By Guest Blogger Aimee Polimeno
It’s no secret that our media-driven culture values an extremely narrow and stereotypical version of beauty, usually represented by a Size 2, photoshopped model. Most people know that judging and media photoshopping any girl larger than a size 4 has a detrimental impact on girls’ body image, and so it’s an issue fought by activists on many fronts. However, what many of us tend to overlook is that our culturally biased ideal of beauty does not encompass only body size, but also race.
The lack of models of various races and ethnicities in media, not to even mention the tendency to photoshop lighter skin tones on those few models and artists who do make the covers of magazines, is one thing. The association in movies and TV between violence and skin color is another. We teach children that when race is visible at all, light is right and everything else is…well, wrong. Consider seemingly harmless animated films like The Lion King, where our main man Mufasa and his family are a lighter fur color, while the evil and calculating Scar is a darker shade. Think about all those dark-skinned evil queens in Disney films.
Multiple studies have been done in psychology and sociology dealing with this early priming of children to favor light over dark, and the results are heartbreaking. A recent study conducted with young children in Mexico featuring a white doll and a black doll found the same results as a famous U.S. study conducted in the 1930’s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark. “Which doll is good?” the children were asked. “Which doll is bad?” “Which doll is ugly?” Almost all of the children associate positive words like “good” and “pretty” with the white doll and words like “bad” and “ugly” with the darker skinned doll. When asked why they like the white doll better, the children aren’t entirely sure; they just know that it’s the better doll. And here’s the heart-breaking part: when asked which doll looks most like them, the children struggle, knowing they have darker skin too, knowing that choosing the darker skin doll forces them to associate themselves with being bad and ugly.
These children are not born with a preference for lighter skin and the lighter dolls; this value has been forced on them unknowingly by the images they see and the stories they are told. This damaging set of values is deeply rooted in our culture and media and, as a result, we as consumers support and perpetuate the problem. There are entire shelves in drugstores dedicated to skin-lightening creams and hair relaxants, but these would not exist without significant demand. It’s difficult to be a critical consumer when we’re constantly barraged by images and ads telling us how we should look and what it means to be beautiful. But the fight has to begin with each one of us.
There are some positive signs of change. In 2010, Sesame Street featured Shirley, an African-American puppet girl singing about all the reasons “I Love My Hair.” With over 5 million views to date, it’s clear how important (and rare) it is for young African-American girls to see a character representing them who believes her untreated hair is fun and gorgeous on its own.
Shirley and her message of self-love and acceptance became a sensation and an inspiration for young Black girls. If one puppet can make such an impact, why can’t we as a collective group follow Shirley’s lead? It starts with challenging what we are sold in the media and then looking in the mirror and within ourselves to realize that we are beautiful. I am beautiful, and you are beautiful. Together we can push back against the cookie-cutter image portrayed in our media so young girls of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities can open a magazine and see a beautiful women who look like them. Like Shirley, love your hair, but also love your eyes, your curves, and your mind, and let the world hear it.