Young girls of all colors grow up in the United States surrounded by images of white women in Disney movies, children’s picture books and billboards. As a result, their own perceptions of beauty can become a mirror image of the societal standards reinforced in the media. Struggles with self-image may arise for minority women in a society that equates beauty with whiteness. Below, six women of color attending Wheaton share their encounters with racialized beauty standards.
Junior interdisciplinary studies major Jada Kamau is a member of the Wheaton College Gospel Choir and has lived in Missouri, Los Angeles and Texas.
Kamau, a dark-skinned Black woman, remembers her mom’s stories of how a relative would pinch her infant sister’s nose to make it more narrow. “Little things like that make us devalue the way that we look even more.”
But in general, Kamau said, her family has taught her to value her racial identity and beauty.
“I had the option of getting braces growing up, but I realized the only reason I personally would get braces would be to subscribe to European beauty standards,” Kamau said. “In African cultures, gaps are seen as signs of royalty and beauty,”
Kamau’s mother never permed or relaxed her hair, leaving it natural. “I’m very grateful for that,” Kamau said. Even so, it has taken time for her to learn how to handle her fragile strands gently and apply hair care techniques suited for her unique hair texture.
“My hair is a crown of beauty,” Kamau said, “not something that should be spurned or looked down upon, and it’s a part of cultural identity. [Maintaining it] takes a lot of effort, and I have to be careful with it, but it’s a way for me to stand for what is culturally valuable to me, so I intentionally indulge in all of that time.”
Senior business economics major and sociology minor Mona Mahapatra is an Indian-American from New Jersey. Like many women of color, Mahapatra endured the internalization of insecurities based on the extremely white standards of beauty surrounding her growing up.
“I just always assumed that no one would see me as beautiful,” she said.
Although her family is Indian, Mahapatra did not participate much in Indian culture as a child because her parents had converted to Christianity. “Indian culture is based a lot on religion,” Mahapatra said, “so my parents separated me from that a lot. I started to become ashamed of the fact that I didn’t fit in with [Indians] very well. I started to not want to be associated with the culture because it wasn’t a place where I felt like I belonged.”
At Wheaton, Mahapatra says, her perspective has shifted thanks, in large part, to her diverse group of friends. “As I have started to place myself back into the Indian community, I’ve found more beauty in myself and the Indian people around me. As I’ve become more surrounded by people of color and different ethnicities, I’ve seen beauty in each of them, in my Latina friends and my Chinese friends and my Korean friends and my African-American friends.”
Junior Christiana Kaleebu moved from Uganda to the United States at 6 years old.
Growing up, Kaleebu’s parents taught their children about their cultural heritage. “I remember participating in international nights all the time,” Kaleebu said, “and I know how to cook all the foods. But I don’t think they have a grasp on race relations in the U.S. When they encounter racism here, they’re not hit the way that me and my siblings were growing up.”
Kaleebu’s encounters with racism shifted with her arrival at Wheaton, a predominantly white space.
“I didn’t see colorism [discrimination against people with darker skin tones] until coming here and hearing the things some people will say,” Kaleebu said. “People being amazed by my skin tone is very othering. There are not a lot of dark-skinned Black women on campus. I know that.”
Other acquaintances, knowing that Black beauty is often devalued, overcompensate. “They’ll say, ‘OMG, your hair looks so, so good,’” Kaleebu said, “and I’m thinking, ‘Thanks, it’s an Afro puff. It’s a really common hairstyle, almost every Black woman’s go-to.’”
Skin-deep compliments toward women of color, Kaleebu says, can hurt rather than uplift. “When you [as a woman of color] are appreciated, you’re appreciated for your body if you’re a curvier woman of color. Or you’re appreciated for your exoticness if you’re not white American. You’re seen as [a stereotype], whether it’s the spicy Latina, the Asian woman who’s submissive or the strong, independent Black woman.”
Elise Kim is a Korean-American sophomore majoring in psychology and minoring in Spanish. She is from Illinois and grew up in a multi-generational household where the environment was more American than Korean. Growing up without a phone or other personal devices, she was somewhat isolated from pressures to look a certain way until high school.
“Then, it was more American beauty standards that were prevalent,” Kim said. “The Korean beauty standards that I saw were mostly affected by American beauty standards because the West has a strong hold all over the world.”
She notices this pattern now in social media trends. “Beauty standards are pushed by conventionally attractive white women and not by me [a Korean woman].” She has had friends of color who were mocked for non-white features, such as big lips and, in the case of one Indian friend, thick eyebrows. “But now, because that’s the trend, it’s beautiful where before it wasn’t.”
Korean-American business economics major Jude Lee grew up straddling two different cultures. Born in New York, she lived in Korea and attended an international school until moving back to the United States for high school. Despite these changes, Lee’s parents emphasized Korean culture in their home.
“I think my parents did a really good job of letting me know that everyone is beautiful and I’m beautiful in my own ways,” Lee said. “So, although I had a lot of societal stuff impacting me, I never doubted that I was beautiful in my own way.”
When asked about her own experiences with beauty in America, Lee remembered how she used to attempt to conform to American standards in high school.
“When you’re in public school, you want to fit in, and you want to be accepted,” she said. “For me, it was mostly with my clothes.” Lee started dressing more like her peers by wearing styles she could find at stores like less Asian-style clothing and more American Eagle. “American Eagle in itself is not bad, but the reasons why I was wearing it were not good,” she said. “I quickly went back to the way I used to dress because I didn’t feel good in those clothes.”
Now, as a junior in college, Lee recognizes that her definition of beauty must be her own rather than a reflection of dominant cultures. “I know who I am, and I don’t have to conform to either the [Korean or American] beauty standard,” she said.
Monik Flores is an Ecuadorian and Mexican American from Chicago. Growing up in a city of diverse cultures and in a household that embraces her heritage, Flores was raised to be rooted in her racial and ethnic identity.
“I was raised in a home that embraced this food, this dancing, this music, and as a result of that, it came naturally to be proud of my roots,” Flores said.
However, moving from a predominately Black and Latinx high school to Wheaton, she became much more aware of the Eurocentric standards of beauty affecting her as a woman of color.
She describes this transition as a time where “more of an awareness of whiteness and white beauty standards” was prevalent. She noticed this with specific features, like eyes. “Eurocentrism promotes a love of blue and green eyes,” Flores said. “Growing up, I didn’t find my brown eyes as tasteful. I’m still learning to love them.”
When asked about her own struggles with beauty as a woman of color, Flores emphasizes that though one may recognize that others’ perceptions are not their fault, the realization does not invalidate the struggle for self-worth.
“It’s definitely been a struggle,” she said. “You can recognize something logically, and it can still be an issue. It’s learning to embrace these curves and my hair and all of these different things, and that has come with time.”
Flores, an English and education double major, has been student teaching at a high school this semester. She says she has recognized among her students this desire to assimilate to white beauty standards in regards to hair. Consequently, she makes a point of acknowledging her students’ natural beauty.
“When I see students who occasionally straighten their hair, obviously, when you straighten your hair, you want to get a compliment. So I’ll say, ‘Wow, I love your hair today, but also I love it natural,’ because you can very easily fall into a preference for straight hair as the epitome of beauty.”
To other women of color struggling with beauty standards, Flores has this advice: “Remember you’re not the problem. The way in which other people see beauty is not on you. Just because they cannot recognize your beauty does not mean it’s not there.”