ahead of the West when it comes to loving and appreciating different expressions of beauty.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Capitalism and classism are very important aspects when we talk about beauty norms. They set the parameters of autonomy, social mobility and freedom – as the capitalist world inherently and constantly demands hierarchisations.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    No matter where you are beauty standards oppress. That’s what they are there for. It’s their function. Additionally, they pit women against each other. And one culture steals from another. The other culture steals from yet another. This happens across classes. Rich women steal the beauty practices and expressions of poor women. It also happens across ethnicity. And so on.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    Absolutely, @Ayu. The very idea of beauty means that people assign a higher value to one feature than another. Beauty always possesses an inherent power structure ... it will always oppress.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    I am a big fan of Western attempts to have body positivity movements. The works of people like Roxanne Gay or Sonya Renee Taylor have profoundly shaped how I’ve found a language by which to accept my own body. Yet I worry sometimes that we copy movements (including of People of Colour in the West) with the exact same language. Perhaps, there is a way to explore how specific movements/languages of resistance fit into the contexts in which we operate. For instance, how can we tie body positivity to access to healthcare or to eating habits of people in horrible conditions of labour? I don’t want to be too intellectual about it, I just sometimes worry, as an anthropologist, about how even our resistance can be blindly copying the West.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    About copying the West ... This juxtaposition between them (the West) and us is problematic. As we all articulate things through each other.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Continuing my previous thought: So there is no way to decolonise your beauty. For as long as you are practicing beauty standards, you are going to support the power structure.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    Totally agree on this.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Capitalist, heterosexist ideas as well as the medical gaze even frame what is considered as a healthy body.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    The healthcare systems of many countries deny fat people/people of size equal access.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    The fat body itself is always and already racialised.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Many White activists ignore the link between racism/colonialism and fat shaming. Which makes it even more important for anti-racist and decolonial activists to make this connection and to call out fat shaming, too, when they criticise Western beauty norms.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    I’m just not interested in centring the West. Fundamentally, any discourse that springs from that will marginalise and decentre me. That is not freedom at work.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    But when colonialism has shaped the beauty norms of non-Western countries, how much freedom to ignore the West do you have?

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    To ask women to refrain from practicing beauty standards if you do not attack the real evil – capitalism, classism, sexism, racism, able-bodyism – is too naive.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    @Ayu and your follow-up comment on copying the West: Yes, we ought to be sensitive and understand how, in our resistance, we learn from others who are oppressed everywhere, including Women of Colour in the West. But we should also be sensitive to how we take on the struggles in different places, allowing us to locate ways of resistance that consider the complexity of each site of struggle.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    My book Seeing Beauty, Sensing Race in Transnational Indonesia talks about how the desire for white skin colour in Indonesia actually predates colonialism. I looked at late-ninth and early-tenth century, pre-European colonial Java, particularly the Old Javanese adaptation of the Indian epic poem Ramayana. This adaptation already describes women with light skin as beautiful and that they need to lighten their skin to make themselves more appealing.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    The metaphors used to describe women’s skin colour speak of bright, glowing white light such as the waxing moon or white marble. So this idea that desires for Whiteness is always already implicated in colonialism is problematic. Colourism in this particular case works outside White racial ideology.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    This sounds fascinating! I'd love to read it.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Also remember that racism as an ideology as we know it now is a modern invention. In the 18th century, science was used to construct “race” and justify racism. For as long as beauty standards are there to oppress, then, even if it’s outside the context of Whiteness or colonialism, people will find some other modes of domination to discriminate against, and marginalise, specific groups in the name of beauty ...

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    In Egypt, I struggled growing up with fat shaming. I think just being able to tie that to racism/colonialism/capitalism really helps me think about it differently or lets me at least link it to power more broadly. Yet I still struggle to find ways of feeling healthy and living in my body. There is not really much work on fat shaming here in Egypt. So I suppose I want to learn from fellow feminists how they have found such ways in contexts similar to mine. It is very personal and hence very political. :)

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    So I also want to think about fat shaming/body positivity in relation to labour and access to healthy and nutritious food – in relation to broader questions of social justice.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    @Aju: I want to highlight what you said above about naiveté!

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Racism and colonialism need women to believe and practice these beauty standards. Their actual ways of living then become an embodiment of this racism and colonialism. Blackfishing and “slim thick” are expressions of how White women internalise racism — the fetishisation of the other.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Such a staging of the White female body is therefore a manifestation of the internalised desire of the White male gaze. This White female body strives to be the object of the racist (!) White male gaze.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    @Ayu: This is a really fascinating way to put it.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    What would happen (and I truly do not know the answer to this), if we were the centre? If our imaginations and expressions of self did not exist as a reaction to Whiteness or colonialism?

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    To end the power of the powerful, we must work collectively in our everyday lives. But that comes at an expense, of course — hence why less people do it. To reject the powerful is to be starved ... and not that many people want to be hungry (metaphorically and literally) these days. Including myself: my Instagram is full of food pictures. Haha.

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    This is a long project and one that can be lonely sometimes because it requires rethinking a lot of internalised narratives and, as always, it requires community and a willingness to be a killjoy.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    It calls upon those that are already oppressed to put in even more labour!

  • Dr. Makram-Ebeid Dina Makram-Ebeid

    Totally!

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Amen.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Dear readers, what are your thoughts on this topic? How can we decolonise beauty standards?

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    I understand what you mean. But, still, I find it difficult to talk about appropriation or cultural theft because: how can one define to whom which culture belongs? Cultures have always been cultural mixtures and, if you like, exposed to theft - that's what defines transculturality! So how could I presume that I can claim ownership of a culture if it itself is a mere result of syncretism, that is to say amalgamation?

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    It is true that no culture can claim that other cultures have not influenced it. However, in the process of nationalism, for example, a nation then picks and chooses which cultural signifiers shall represent it. Then this nation claims that it owns these achievements and cultural practices. We have to be aware of how nations and groups have come up with postulations about whose culture belongs to whom, about what their “authentic” culture is. We have to be aware that there is a constructed hierarchy, in which one culture considers itself to be superior to others. We should reflect where in that power structure we are located.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    Certainly culture is fluid, evolving and dynamic. This is true. Yet it is also true that there are distinct customs, practices, ideas and expressions that various cultures claim and use. When the dominant culture takes and appropriates them – often as props, stripped of all of their meaning and context – that’s when it becomes problematic. Significantly more so, when those from one culture suffer negative repercussions for practicing their cultural customs etc., while those that have appropriated those practices face no such consequences.
    For example, in Kenya, a Black woman wearing braids often hears that she won’t be taken seriously in the professional world and that she needs her hair to be relaxed. Braids can literally cost her her job. At the same time, a White woman coming from a coast holiday can wear braids to the office and people think it is cute, or exotic. She suffers no such professional or financial consequences.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    For example, a White celebrity from the United States cannot simply use Japanese cultural signifiers in their music videos without acknowledging that this is a form of cultural appropriation. The same applies to beauty culture. There are signifiers regarding which beauty practice or beauty standard belongs to which culture – and who is practicing it, and how these people relate to that power hierarchy of beauty practices.

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    When people ask “But what’s the big deal about cultural appropriation?”, I think: where is your position in that power dynamic and what makes you feel entitled to someone else's cultural expressions and practices?
    @Ayu: Thanks. You articulate so well. I agree that it is about power and about having the power to claim something that isn’t yours. Wasn’t that colonialism in a nutshell?

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Thank you, Aleya! Love your points, too. And yep, colonialism at work! 

  • Reader Comment

    I didn't understand the connection between fat shaming and colonialism. Could anyone explain that to me?

  • Reader Comment

    I myself can vouch for (I would simply call it) “free, individual beauty”: Raising people’s awareness and to live accordingly to this principle of individual beauty that is detached from norms. I may not achieve a great or far-reaching effect with this, since it remains in my environment, which mostly consists of like-minded people. Thus, those ideas remain in this bubble.
    I myself have no expectations of others regarding their optical appearance and what they may find beautiful; I, however, have these expectations of myself. Even if the beauty standards orient themselves toward the West, I think that this need to be beautiful (according to one’s own individual taste) is a “human” need and is no effect of colonisation or discrimination in general (only what is defined as beautiful).
    My point is that beauty standards and their understanding are open and free to change. We cannot completely abolish the notion of beauty standards, but we could maybe individualise them, so that people don’t expect others to be “beautiful” in the sense of general beauty standards, but “beautiful” as in the sense of how they individually express their understanding of beauty.
    This means, however, that beauty standards are always individualised. They cannot be decolonised because they satisfy the need “to be beautiful in one’s own eyes” – even if beauty standards are based on influences of colonisation / capitalism / racism / sexism.

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    I think some of the important questions to ask here are: why are we so invested in beauty and in looking beautiful? What is looking beautiful doing for us? Once we figure out the rewards, we get and experience from being beautiful, we can understand why we are so invested in being or looking beautiful. There exists, indeed, something, which scholars term, “lookism” that functions as a system of discrimination.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Thank you for your comment. We can definitely emancipate ourselves from beauty standards and re-define for ourselves what beauty means. Different communities, such as the queer community for example, have already done that. I see two problems: First, the danger of new and different beauty norms that will still hierarchise bodies, and second, the problem of the “outside world”. Meaning: I may be happy about the way I look despite not fitting into norms but when it comes to resources, such as jobs, housing, and the respect I receive in my everyday life, unfortunately, the dominant beauty norms can still affect me. All the murdered Black and Brown trans women and transfeminine people were killed due to being trans and non-white (and some of them for being sexworkers, too), but none of them were killed because they did not love themselves or for internalizing beauty norms. Meaning: Yes, an individual strategy of self-image and beauty could make us feel better about ourselves but it does not translate into the material realities of life and survival.

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    Hello Aleya, I followed the chat with much interest and agree with you in many aspects. I agree that beauty standards have to be assessed very critically. However, you say: “Beauty is always embedded in power structures. It always suppresses”. Beauty in itself, however, is not culturally defined, but subjectively perceived (in contrast to beauty standards).
    I perceive beauty as a subjective experience and as a thoroughly positive value. Attributing beauty to objects, nature, other human beings and oneself does not immediately imply that there exists an opposing ugliness. I don’t think beauty suppresses, or is embedded in power structures. Beauty standards determined by culture and society, on the other hand, do.

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    Thank you for this insightful comment! Beauty indeed can be ascribed to non-human things. I agree! As you mentioned, beauty is a subjective thing. This means that an individual gets to decide what is considered beautiful. However, how an individual perceives what is considered beautiful (here in this WhatsApp chat I specifically talk about human beauty) is always seen through a lens. This lens is what some people call discourse. And discourse and ideologies are always about power...That is, how we see things is always filtered through the lens of power (if not the powerful). Of course, there’s an oppositional gaze, one that challenges the power – it is in itself a way of articulating power – but that gaze has to be learned. One needs to unlearn the gaze of the powerful and instead learn an oppositional gaze...

  • Aleya Kassam Aleya Kassam

    Ayu and Hengameh have already articulated such incredibly powerful insights, and so well, thank you for that!!! I'm left wondering what to add that could possibly be of any use... except maybe adding a provocation. When thinking about decolonising beauty, I also think about what that means in the context of the environment around us. What did the colonial powers make us believe was beautiful, in terms of the way we lived and what surrounded us – the architecture, the trees, the way we interacted with nature...? I think about how spaces affect the way we live with each other and even our own perception of ourselves, and if it’s possible to decolonise your personal beauty, without decolonising the beauty of the spaces you live... from architecture to the living environment (plants, animals, nature), to communal spaces. (So please, hotels and companies in Kenya, no more English countryside pastel paintings of lolling green hills with white blobs as sheep and a grey sky.)

  • Ayu L. Ayu Saraswati

    @Aleya Kassam: Yes! The colonial is indeed a mode of looking at the world, a colonial gaze: how we see what we see through the coloniser’s lens.