“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A lovely saying that we’ve all heard many times. However, society’s idea of beauty is less defined by the eye of the beholder than as a concept that changes with the typical depictions of people in media of the time. Jean Kilbourne’s TED Talk on Killing Us Softly IV: Advertising Images of Women gives a comprehensive look at and interpretation of her research on how women have been portrayed in media since the late 1960’s. When listening to the song “Beautiful is Boring” by BONES UK, the connections make themselves.
The first verse includes the lyric, “They said they did not want my face in their magazine/’Cause I’m not beautiful”. The singer doesn’t suit society’s definition of beautiful, and therefore is denied access to certain levels of visibility. In regard to societal standards of beauty, Kilbourne says, “From my perspective of over 40 years, the image of women in advertising is worse than ever. The pressure on women to be young, thin, and beautiful is more intense than ever before” (3:27-3:37). The singer doesn’t care about how society defines beautiful, young and thin and perfect. The second verse has the lyric, “It does not please me to be easy on any of your eyes”. Clearly, the singer’s priority does not fall with how others perceive her. This confidence and self-assuredness isn’t something that comes naturally however. Kilbourne points out that “the self-esteem of girls in America often plummets when they reach adolescence. Girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they are 8, 9, 10 years old, but they hit adolescence and they often hit a wall. And certainly, part of this wall is this terrible emphasis on physical perfection” (Kilbourne 6:51-7:17). Many times, as Kilbourne states, the expectations from society to look a certain way and be perfect can be crushing. It can absolutely destroy a young person’s confidence.
The singer isn’t unaware of this, despite her own confidence and self-assuredness. The third verse has a lyric that critiques society on “teaching children to be anything other than who they are”. Kilbourne has many points on the alteration of children’s perceptions of themselves in society by media, from girls being “more prone to eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem” (13:17-13:24), boys being “encouraged to look at girls as sex objects, …encouraged to be sexually precocious” (10:17-10:33), and women of color being “considered beautiful only insofar as they resemble the white ideal: light skin, straight hair, Caucasian features, round eyes” (5:25-5:39). The whole message of the song, “beautiful is boring”, argues that people are much more interesting when they exist as themselves than conform to society. This message is inherently feminist, as it pushes against the factors in society that hold women back from being their complete selves.
American singer Beyoncé has long been a leading icon in the feminist movement. She is often found uplifting women in her emphasis of inner beauty and self-worth through the messages of her songs. The song ‘Flawless’ featuring Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is no different –perhaps even more direct– as Beyoncé sings about female independence and autonomy in a society that is historically patriarchal.
The first verse of the song is a response to the criticism Beyoncé has received from other artists about her being the leader of female artists, as well as the discourse about her hiatus from music in 2010:
I know when you were little girls
You dreamt of being in my world
Don’t forget it, don’t forget it
Respect that, bow down, bitches
I took some time to live my life
But don’t think I’m just his little wife
Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down, bitches
Beyoncé pushes back against the social norm that women rely on their husband for happiness. Her opposition is similar to Betty Friedan’s stance on second-wave feminism in her book “The Feminist Mystique”. Friedan emphasized the regression of the feminist movement after World War II in which women were convinced that their ultimate goal was to find a husband and start a family. Friedan simply argues that the notion of the ‘perfect housewife’ should be challenged, stating “the time is at hand when the voices of the feminist mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete” (Friedan 282). Beyoncé’s lyrics support this as she claims her success and fame independent of her hip-hop star husband.
The critic of marriage as a social norm continues in the bridge, which is a snippet of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk “We Should All Be Feminist” as she embarks on the consequences of normalizing the importance of marriage:
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
The overall message of the song is a call to action for women to express their independence and freedom from social and cultural norms that oppress them into gender roles. Through showing appreciation of all of her possessions and multiple identities, Beyoncé claims that her life as a successful business woman and a happily married woman is ‘Flawless’.
One limitation of this song is its lack of discourse about Beyoncé’s struggle with being a black feminist figure. This course has taught us that the feminist movement has often times left out the thoughts and concerns of the Black women throughout history. Some feminists, like bell hooks, would argue that the power and authority that is used in Beyoncé’s lyrics paradoxically promotes the image of white women being powerless, when in reality they are the ones controlling the feminist narrative. By addressing the issues of racism in the feminist movement, Beyoncé would’ve tackled the overall issues of intersectionality of sexism and racism that all Black women face.
Beauty standards have long had a hold on popular culture. Beauty allows for people to advance in the social hierarchies of our societies, as well as provide a sense of self worth. The history of beauty can be described as a history of struggle, as society deems it more and more necessary to alter the physical, material body to meet social standards. Skin lightening is one of the most criticized beauty practices throughout the latest century. As a booming industry that is engaged across all socioeconomic levels, discourse around skin lighteners informs us about the changing meanings of skin color and how it affects racial hierarchies and anti-racism activism. Beneath The Surface looks into the transnational history of skin lightening practices through the perspective of South Africa and the United States and outward.
Lynn M. Thomas’ main argument in Beneath The Surface is that bodily surfaces are vectors of antiracist struggles through its complications of skin meaning and privilege– especially in the time of aparthied rule in South Africa. She also describes how skin lighteners and other beauty practices both reinforce and challenge pre-existing assumptions about race, class, and gender. Thomas comes to the conclusion that “surfaces matter. The unrelenting presence of beauty practices in our globalized world stems from their ability to play on and reproduce a range of inequalities while, at the same time, offering hope and stirring feelings of self-worth” (Thomas 236).
Lynn M. Thomas, co-editor of this monograph, is indeed qualified to discuss the topics of materialism and its effects on the concepts of race, class, and gender in our lives. Currently a history professor at the University of Washington, Thomas is known to be a historian of politics and gender in East and Southern Africa. She acknowledges her love for history due to her “desire to gain knowledge of the past in order to better understand the problems and possibilities of the present” (Thomas). tShe is best known for being the co-editor of The Modern Girl Around The World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization where she explores the rise of capitalist consumer culture, mass media, and its resulting new conceptions of race and gender.
Through her uses of archives, popular culture trends, and oral history sources, Thomas traces the wavering opinions of skin lighteners and the varying meanings of skin color throughout time. In the first chapter, she examines indigenous and traditional practices on bodily surfaces. Smearing practices like the use of Tambookie grass and egg whites on skin as a method of lightening skin tones led to colonists labeling the natives as inferior for attempting to “whitein” themselves. White lead was also a popular skin lightener as it was commonly found in European portraits and used in Chinese and Japanese cultures.
Chapter 2 elaborates on the role mass media played in influencing South African consumers through the advertisement of skin lighteners. Local newspapers like Bantu World–the first South African newspaper to advertise cosmetics and include women sections– portrayed women in the “modern girl” stereotype that framed women as engulfed in self-indulgence and rejecting her duties. Bleeding into the next chapter, Thomas acknowledges how the success of African American cosmetic companies influenced how the skin lightening industry was perceived in South Africa and neighboring countries. There was a distinct difference between cosmetic use and racial respectability across the Atlantic, however, as South African beauty culture was dominated by black men discourse and run by white owned companies. In contrast with the United States, African American women controlled both the manufacturing and advertisement of their skin lightening and other cosmetic products. Chapter 3 expands upon the idea of growing black consumerism and how white South Africans dominated the cosmetic business in South Africa. Simultaneously emerging with the shifting dynamics of the industry were the concepts of race consciousness as ideas regarding color privileges became more evident, encouraging South Africans to pass for white using skin lighteners.
Chapters 4 through 6 further elaborated on the impact mass media had on people’s changing perceptions of racial and gender hierarchies. Through magazines, film, and photography, the media began portraying lighter skin in association with success and opportunity, emphasized by Thomas’ comment: “Skin color, as one highly visible marker of race, loomed large in this world where whiteness was synonymous with power and privilege, and small differences in appearance could carry significant consequences” (Thomas 106). Meanwhile, criticism from medical professionals and anti-racist activists remained persistent in developing regulations for skin lightening practices in South Africa. From the medical standpoint, the discovery of hydroquinone as a new and “substitute” ingredient of mercury created more speculation about the safety of the products, ultimately leading to the ban of mercury based cosmetics and closer examination of over-the-counter products. As discourse around the health of consumers increased, so did conversations acknowledging the psychological damage of beauty desires on Black women. Criticisms between medical professionals and antiracism activists entwined eventually, leading to regulations on skin lighteners being set across South Africa.
The final chapter looks at the issues of the modern day and the nuances that come with the everlasting problems of racism and capitalism. Thomas points out the irony in the apartheid museum being located on top of an old, wealthy skin lightener manufacturing company. Instances like these prove that the skin lightening industry still has a hold on today’s society, and that the meaning and politics around skin color will continue to evolve and change.
The greatest strength of Beneath The Surface was Thomas’ ability to trace the altering meanings and understandings of skin color. Her attention to detail–the products, advertisement, manufacturing, target audience, usage, and health problems– it all relates back to how bodily surfaces were a focal point of racial identification and how people used skin lighteners to use that focus to their own advantage. It’s astonishing to realize that beauty practices can be such a destructive force, yet they will continue to be utilized and invested in as people continue to modify their physical appearance to fit into social desires. A weakness I believe to have found is Thomas’ lack of perspective outside of South Africa and the United States. Although South Africa is a unique viewpoint that allows us to analyze changing conceptions of skin color from colonial times to the postcolonial present, I think addressing other perspectives of African countries would bring more knowledge of historical beauty practices and develop more nuances among the practices and their relations to the cultivation of racial hierarchies.
I personally enjoy this book because of its unique perspective of skin lightening as an agent of disturbing the efforts of antiracist thinkers and activists. I never thought cosmetics would have such an impact on how we perceive racial and gender dynamics, let alone evolving beauty standards.
“Department of History.” Lynn M. Thomas | Department of History | University of Washington, https://history.washington.edu/people/lynn-m-thomas.
Thomas, Lynn M. Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners. Wits University Press, 2020.
Since the inception of the metrosexual in the mid-1990s, the United States has seen a rise in male participation in the beauty and grooming industry, an industry that was founded by women and has typically been associated with a more feminine lifestyle. For white middle to upper class American men, there is a tension between the expectation to look clean and professional and the fear of appearing to try too hard to look this way. To balance these conflicting desires, modern men’s hair salons create carefully cultivated male aesthetics in their shops, from the decor and products to their employees’ mannerisms and dress codes. Kristen Barber explores this phenomenon in her monograph Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, published by Rutgers University Press in 2016. Barber begins with an initial research question: “What makes a men’s salon a men’s salon?” (Barber 162) To answer this question, she spends nine months in 2009 investigating the painstakingly masculinized spaces of two upscale men’s salons in Southern California, The Executive and Adonis, where she uncovers the aesthetics and gender politics of male participation in the beauty industry and the complex role female employees play in this space.
Kristen Barber is a sociologist, professor, and researcher with a focus on masculinities, culture, and work. She has a PhD in sociology from the University of Southern California, and her research centers on examining what “everyday boundary-crossing behavior can teach us about complex systems of inequality” (“Kristen Barber”). Besides Styling Masculinity, Barber co-authored the textbook Gendered Worlds 4th Edition and is the co-editor of a journal called Men and Masculinities. She currently works at Southern Illinois University as an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.
To get to the bottom of her question about what exactly constitutes a “men’s salon,” Barber performs an ethnographic study of two such salons in Southern California, Adonis and The Executive. She chooses Southern California as the site of her study because it is “a mecca for commercial aestheticizing” (Barber 12). She states that the phenomenon exemplified by these salons is not exclusive to California alone but rather extends to the rest of the country as well, though how it manifests in different settings may vary. Barber spends nearly a year frequenting The Executive and Adonis, interviewing the owners, employees, and clientele, and observing the interactions between the male clients and the female workers as well as between the male clients and the space itself. She writes, “I am interested in meanings as they are constructed through people’s face-to-face exchanges and how the organization in which these exchanges are embedded shape relationships between groups of people, identity building processes, and the reproduction and reimagining of cultural norms” (13).