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Essay: Politics of bodies and the standards of beauty

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  • Subject area(s): Sociology essays
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  • Politics of bodies and the standards of beauty
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The environment in which individuals learn about the politics of bodies and the standards of beauty are saturated within society and institutions (Poran, 2002). The norms that define beauty are socially and culturally constructed and through the process of socialization learned and passed on by individuals of all ages, races, and nationalities (Poran 2002). For example, the media and various beauty industries play a significant role in creating negative and positive conceptions about beauty. Beauty norms, expectations and standards affect various people, some more than others (Marway 2017). Often what is considered beautiful are culturally and racially depended. Therefore, this paper aims to answer the following research question: what are the conceptions of race and beauty?

For years, fair skin has been regarded as the beauty norm and superior race in many parts of the world. The discriminatory and racial hierarchies of colour reveal the connection between fairness and beauty, darkness and unattractiveness (Marway 2017). Therefore, this paper argues beauty includes anything that conforms to the Western and Eurocentric conceptions of beauty, fair skin and slim body, which is embodied by many racialized groups and demonstrates that those who do not meet these standards experience low self-esteem, stigmatization, and lack of social acceptance by self and others. Studies reveal that racialized groups define beauty in terms of Western and Eurocentric norms and express the desire to conform to it. Furthermore, studies also illustrate that racialized women define beauty as ‘tall’, ‘slim’ and ‘white’, and experience stigmatization and lack of social acceptance when they do not possess these traits. The case of Barbie reinforces these beauty norms and illustrates through a doll what beauty and attractiveness consist of; fair skin and slim body.

Case Summary

Generations children have been brought up playing with the famous Barbie and Ken Fashion dolls. Barbie was the first doll that displayed the perfect body, waist size 0, skin colour, and long sleek hair enforcing unrealistic beauty norms (Unknown 2017).The doll received criticism from parents and media regarding the unrealistic beauty expectations targeted at young children, yet Mattel Inc. the owner of Barbie, sold over a billion dolls making Barbie the company’s largest and most profitable line (Unknown 2017). In 2006, a study from the University of Sussex found that thin and fair dolls like Barbie created negative and harmful body perceptions for young girls and led to low self-esteem (Unknown 2017). In the study, all 162 participants reported the desire to look like Barbie and had embodied the unrealistic beauty norms (Unknown 2017). However, after being the center of controversary for many years, Mattel Inc. rebranded Barbie and released a new commercial that spreads a positive, less superficial, and more realistic message about beauty (Bondareff 2010). The commercial encourages young children to be or do anything without worrying about the social beauty norms. Mattel Inc. created a doll with dark skin complexion and black dreadlocks breaking the chain of blonde and fair Barbie dolls (Bondareff 2010). Although Mattel Inc. has taken steps towards changing the unrealistic beauty perceptions by creating diverse dolls with different hair textures and skin colours, the doll still pursues the skinny body image (Bondareff 2010).

This case is significant for development of this research question as it demonstrates the complex relations between race and beauty. Whiteness and thinness are perceived as beauty norms which are enforced and normalized in society. Various forms of industries, markets, and companies monitor conceptions of beauty through objects and pursue the conception that beauty is akin to fair skin, long sleek hair, and thinness. As a result, those who do not identify with these notions of beauty, whether is it skin colour, hair texture or body size, perceive themselves as not beautiful.

Annotated Bibliography

Ali, M. Mir, John A. Rizzo and Frank W. Heiland. 2013. “Big and Beautiful? Evidence of Racial

Differences in The Perceived Attractiveness of Obese Females.” Journal of Adolescence,

36(3): 539-549.

This article asserts that physical appearance, especially being attractive, is a valuable and prominent asset in many situations of human interaction. Individuals judgements of others’ appearances are linked to body sizes which are depended on and influenced by a complex set of social and cultural values and norms. Thin bodies are appraised as they are in line with beauty norms while overweight bodies are stigmatized. The authors analyze the relationship between body weight, race and notions of attractiveness. They hypothesize that on various dimensions of attractiveness, white girls and black girls will be ranked differently based on body weights. Data for this study was drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health with a sample consisting of 5947 white and black girls aged 12 to 18. Results show that white girls were more likely to be ranked physically attractive and described as having an attractive personality than black girls. The article concludes that overweight and obese girls are less likely to be perceived as attractive, well-groomed and having a likeable personality compared to thin girls. The stigmatization of overweight and obese girls was more prevalent among black girls; however, overweight white girls face more stigma than overweight black girls and this is due to the notion that all white girls are supposed and expected to be thin and beautiful.

Ali et al.’s article demonstrates that physical appearance determines how an individual is perceived by others and whether this individual meets the standards of beauty. White girls are automatically perceived as more beautiful, and this even goes as far as assuming they have a more likable personality. Overweight black girls face stigmatization, however this stigma is worse for white girls because of racial beauty expectations. Therefore, this article provides support for the research question in assessing how conceptions of race and beauty are formed and related.

Davis, S. Dawnavan, Tracy Sbrocco, Angela Odoms-Young and Dionne M. Smith. 2010.

“Attractiveness in African American and Caucasian Women: Is Beauty in the Eyes of the Observer?” Eating Behaviours, 11(1): 25-32.

This article seeks to analyze the relation and effect body size, race, and dress attire has on notions of attractiveness. The researches hypothesize that African American women may not internalize the Western conceptions and standards of beauty and attractiveness compared to Caucasian Americans. The study conducted included 160 participants (80 African American; 80 Caucasian American) which were recruited from newspaper advertisements, churches, and community-based organization in Washington DC. The Model Rating Task (MRT) was used in this study to measure the height and weight of the participants. Results show that 81.7% of the participants that were underweight and normal weight were Caucasian women, whereas 69.0% of the participants that were overweight and obese were African women. Both groups shared similar conceptions of attractiveness. Contrary to the hypothesis, African American women viewed thinner and slimmer girls as more attractive, thus, had embodied the Western ultra-thin body norm. Interestingly, both Caucasian and black women defined darker skin complexion as more attractive but only when the woman is skinny. The study concludes that African Americans definition of attractiveness, in the past defined as having curvy hips that expresses their femininity more, have started to migrate towards Western views of beauty and attractiveness held by Caucasian women who define attractiveness as having a thin and slim body.

This article is a relevant source to the research question of this paper as it demonstrates that Western conceptions of beauty, especially body size, are embodied by black women. Both black and white women possessed similar definitions of attractiveness and beauty. In additional, this article assesses that darker skin colour may be perceived as attractive but only when the woman has a slim body. These conceptions of beauty as formed by the Western mainstream society and internalized by the racialized society.

Moore, Robinson and Cynthia L. 2008. “Beauty Standards Reflect Eurocentric Paradigms-So

What? Skin Color, Identity, and Black Female Beauty.” The Journal of Race and Policy,

4(1): 66-85.

This article focuses on the struggle and desire of African Americans with meeting the Eurocentric standards of beauty. Research focuses on how black women adapt their lifestyles and cultural identity to meet the dominated beauty standards. Using qualitative research methods, the study collected data from 38 black women between the age of 19 to 81. Participants were asked questions regarding skin colour complexion and hair texture when determining beauty. Results illustrate that lighter skinned black females are socially more accepted by both black and white people. They are also perceived to be socially more successful, attractive and beautiful. Participants further reveal that since dark skin is devalued as it does not meet the Eurocentric ideals of beauty, they have a strong desire for lighter skinned children. Additionally, hair texture and length are also associated with dominant beauty ideals. Participants in the study express the desire for long straight hair as it is considered more attractive. Results of the study show that darker skinned participants with short curly hair report isolation, social rejection and lower-levels of confidence and self-esteem, whereas lighter skinned participants with long straight hair report social acceptance and higher levels of confidence, self-esteem and success. The study concludes Eurocentric conceptions of beauty are embodied by African Americans. These notions of beauty negatively affect black men and women as their definition of attractiveness and beauty is influenced by Eurocentric standards of beauty

This article is a significant source as it directly relates to the research question of this paper. The article demonstrates that conceptions of beauty and race are influenced by Western and Eurocentric standards of beauty. Racialized beings that do not identify with these standards are perceived by others and themselves as less attractive and beautiful. They have a strong desire to possess the physical traits of a white person, fair skin and sleek hair, as society pursues the notion that fair skinned beings are more beautiful than racialized beings.

Poran, A Maya. 2002. “Denying Diversity: Perceptions of Beauty and Social Comparison

Processes Among Latina, Black, and White Women.” Plenum Publishing Corporation,

47(1): 65-81.

The article is concerned with how beauty is perceived and compared among women of different racial backgrounds. The study investigates Latina, black and white women’s conception of beauty by focusing on differences and similarities. The study collected data from 157 college women, 48 Latina women, 52 black women, 51 white women and 6 “other”. The results of the study show that there are significant differences in Latina, black and white women’s perception of beauty. Over 63% of the black participants’ perception of beauty was based on personality whereas white participants defined beauty in terms of physical appearance. Furthermore, Latina women were equality as likely to define beauty in relation to personality and physical appearance. Both Latina and black women defined whiteness as an important part of the cultural definition of beauty and expressed the desire to possess this trait. Black women defined beauty as “a tall and skinny white woman with blond hair and blue eyes & perfect straight nose” (p 74). The article concludes that conceptions of beauty are determined and influenced by the cultural standards of beauty of the dominant Western and Eurocentric groups. Conforming to the Western norms of beauty was equally as evident in Latina women as in black women.

This article helps answer the research question of this paper as it illustrates that definitions of beauty are represented and influenced by cultural norms and standards. However, the article also illustrates that there is an awareness of what the dominant standards of beauty are which reflect Western and Eurocentric norms of beauty. As a result, when defining beauty in terms of cultural standards, white standards of beauty play a major role and these standards are embodied by other cultures and races.

Shroff, Hemal, Phillippa C. Diedrichs and Nadia Craddock. 2018. “Skin Color, Cultural Capital,

and Beauty Products: An Investigation of the Use of Skin Fairness Products in Mumbai, India” Frontiers in Public Health, 365(5): 1-9.

This article examines the reasons behind the use skin fairness products in India by both men and women despite the health side effects. The skin fairness product industry is a multi-million-dollar industry that perpetuates racism and social inequalities by reinforcing the perception that skin fairness or whiteness is related to beauty, attractiveness and cultural capital. The study conducted is concerned with the reasons for using or not using skin fairness products and explored the use of skin-fairness products among 1992 women and men aged 16 to 60 in the city of Mumbai, India. This study hypothesizes that women would be more likely to report the use of skin fairness products and would be more likely to associate fairness with beauty, attractiveness and cultural capital. The results of the study show that 37.6% of the participants reported using skin whitening products, with women being two times more likely than men, thus supporting the hypothesis. However, contrary to the hypothesis, men were more likely than women to endorse the belief that skin fairness or whiteness is associated with cultural capital and attractiveness. The authors conclude that the findings of the study indicate that women are held more accountable of meeting societal expectations of beauty. They face a greater likelihood of being judged based on appearances, thus there is an increase of pressure to look fair as whiteness is perceived as attractive and beautiful.

This article is directly related to the research question as it demonstrates that conceptions of beauty are heavily influenced by Western and Eurocentric norms of beauty which is mainly based on skin colour. The notion that having fair skin or being white is attractive and beautiful is embodied by different races. As a result, racialized men and women endorse and conceptualize the belief that they lighter skin colour is attractive and is associated with more success.

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