Body Positivity In Color Fashion

How Beauty Was Built Upon White Supremacy

How Beauty Was Built Upon White Supremacy

On this essay for #BodyPositivityInColor, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis explores the idea of “ugly” and the way it depends upon white supremacist, colonialist, cisheteronormative, misogynistic, and ableist constructs of what defines magnificence. She explores these concepts by means of historical past and the way it exists and thrives inside our present society. 



This essay accommodates mentions of sexual assault and chattel slavery.

By Vanessa Rochelle Lewis

Once I was a young person, I had a math teacher named Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith was a unusual fellow with a voice that crackled like Pop Rocks and wandering eyes that might by no means truly choose any of our faces throughout a 50 minute class session. If my pores and skin is the deep burnt umber shade of freshly watered and easily aerated backyard soil, his can be the pink clay of river rocks, the iron wealthy sort that eases digestion, shelters bunnies, and feeds blackberry bush roots.

We each spoke English with a rhythm that might make Steve Urkel proud, wore our our bodies chubby and coated with nerd equipment, we felt the necessity to always push our glasses up the bridges of our noses, and believed that schooling was essential to Black liberation and societal progress. Although he was an Algebra instructor, Mr. Smith liked literature and efficiency arts, and I used to be a poet and performer earlier than I used to be anything – together with daughter, youngster, woman, or hater of all issues mathematically calculable. We didn’t precisely have a bond, however he appreciated me as an artist and I tolerated him as an teacher.

At some point, after I carried out a brand new poem for the scholar physique expertise present, Mr. Smith approached me with an appreciative, celebratory smile on his face and stated, “Wow Vanessa, you could not appear to be Beyoncé, however you positive can write a shifting poem.”

I stared at him. I couldn’t fathom how to answer an affirmation about my expertise that started with a unfavourable qualification about my look, particularly from an grownup man, particularly once I knew that my capacity to put in writing a poem had completely nothing to do with whether or not or not I appeared like a well-known pop star and intercourse icon.

“Oh,” I stated merely, strolling away to course of my feelings. I used to be disgusted. I knew I used to be offended by his implication, that I used to be gifted even when I wasn’t lovely. However there was one thing else that my fifteen-year-old mind simply couldn’t but articulate, regardless that the beginnings of it have been swishing round my cerebral cavity, leaping from neuron to neuron, shaking its little Black feminist fist in resistance.

I knew there was one thing sexually inappropriate and predatory about his remark, despite the fact that it was clear he wasn’t hitting on me and even interested in me – nevertheless it took me a couple of years to determine it out. At present, I perceive, and as an grownup lady, I’m completely horrified that Mr. Smith had entry to me and different youngsters.

By telling me that I didn’t seem like her whereas affirming my capacity to write down a compelling poem, he was making it clear that I didn’t match into society’s understanding of magnificence, and subsequently I additionally didn’t match into his.

Let me clarify. Whereas she is outstandingly gifted and tales of her work ethic are heralded close to and much, Beyoncé’s success additionally illustrates the esteem, entry, and revelry we place on the ft of people that attraction to sure ideas of magnificence. Throughout tradition, gender, class, and border, she is held up as a common and unquestionable illustration of magnificence and intercourse attraction.

By telling me that I didn’t seem like her whereas affirming my potential to write down a compelling poem, he was making it clear that I didn’t match into society’s understanding of magnificence, and subsequently I additionally didn’t match into his. And by doing such, he non-consensually lassoed me into that universe, utterly destroying the innocence, belief, and security in our relationship as a toddler and grownup, scholar and instructor, and what ought to have been protected and protector.

Not was I a teenage woman, pleased with my poem. I used to be now a teenage woman acutely aware of the truth that my math instructor didn’t discover me engaging and didn’t assume the world would discover me engaging both. His remark pressured me to start considering what it will imply for me, as a future grownup Black lady and artist, to be perceived as undesirable, unattractive, and ugly in a world that isn’t solely obsessive about seems, however that additionally equates look with values/traits and disenfranchises individuals who don’t adequately handle or right their “ugliness”.

To be clear, I don’t fault the world for being obsessive about magnificence and desirability. Lovely issues encourage and encourage us. I’d moderately be moved by magnificence than by hate, worry, greed or shortage, and different widespread social and particular person motivators. However there are some things concerning the methods we interact with magnificence that completely terrify me.

Ideas Like “Lovely”, “Fascinating”, “Unattractive”, and “Ugly” Are Handled as Common and Goal Truths

Whether or not it’s from the still-famous creations of historical past’s rich and privileged novelists, poets, and visible artists or from the modern leisure and wonder industries that comb our hopes and insecurities for each greenback it may mine, we’ve all been brainwashed into considering that there’s one slender, widely-accepted idea of magnificence and that we’re all in settlement of what it’s and what’s not. Consequently, very comparable tropes of that particular configuration of human options are regurgitated, again and again, in virtually each piece of artwork, media, or commerce round us, reinforcing that picture and commonplace in our shared consciousness.

Equally, ugliness and unattractiveness are thought-about equally as common. When comedians, musicians, and writers identify somebody ugly, all of us have a common concept of what they imply, and once they get particular with their descriptions, the qualities are almost all the time the identical – imperfect tooth, “nappy” hair, non-distinct eyelids, darker pores and skin with indigenous options, extensive/lengthy noses and lips, giant our bodies, seen bodily disabilities, hairiness, seen sicknesses.

UGLY: How Beauty Was Built Upon White Supremacy

Picture by way of Unsplash

We aren’t taught to have autonomous and even fluid relationships with what we discover lovely or what we want. The identical media and leisure sources that make important mild of individuals’s appearances equally critique and humorously chastise people who find themselves interested in people who’ve traits which might be depicted as ugly or undesirable. They’re portrayed as determined, bizarre, or as having another drawback to deal with. There are such a lot of songs, tv exhibits, and films that not solely depend on the performed out joke of a person getting drunk and going house with an “ugly,” fats, or trans lady, however that portrays the person as unsuspecting, as somebody who was bamboozled by the individual he took house.  

These tropes restrict our artistic creativeness, our individuality, and our capability to pursue genuine and fulfilling relationships. They train us that we have to modify our appearances and attempt to look a sure approach so as to obtain love, adoration, and even empathy. We deal with this minuscule and cramped idea of magnificence as if it have been one thing that’s crucial to realize, and that those that deliberately choose out are doing one thing incorrect, one thing that must be addressed and corrected, and in consequence, will not be deserving of fairness, entry, connection, inclusion, and typically even respect.

The Ideas of “Lovely” and “Ugly” Have White Supremacist Histories.

Nearly all of yesterday’s writers and artists that we have been taught about in class have been white and European. The U.S. Educational Complicated was created by European-American colonizers they usually base instructional techniques on their perspective of historical past, philosophy, authorities, artwork, and literature. Nevertheless, American scholarship, like European and Christian scholarship, was additionally developed as a software to legitimize Manifest Future, conflict, and different types of colonialism and imperialism. It intellectualized myths and stereotypes about Indigenous, African, and Asian peoples that painted us as harmful, primitive, irrational villains whereas excluding us, our artwork, our literature, and our histories from studying areas – until we have been current as labor, intercourse, barbarians, or slaves.

Outdoors of educational areas, cartoons have been splayed throughout information papers, textual content books, and different literary media that caricatured, exaggerated, ridiculed, and poked enjoyable at our ethnicity-specific bodily options. In developing race and creating the dehumanization of racialized, non-white individuals, scientists wrote articles analyzing why our facial options and physique proportions have been unattractive, why our brains have been “underdeveloped” and brought about us to be much less able to reasoning and logic, and the way we have been solely motivated by restricted, barbaric and primordial urges for intercourse, meals and pleasure. White college students have been taught that it was their job to suppress our tradition, esteem, and efficacy by forcing us to assimilate into the substandard social roles they delegated for us, educating us of their faith and languages, and coaching us to forgo the sophistication of our ancestors and tackle the crumbs of theirs. Those self same college students went on to design the USA of America as we all know it.

Nearly all of our present politicians, media moguls, casting brokers, writers, editors, trend designers, and others who management and affect human visibility have been socialized and educated by these similar Eurocentric values – together with influencers and content material creators who’re individuals of shade. This is the reason nearly all of POC you see in media who’ve extra complicated and relatable characters are likely to have lighter pores and skin, longer hair, slimmer our bodies, and facial options which are amenable to European requirements of magnificence. It’s additionally why nearly all of characters you see who’re larger-bodied and/or darker-skinned with non-straight hair are likely to play very restricted, comparable and stereotypical roles.  

A lot of our trendy media, science, politics, and artwork that train us how one can understand ourselves, categorical ourselves, and transfer inside our flesh nonetheless carry the genocidal, slave-holding, anti-Indigenous, and xenophobic values that permitted and enabled the U.S. to develop into the flesh and earth consuming monster it’s at the moment.

“Lovely” and “Ugly” Are Fueled by Capitalist, Misogynist, Heteronormative Patriarchal Values

The usual of what’s perceived as lovely and as ugly on this tradition (and lots of others as properly) are primarily outlined by people who find themselves white, rich, male, and highly effective — and they’re sustained by virtually everybody else, even individuals who attempt to choose out of heteronormative  dynamics. There’s a objective to this.

We as people wish to categorize one another. We use these classes to assist place one another in social hierarchies, perceive one another, and decide how one can interact with one another with out doing the work of constructing particular person relationships with individuals. Ugly is a dynamic class that’s inclusive of many issues. As is gorgeous.

Bodily power, productiveness, innovation, mind, management expertise, and different traits that result in capitalistic achieve and affect is what has traditionally outlined a person’s societal value.

However ugly as a class systematically and systemically targets, harms, defines, and excludes ladies, female/femme people, and different marginalized genders in a means that may by no means influence males as a result of it wasn’t designed to. Based mostly on the eurocentric histories that I used to be taught, whereas males who have been perceived as good-looking undoubtedly skilled privilege, seems to be isn’t what outlined a person’s societal value. Bodily power, productiveness, innovation, mind, management expertise, and different traits that result in capitalistic achieve and affect is what has traditionally outlined a person’s societal value.

Such a helpful man would then have the ability to publicly exhibit his worth via the commodities he bought or the properties he was provided: titles, land, clothes, animals, wives, slaves — all issues that might result in extra energy, wealth, and affect. On this sense, ladies (at the least white and prosperous ones) have been tokens, trophies, and commerce. They have been the discardable, replaceable, interchangeable and objectified belongings of males and extensions of male plumage and id. These ladies, like all ladies, have been possessions might be chastised, raped, and typically even murdered by their male possessors with the permission of the courts.

The looks of those ladies was what decided their worth, they usually have been the capital of the households that sired them till they turned the capital of the lads who married them. Consequently, their look was additionally their supply of energy, their alternative in the direction of the potentiality of ease and entry, and by all means, a privilege. Ladies are nonetheless educated to do every thing attainable to be thought-about lovely in order that they will have entry, in order that they are often chosen, and to allow them to escape the future of those that are thought-about ugly.

Elite ladies who weren’t perceived as lovely sufficient to be chosen turned servants to their mother and father, the households their sisters married into, or the church.

And if you find yourself a lady, being ugly is absolutely the pits. Elite ladies who weren’t perceived as lovely sufficient to be chosen turned servants to their mother and father, the households their sisters married into, or the church. In the event that they have been fortunate, they obtained to turn into an artist or a scholar. And ladies who weren’t rich or who weren’t “lovely” sufficient to be observed by privileged males have been seen as laborers, moms, caretakers, and nothing extra. As an alternative of being perceived as representations of wealth, they have been instruments for individuals with extra energy than them to accumulate much more wealth. These ladies died sooner than their rich counterparts. They lead sicker and extra exhausted lives. There have been no different choices.

Whereas issues have shifted, additionally they stay the identical in so some ways. Ladies in our tradition are not chosen in the identical method as they have been up to now and have many elevated socio-economic and familial/romantic routes, however we’re nonetheless socialized in a heteronormative method, to think about males as a prize, to know our worth by way of our desirability, and to conflate magnificence with useful resource and entry.

Magnificence is Entry, Lack of Magnificence is Systemic Disenfranchisement, and We Culturally Conflate Look with Character

Having magnificence privilege doesn’t simply assist romantic and intimate connection or familial partnership, it facilitates socio-economic motion and ease all collectively. Within the means of categorizing individuals based mostly on look, we create social hierarchies out of these classes. Those that greatest match our cultural requirements and expectations of magnificence, like Beyoncé , are celebrated, affirmed, and held in regard solely by that feat. Their look is handled like an accomplishment and a hit that others can’t obtain, and is regarded, in so some ways, as one thing for the remainder of us to review, look as much as, revere, and aspire in the direction of. They turn out to be #objectives, individuals who people both need to be with or need to be like.  

As a result of they’re the usual that others both need to eat or obtain on this tradition, they get rewarded for his or her success by means of entry, energy, belief, and affect. Others take social cues from them with the hope of gaining a privilege just like theirs, the esteem of being accepted or beloved by them, and the chance to be handled with the identical respect and reverence we expect these individuals deserve. There are areas on the planet that exist solely for individuals who match sure requirements of magnificence — the Playboy mansion, the pink carpet, music movies, yacht events, VIP areas of golf equipment and events. These areas are rich. They’ve scrumptious meals. They provide away luxurious presents. They’re lush. They’re areas that almost all of us will solely ever witness whereas watching “prettier” individuals on tv or studying about them within the media.

We collectively consider that wanting a sure means reveals truths about vanity, exhausting work, professionalism, well being, self-love, kindness, confidence, and functionality.

Have you ever ever heard a movie or literary character inform one other character one thing alongside the strains of, “You’re so lovely, you’ll by no means should work arduous a day in your life”? That concept insinuates one thing different than simply ease, it implies a singular type of belief that we now have in individuals who match sure requirements of magnificence. If somebody is gorgeous, we assume they’ve all of it. And if we assume they’ve all of it, we now have no cause to consider that they might hurt us, manipulate us, steal from us, or trigger different malice in our lives. Due to this, we give them sure leeways.

Individuals who match conventional requirements of magnificence fare higher in courtroom, faculty, and incomes revenue on the expense of those that don’t match into conventional requirements of magnificence — as privilege works. To be clear, ideas like magnificence and the privilege we allot these people wouldn’t exist if we didn’t identify and categorize others as ugly. And within the means of rewarding magnificence, we punish those that aren’t. We collectively consider that wanting a sure method reveals truths about vanity, arduous work, professionalism, well being, self-love, kindness, confidence, and functionality.

Individuals go to nice lengths to pursue their very own magnificence and show that they don’t seem to be solely worthy of being chosen for love and partnership, but in addition to be perceived as succesful, reliable, employable, and gifted. Rising up, my father would ceaselessly warn me, “Vanessa, child woman, you’re so sensible, however you must lose some weight, press your hair, and do one thing together with your look. No matter how certified you perhaps, no man goes to need to take a look at you all day when he can select somebody rather less gifted, however far more engaging.”

Whereas he was perpetuating poisonous masculinity by establishing it because the norm as an alternative of one thing to be addressed and defeated, he was additionally introducing me to the truth that my look would impression my entry, would economically disenfranchise me, and would restrict my choices in a number of arenas. In some methods, he was right. I’ve met males who refuse to make eye contact with me. Nevertheless, although my father might not have realized that magnificence is subjective and will don’t have anything to do with entry to assets, I’ve been blessed to satisfy many individuals and employers who thought in a different way.

Magnificence Requirements Invisiblize Individuals’s Wholeness and Humanity and Narrates Our Life Selections

Individuals who match into these requirements — particularly people who find themselves raised as or assumed to be women — are taught to create id, profession, and artwork round their look. It turns into the qualification of their social existence and their physique and face is became career and commerce as an alternative of being handled as a easy formation of their flesh and blood. Individuals who look a sure means are taught to spend money on their appears, middle their appears, and use their seems as social capital. And whereas seems can completely aide their different artistic, skilled, or private endeavors, they don’t seem to be inspired to pursue autonomy or pleasure/creativity separate from their look. They could even be pressured to restrict themselves to magnificence and desirability-based endeavors, and nothing else.

Whereas magnificence is privilege and entry on this tradition, it may be bloody and harmful. It kills individuals. Some individuals’s obsession with magnificence or magnificence privilege results in their deaths, like those that die from problems on account of cosmetic surgery. Others are murdered as a result of individuals need to possess them, punish them for his or her magnificence, or lash out when rejected. When your face is political and represents a lot of society’s ugly, you’re not given the chance to be your personal individual, discover your personal wishes and passions, have boundaries, or say “No” with out excessive consequence. This expertise applies to all individuals, particularly ladies, however is exclusive in the best way that it’s skilled by these inside hierarchical measures of magnificence.

These of us who don’t match into conventional requirements of magnificence are taught to seek out our value in different methods. Whereas we might not have the identical restricted alternatives as our ancestors or individuals in additional economically oppressed and gender discriminant elements of the world (together with locations within the US), our social worth continues to be related to productiveness. We’re inspired to pursue talent improvement, to turn into good and obedient laborers and nurturers, to discover the prowess of our mind if our childhood instructors don’t make mental assessments of us based mostly on our seems to be, as they often do. Slightly than being taught initiative, selection, and self-worth, we’re taught to aspire to be like others, to dream about being chosen, and to make nice sacrifices to get there. And we’re taught that it’s the worst factor on the planet to be ugly.


Vanessa Rochelle Lewis is a queerdo-weirdo fats Black femme artist, facilitator, healer, conjurer, and worshipper of juicy and free individuals; a Faerie Goddess Mermaid Gangsta for the Revolution; the previous Senior Editor for Black Woman Harmful and On a regular basis Feminism; a group arts organizer; and the Founder/Head Mistress of the model new PleasureNess Literary Academy (Artwork & Spirit Drugs for Pleasure, Liberation, & Change). The PleasureNess Lit Academy’s web site continues to be in improvement, however please go to it anyway and join the mailing record — magical treats await you.



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