[Beauty Overheard] Nell Irvin Painter on Race and Beauty.

Beauty Overheard: What folks are saying — good, bad, and ugly — about being pretty.

Skin lightening has been a recurring theme over at Beauty U lately, as I’m finding that almost every woman of color who comes in for a facial asks what we can do to even out her darker spots, and will a glycolic peel help? (My answers: Not much and only if you like the idea of acid being poured on your face.)

So I’m intrigued by this bit from an interview (by Thomas Rogers over on Salon) with Princeton history professor Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People:

It’s conspicuous that many of the scientists who were trying to determine the “most superior” white race were obsessed with figuring out which race was best-looking.

Physical beauty and race were thought to be something physical and permanent that can be passed down generation to generation, but if you look at magazines from the 1960s or the 1920s, you see that ideas of beauty change. What I find so fascinating is that if you look carefully at the faces of many models today, they would not have passed as beautiful in the middle of the 20th century. Now we look more at bodies. We like bodies to be very thin — like thinness is beauty.

Every few years there also seems to be a new fashionable ethnicity for runway models — one year it’ll be Russians, the next it’s Brazilians.

It’s called fashion for a reason. Popular culture is a many-splendored thing. I was in New York recently, where I saw a great big billboard of Kimora Lee Simmons, who is a brown person who is an embodiment of beauty. Then if you look at a fashion magazine, you’ll see a parade of white people selling things. You can find it all.

In the 1960s you couldn’t find that kind of array [of people], partly because there weren’t so many outlets, but also because these markets were not seen as big. As brown-skinned people got more money to buy things, what they wanted to see began appearing in advertising. It’s all bound up with advertising and marketing and purchasing.

So, the more brown-skinned people have the economic power to buy things, the less pressure society will put on them to look whiter. I guess that’s progress… of a sort.

(If you’ve overheard some interesting beauty talk, email it to me at beautyschooledproject [at] gmail [dot] com. Oh and while we’re on the subject of email, thanks to Katherine for pointing out yesterday that the email address has been misspelled on my About page for, well, way too long. If you’ve emailed me at beautyschoolproject@gmail.com and didn’t hear back, please resend and I’m so sorry!)


1 Comment

Filed under Beauty Overheard, Beauty Schooled, beauty standards

One response to “[Beauty Overheard] Nell Irvin Painter on Race and Beauty.

  1. There’s also another way this works: as people of color have more disposable income, the corporations are realizing there are huge profits to be made by convincing them they need to buy expensive toxic skin lightening creams.

    Up to 60% of Japanese women use skin whitening products in their daily regime, according to Euromonitor, which writes: “The thriving bihaku (white beauty) boom remains one of the most significant driving forces of overall growth as manufacturers cater to the Asian preference for a fair complexion.”

    Of course, that “preference” is fueled by a relentless attack of ads and cultural pressures to convince Asian women they need to look more white. For example, as I wrote in my book, in the Philippines, all the famous actresses are light skinned and every other ad on TV is for a product that promises paler skin. Many of these products contain hydroquinone, a highly toxic chemical that actually breaks down the integrity of the skin.

    So this is all just another example (the most insidious one I can think of) of the sickness of the current corporate growth-at-all-costs economy that seeks to sell us toxic crap we don’t need by convincing us we’re worthless without it.

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