Don’t Call Me Shirley: The White Bias in Mainstream Western Media and its Effect on World-Wide Standards of Beauty
Written by Sarah Tue-Fee
For Prof. Leland Young
There is a pervasive but largely ignored bias toward White standards of beauty in Western mass media, a bias which is denied by many who argue that America is post-racial and point to African American beauty icons in the media, such as Beyonce or Tyra Banks, as evidence that American society is completely healed of its racist history. However, these exceptions to the rule only draw attention to how relatively rare they are compared to the multitude of White beauty idols that dominate the music and film industry, and also to how conditional our acceptance of African-American beauty can be. The fact remains that our contemporary beauty standards are profoundly affected by the images we see in Western popular culture, which frequently privilege Caucasian aesthetics over those of any other ethnicity. As a result, the message that Whiteness is the default standard of beauty is perpetuated and internalized by people of colour around the world. This internalization can lead to psychological as well as physical effects that can manifest in disturbing ways including social stigmatization, negative self-image, and dangerous cosmetic procedures. We need to open a dialogue about fair racial representation in the media and set in place a new standard of diversity.
From the beginnings of the mass-produced image-making industry, the idea of Whiteness as the default was built into the very tools we used, namely, colour film. The rise of mass-produced colour film in the 1940s and 50s called for cameras and film that were calibrated with standardized colour balance cards. Named “Shirley cards,” after the first model to pose for one, they all pictured very fair White women wearing colourful, high-contrast clothing. In her article, “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity,” Lorna Roth states that the White male-dominated industry at the time almost certainly informed the decision to use only White female models that conformed “to a popular masculinist notion of beauty, likely defined from a Western/European perspective” (116). Although the diversity of the models has widened to include women of colour, until very recently, “what had become a ‘White’-biased international standard for the ideal flesh tone had been used as a barometer against which the flesh tones of Blacks, Asians, First Peoples, and other ‘peoples of colour’ had been read negatively as an aggravation—a deviation from this invisible norm” (Roth 117). It is clear that the overwhelming bias toward White skin tones was also motivated by economic factors, given that the main consumers in the early days of film photography were the White middle class. But that does not excuse why the standard persisted up until so recently as 1995, when the first multi-racial “Shirley card” was introduced, and why even now the adoption of the multi-racial reference card is not widespread enough to be considered the new norm.
Today, on a larger and more subtle scale, the White bias continues in Hollywood films and most other forms of popular Western media. There is an all too evident inclination to downplay representations of race or adhere to lazy stereotypes. Even exceptions in the industry, like the aforementioned beauty icons Beyonce and Tyra Banks, tend to conform to White standards such as lighter skin, atypically narrow noses, and straight, wavy, or blond hair.
Though we are moving towards acceptance of more multicultural expressions of beauty, we are far from living in a post-racial media landscape as some would say we are. When systemic problems are made invisible or are denied to exist, that is when they gain the most power, the latent White supremacy of Western mass media being no exception. In “Living in a Barbie World: Skin Bleaching and the Preference for Fair Skin in India, Nigeria, and Thailand,” Imani Franklin points to a 1974 UNESCO report that revealed “cultural production almost exclusively flows in one direction: from the developed to the developing world. This report gave empirical validity to the idea that globalization is more accurately Westernization” (66) and the rampant export of westernized beauty standards to the rest of the world can lead to what Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, Ph.D. and Ronald Hall have called “The Colour Complex,” which is, “the negative psychological impacts and personal psychic scars of intraracial discrimination on people with darker skin colours, attributed to the consequences of the prevalent belief that power and privilege should be ascribed to those with lighter skin” (qtd. in Roth 114). They point out systemic discrimination in the media as the cause of this complex, both in terms of underrepresentation of certain races and misrepresentation of others.
The power of economic forces upon the proliferation of these narrow beauty standards cannot be emphasised enough. The export of White America’s beauty ideals not only furthered a nationalist message of American exceptionalism, but also served to create a standard nearly impossible to meet for women of other nationalities, ensuring a demand for products that offered at least the illusion of capturing the Western beauty premium. Many American beauty firms of the time “regarded American beauty ideals as universal and played on the global popularity of Hollywood and the prestige of the United States to give their brands validity in advertisements” (Franklin 57). Thus, the idealized woman was shaped by advertisements concocted by the leading beauty firms of the time, who profited from promoting a White supremacist agenda. This ultimately led to a reduction in the range of variation in beauty standards around the world.
African-American women have perhaps the longest and most complicated relationship with Western beauty standards. In the time of slavery, lighter-skinned Black women who had more European facial features or hair were more often used as house slaves working around the owner’s family, whereas dark-skinned Black women tended to be used as slaves in the fields and had more labour intensive work. As Tracey Owens Patton states in her article “Hey Girl, Am I More Than My Hair?: African American Women And Their Struggles With Beauty, Body Image, And Hair,” the emulation of White beauty signifiers, particularly straight hair, “was associated with free-person status. Light-skinned runaway slaves tried to pass themselves off as free, hoping their European features would be enough to convince bounty hunters that they belonged to that privileged class. Emulating Whiteness offered a certain amount of protection” (28). It also offered them more opportunities in life for access to better education, food, clothing, and ultimately freedom upon the death of their owner. Proximity to Whiteness at that time was essentially one of the only ways African Americans could become more socially mobile.
After Emancipation, freed Black women became a new group of consumers for the beauty industry, and the ideal of light skin was a foundation of how White beauty companies marketed to their new Black customers. In her article “Black No More: Skin Bleaching And The Emergence Of New Negro Womanhood Beauty Culture,” Treva B. Lindsey states that “from the mid nineteenth century onward, white-owned companies manufactured and sold skin care products that claimed to lighten and whiten Black skin. These advertisements appeared in African American periodicals and reified lighter skin as both ‘American’ and modern beauty ideals” (102). Most of these advertisements encouraged Black women to look more like their lighter-skinned, biracial female peers as a way of gaining further social mobility and acceptance in American society, further solidifying the idea that ‘lighter is better’ in African American beauty culture.
Today, while we do see more examples of Black women in popular media, it is clear that “the vast majority of brown and black female celebrities have noticeably lighter skin tones than the average women of their races” as well as “atypically thin noses and straight hair” (Franklin 53). Margaret Hunter coined the term “the illusion of inclusion” to refer to the phenomenon of including light-skinned women of color in the media: “The same essential model of beauty is being promoted, yet industries can congratulate themselves on diversifying their ad campaigns” (Franklin 53). Also, in the few cases of darker-skinned Black women being represented in the media,their representations tend to be of a specific, and equally narrow, exotisized version of African beauty. Model Nykhor Paul, who is very dark skinned with short, usually shaved natural hair, is a good example of this exception. She is a successful fashion model, but her appearance is often exotisized and otherized in relation to her lighter-skinned peers. She has also spoken out on her Instagram account about her feelings about the fact that she is often forced to bring her own makeup to fashion shows because the makeup artists are not prepared for models with darker skin, saying that it is “insulting and disrespectful to me and my race,” and that the fashion industry should make more of an effort to accommodate models of all skin tones. She also goes on to point out the difficulties getting booked as a black model and her feelings of exclusion within the fashion industry.
So it would seem that the image the media wants us to see of African-American beauty is one that is either as close as possible to White beauty ideals or one that is an exotisized other. There seems to be no room for the average African-American woman in the media’s representation of them:
The range of medium-complected black women is virtually nonexistent in popular Western fashion industry and media more broadly…Why does the fashion industry incorporate dark skinned black models, yet lack a true range of black beauty? A key explanation is that dark black models serve to exoticize blackness in a way that medium-toned black women would not…Dark skin is often displayed as a jolting artistic statement, rather than a genuine incorporation of a wide spectrum of phenotypes. If the latter were the case, one would see a wider range of black beauty represented in the fashion world. (Franklin 54)
Not conforming to White beauty standards can also affect a Black woman’s job opportunities. In the 1981 case of Rogers v. American Airlines, the court “upheld the right of employers to prohibit the wearing of braided hairstyles in the workplace” (Caldwell qtd. in Patton 37). In 1987, the Hyatt Regency, using that case as precedent, “forced Cheryl Tatum to resign after she came to work wearing cornrows and refused to have them taken out. She was told that she was in violation of the company policy” (Patton 37). These examples of workplace discrimination display how the suppression of natural Black hair and hairstyles is enforced by racist policies that pose a serious threat to Black women’s economic and professional prospects if they refuse to conform to them. The fact remains that there is much discrimination and little appreciation of African-American beauty in the media, and the effects of that can spread to every aspect of Black women’s lives.
Asian Americans are treated differently than other minorities in Western media in that they are rarely represented at all. Mainstream Western movies and TV shows have historically excluded actors of Asian descent and the few representations of Asians we do see are either are seriously diminished or stereotyped. Karen Shimakawa wrote in her book National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage,
There was just no product to provide Asian actors with successful, financially viable acting careers in the mainstream venues of Broadway, film and television. Thus Asian American actors are caught in a casting catch-22: not deemed commercially viable, they cannot get cast in leading roles, and not being cast in such roles renders them commercially unviable.
With notable exceptions such as Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and Steven Yeun in The Walking Dead, there continues to be a systemic lack of quality roles for Asian Americans. This extends so far as to blatantly replace would-be Asian characters with White ones, a good example of this being the 2008 film 21, based on a true story of a group of MIT students who form a card counting blackjack team. The original team was composed of mostly Asian-American men, but the movie was cast with mostly White actors with only two minor roles given to Asian-American actors. Ostensibly this switch was to make the story more accessible to the mainstream White audience.
There is also a systemic tendency to desexualize Asian men in Western media. John Tehranian in his book Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority, examines how “Hollywood has persistently abetted the emasculation and desexualization of the Asian male by assiduously averting depictions of them in romantic situations” (91). He uses the example of the 2000 blockbuster Romeo Must Die, a rare instance of a Hollywood film with an Asian-American lead. The film starred Jet Li opposite R&B singer-turned-actress Aaliyah. Though she is supposed to be his romantic interest in the film, which is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, “the movie carefully avoided any intimacy, let alone a love scene, between the stars. In the movie’s most explicit moment, Li and Aaliyah briefly share a hug” (91).
More often than not, we see movies based in an Asian country but driven by a White character who acts as a proverbial fish out of water in a strange foreign environment who ultimately saves the day. Examples of this include The Last Samurai (2003) and Forbidden Kingdom (2008). The same can be seen in films involving American minority cultures such as The Blind Side (2009) and Freedom Writers (2007). The protagonist is almost always White and often saves the troubled minority character(s) in the end.
Studies show that Asian Americans have the most negative self-image of any other group, perhaps due to this persistent lack of representation in mainstream media, which contributes to a general sense of exclusion and otherness in relation to mainstream White beauty standards. In a study conducted by Peggy Chin Evans and Allen R. McConnell entitled “Do Racial Minorities Respond In The Same Way To Mainstream Beauty Standards? Social Comparison Processes In Asian, Black, And White Women,” it was found that “Black women reported the lowest need for conformity, whereas Asian women showed the highest need for conformity, exhibiting scores that even exceeded White women’s need for conformity. These results suggest that Asian women are more likely than Black women, and even White women, to value conforming to mainstream ideals” (162). In this study, Asian-American women reported poorer body image, greater body dissatisfaction, and lower self-evaluations in general than did any other race, likely due to their higher than average desire to conform to internalized White beauty standards.
The bias toward the White beauty ideal is having a global effect that has resulted in troubling and at times dangerous beauty trends in countries around the world. Skin bleaching is the most prevalent and dangerous of these trends, usually resulting in “uneven patches of depigmentation, flaky irritated skin, and mild to severe skin disorders” (Franklin 28). Indians make up the world’s largest market for these skin lighteners. This desire for fair skin is driven by its associations with wealth and status which are caused, or at least exacerbated by, exposure to Western influences. Fair skin is one of the most dominant beauty markers in Indian culture, and impacts a woman’s chances for marriage greatly. In an interview with an anonymous 25-year-old Indian woman, she revealed that dowry expectations and skin tone are inextricably linked. She stated, “If a girl is so pretty with fair skin, the guy will say anything is okay for me. Whatever the bride’s father wants to give…. In the case of the darker girl, they have to pay more dowry, some property” (Franklin 34).
India’s history of British colonization is argued to have had a major effect on the overwhelming preference for light skin today: “The British’s determination of who should comprise the country’s martial class of soldiers classified Indians into superior and inferior groups. This classification was largely established along phenotypic and caste lines” (Franklin 79). There was a strong preference for Sikhs for their fair skin “owing to the temperate climate in which they live, and among the higher castes, owing to the purity of their descent” (Franklin 80). With this reasoning, the British gave privileges to the Indians they perceived to be fairer and more refined than their counterparts. Thus divisions between castes based on perceived purity signified by light skin perpetuated “the social and financial incentive to pursue lighter skin in India. The idea than one’s appearance is a reliable indicator of their class status and social worth may have existed before colonization, but was heavily popularized by the British” (Franklin 81). This reasoning for categorizing Indians by skin colour during colonization established the colour biases that persist in India today. The desire to have fair skin has become ubiquitous in the culture, especially amongst Indian women.
Skin bleaching has thus become a widespread beauty phenomenon in India. Though it is well known for posing a myriad of health risks due to the toxic ingredients, India’s skin lightening industry, worth roughly $432 million dollars according to a 2010 report by market researchers ACNielsen (qtd. in Rajesh), is lead by the British-owned skin lightening company Fair & Lovely, “which is infamous for its advertising strategies that overtly equate fair skin with self-worth, family pride, happiness, and life opportunity” (Franklin 36). Yaba Amgborale Blay explains in her essay “Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction,”
Many people, namely those historically subjected to White domination, colonization, and enslavement, have internalized projected notions that the basis of their inferior condition is their skin color. In this context, skin bleaching would manifest as the seemingly most ‘logical’ method through which to approximate the White ideal and thus empower oneself… global White supremacy continually creates an image of itself in order to perpetuate itself, and thus continues to employ and rely upon the fabrication and projection of imagery to forcibly convince the masses, particularly those oppressed under its systemic exploitation, that the White ideal is in fact the human ideal. (37)
While it is important to remember that some aspects of colorism were preexisting in India’s long-established caste system, the Western influence has no doubt reinforced these biases and layered them with Eurocentric undertones, not only due to the history of colonialism, but also due to the steadily-growing influence of Western media.
Thankfully, there is evidence of a steadily-growing resistance to the narrow ideal of White female beauty. The fallacy of the impossible standards set against women around the world is being addressed by a movement that “recognizes that such highly exclusive physical ideals disempower not only women in the Global South, but virtually every woman who does not fit the mold of a young, tall, thin, lightly tanned white woman with long hair and wide eyes” (Franklin 101). Whiteness has always been entangled in the idea of privilege, yet “the concept of Whiteness has always been riddled with ambiguity and fluidity. There is nothing intrinsic, factual, or natural about racial categories… race is a social construct, guided in large part by performance” (Tehranian 26). It is the construction of Whiteness as the default norm that gives it power and privilege over others, and throughout much of the 20th century “Whiteness has remained an elusive, abstract, and even absurd concept with immense power” (Tehranian 14). It is this privileged position that is being questioned and revealed as false in the realms of popular media. As bell hooks points out in her book Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies,
Most filmmakers do not have to deal with the issue of race. When White males make films with all White subjects or people of color, their ‘right’ to do so is not questioned…Ironically, more than any group White men are able to make films without being subjected to a constant demand that their work not perpetuate systems of domination based on race, class and gender. As a consequence it is this work that is usually the most unthinking and careless in its depictions of groups that are marginalized by these institutionalized structures of exploitation and oppression. (69)
Greater awareness and acceptance that White supremacism is alive and well in the Western mass media – in the forms of suppression of Black ethnic beauty markers, under-representation and stereotyping of Asians, and the advertising of dangerous skin bleaching products in India and other eastern countries – are keys to fighting against it and healing the wounds it has caused. This process will open doors to new avenues for racial inclusiveness in mainstream media, which, in large and small ways, affects almost every aspect of our lives. As this new, more inclusive media landscape becomes the norm, future generations will be able to take for granted the benefits of a more welcoming and inclusive world for everyone. I would like to return to the idea of the “Shirley card” as an apt metaphor for the White bias in mainstream media that I have just examined. In the words of anthropologist Margaret Visser, “The extent to which we take everyday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives” (qtd. in Roth 132). The White bias that was built into the way skin tones were balanced in early commercial photography through “Shirley Cards” was taken for granted, at the expense of people of colour and how they would document their memories for decades to come, with film that could not fully represent them.
Blay, Yaba Amgborale. “Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction” Journal Of Pan African Studies 4.4 (2011). Web. 30 Nov. 2015.
Chin Evans, Peggy, and Allen R. McConnell. “Do Racial Minorities Respond In The Same Way To Mainstream Beauty Standards? Social Comparison Processes In Asian, Black, And White Women.”Self & Identity 2.2 (2003): 153. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
Franklin, Imani. “Living in a Barbie World: Skin Bleaching and the Preference for Fair Skin in India, Nigeria, and Thailand.” Stanford University Press, 2013. Print
hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.Lindsey, Treva B. “Black No More: Skin Bleaching And The Emergence Of New Negro Womanhood Beauty Culture.” Journal Of Pan African Studies 4.4 (2011): 97-116. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
Patton, Tracey Owens. “Hey Girl, Am I More Than My Hair?: African American Women And Their Struggles With Beauty, Body Image, And Hair.”NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006): 24-51. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
Paul, Nykhor. Web. 13 Dec. 2015. <https://www.instagram.com/p/4zVonor-ox/>.
Rajesh, Monisha. “India’s unfair obsession with lighter skin.” The Guardian (14 Aug. 2013) Web. 16 Dec. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/aug/14/indias- dark-obsession-fair-skin>.
Roth, Lorna. “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity.” Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34. 2009. Print.
Shrestha, S. “Threatening Consumption: Managing US Imperial Anxieties In Representations Of Skin Lightening In India.”Social Identities 19.1 (2013): 104-119. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
About the Author: Originally born and raised in Ottawa, Sarah Tue-Fee is a Montreal-based artist and graphic designer. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Ottawa and is currently studying graphic design at Dawson College. Her interests include ghosts, pandas, aliens and intersectional feminism. Her art can be viewed at sarahtuefee.com