Black Beauty, White Standards

As Jennifer Aniston celebrates being crowned the World’s Most Beautiful Woman for 2016 and basks in the glory of her recognized, exemplary beauty, many women of color, such as myself, feel a familiar sense of disappointment. The crowning of Aniston marks yet another lost opportunity for People Magazine to bestow the title upon a woman of color.

Jennifer has won the title not once, but twice, having been chosen once before in 2004, although she does not break the record for most wins. Julia Roberts has made the cover of the World’s Most Beautiful issue an incredible four times. Have People run out of beautiful female celebrities to select for the cover? Or do they simply feel that these women represent the paragon of beauty to such an extent that they deserve the title multiple times? To me, it seems as though the judges would rather repeat white women than select a woman of color.

Of the 26 women who have won the title of the World’s Most Beautiful Woman since 1990, a mere four have been people of color: Halle Berry in 2003, Jennifer Lopez in 2011, Beyoncé in 2012, and Lupita Nyong’o in 2014. Men of color also seem to have an unfair shot at becoming People’s Sexiest Man Alive; a man of color, Denzel Washington, has been chosen exactly once, in 1996.

Why are women of color so seldom chosen? Why do the same white faces appear on the cover again and again? Why, out of the four women of color who have won the distinction, are three of them light-skinned with many white features? Conventions of beauty have a long, racial history in America. For centuries, people of color, especially black women, have been told that they are not beautiful. Other people of color have surely been victims of aesthetic prejudice as well (an Asian woman has yet to grace the cover of The World’s Most Beautiful issue, for example). Black women’s attractiveness in particular, however, is still deeply stigmatized and has been taking the most continuous and brutal degradation in this country since before America was even an independent nation.

Black women have been told that their skin is too dark and that their hair is too “kinky,” too curly, or too coarse. They have been told that their lips are too big, that their noses are too wide, and that this makes them unattractive, and therefore undesirable. The number of times that I have personally heard, “Oh, I heard he’s not into black girls,” or “she’s pretty for a black girl,” goes to show the contemporary prevalence of these attitudes. In fact, just two days ago, I heard about a guy – one of many – who apparently “does not date black girls.” This stigma surrounding black beauty is apparent not just in Peoples magazine’s selection for World’s Most Beautiful, but at Haverford as well. A Haverford friend of mine said to me, “I know my type of girl, and she’s white, with medium-length, light brown hair.” In my head, the word “white” reverberated. Even worse, it is not uncommon to hear stories about encounters at Haverford parties where female students of color have been attacked with racist remarks and blatantly called unattractive by intoxicated white males.

Throughout my preteen and teenage years, I felt inferior to white girls when it came to beauty. Beginning in middle school, I realized that most of the boys idolized white, blonde girls and because of this, I was socialized to believe that a white, blonde girl with straight hair and light eyes was the epitome of beauty. The messages that we are constantly exposed to by the media have only reinforced in people’s minds that “white” is a crucial aspect of the standard of beauty. Commercials for beauty products typically feature white or fair-skinned women and Hollywood movies generally feature white, “beautiful,” female leads.

What message does this send to people of color of all ages? How does this impact their self-esteem when year after year, a white woman is selected as the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman?” The discrimination is internalized, and self-esteem plummets. I am Filipino and black, with medium brown skin, curly hair, and dark eyes. I spent years praying for my curls to disappear and tried avoiding the sun in order to not get darker than I already was. Growing up, I actually thought that maybe, if I were white, then boys might like me and that I would be beautiful, too.

Jennifer has been given an enormous title; blonde and white, she has been labeled the most beautiful woman in the world. When white people are continually placed on a pedestal of beauty, those of other ethnicities are repeatedly deemed aesthetically inferior to them. As long as this keeps happening, people of color with darker skin and non-white features will continue to consciously or subconsciously internalize that they lack potential to be seen as universally beautiful on the outside. Even if it is unsurprising that People chose another white woman, it is extremely disappointing.

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