For black lives to matter, all looks must matter

by Asif Ali
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By now we are well aware that institutional racism affects not one individual but the entire fabric of society; the idea of white supremacy woven into minor and major aspects of life including access to jobs, education, politics, health care, lifestyle, and entertainment. It is also no secret that in mass media culture the preference of Eurocentrism and Eurocentric standards of beauty have permeated globally. From Hollywood to Bollywood, as influential stars like Priyanka Chopra, Blake Lively, Janhvi Kapoor, Preity Zinta, Shahid Kapoor, and Halle Berry seek cosmetic surgeries to mold their facial features to appear more Eurocentric, they are revising cultural identity, erasing ancestral roots, and directly contributing to the institutional platform of racism. Additionally, endorsement of skin-whitening creams and undergoing skin lightening, a practice quite common in the Bollywood industry, undermines physical and authentic representations of ethnicity and reaffirms the importance of looking “white.”

If beauty is indeed diverse and subjective and nuanced, is it not interesting that those who undergo cosmetic treatment seek the same uniform homogenous physical standards – light skin, small narrow nose, big eyes, and a thin frame. East Asian women receive double eyelid surgery to conform to this white notion of beauty. In Asia’s Ideal beauty: Looking Caucasian, published by CNN Health, Dr. Anthony Youn writes “To put it bluntly: facial plastic surgery on Asians is about making a person look as Caucasian as possible.”

In cosmetic surgery it is rare that a wider nose or smaller eyes are requested when one chooses to alter their facial features. Emulating Eurocentric features contributes to the internalized self-hatred that ethnicities have for their natural inherent looks. It is also a direct result of the racism instilled in individuals by society from a young, impressionable age. In this way, cosmetic surgery to make features Eurocentric is an endless cycle and a physical example of institutionalized racism that has informed the mainstream and become the beauty standard globally. It confirms the racist and deeply problematic belief that “white is beautiful.” Contemporary media is an abettor in this. Magazines and TV adverts and films constantly showcase white women as the ideal of beauty. To add to this, influencers and role models including Bollywood and Hollywood actors are rarely directly questioned about their cosmetic surgery decisions. In fact, it’s touted as one’s own “choice” to change one’s physical features to make them more comfortable in their own skin (note the oxymoron here). Which would be fine, if the physical features that were sought after were as diverse and heterogeneous as beauty is. However, changing physical features to fit the same reductive western ideals of beauty is as much a choice as it is for an abused victim to continue to live with her abuser. Rather than the individual, it is society making that choice. The acceptance of cosmetic surgery towards Eurocentric features normalizes racism and is one of the biggest forms of cultural erasure we are currently undergoing as a society.

Recently few attempts have been made to disbar these standards of beauty, with plus-sized models, black is beautiful campaigns, and a few Indian actors speaking out against endorsement of fairness creams. However, one plus-size model among a thousand rail-thin ones, or one dark-skinned model among a plethora of light-skinned models does not a statement make. If art were to actually imitate life as it should, the tall, thin, light-skinned model with the small narrow nose would be the exception in a glossy page of plus-sized men and women with dark skin, wide noses, and big lips. In Bollywood there would be more actors resembling Radhika Apte or Nawazuddin Siddiqui than Katrina Kaif.

The advent of social media has enhanced systemic racism. If racism is defined simply as seeing people superficially based on the color of their skin, why is black skin not seen as beautiful? The social media era has become the era of superficiality, where photos are preferred over words, and every non-white “influencer” with curves, a flat nose and dark skin, photoshop themselves to appear less ethnic; an emblem of generational self-hatred for one’s own physicality. A time when online trolls sway the public sentiment, a filter weighs more than feelings, and a glossed-up photo trumps academia and intellect is clearly not a time of looking beyond the surface. But even if we take superficiality as the lowest common denominator, why are non-euro features such as a wide nose, small eyes, curly hair, dark skin, and a curvy figure not looked on as attractive? Because institutional racism is embedded and pervasive at its best. It is dangerous and criminal at its worst.

Today more than ever it is imperative that we protest against systemic racism. Given the current geopolitical climate and ongoing pandemic, when every breath we take is a thank you to the universe for letting us live, let’s fight for black lives to matter. For black looks to matter. For our lives to matter, our faces, our looks, our heritage, our voices, our identity need to matter. For one cannot thrive without the others. It may have been institutionalized racism that contributed to the horrid murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, among others, but every individual who has opted to change themselves to fit this racist mold, every famous actor who has undergone cosmetic surgery, every social media influencer who photoshops their pictures to appear more white, every TV and magazine and film that sponsors these racist ideals of beauty, and every consumer who has complicity accepted these reductive ideals, have propagated and contributed to these murders. In this perhaps we should all be held accountable.

“The village calls her the dark girl, but to me she is the flower of the night, I have seen her beautiful dark doe eyes. . .she is dark as the message of shower in summer, dark as the shade of flowering woodland, she is dark as longing for unknown love in the wistful night.” The song Krishnakoli on internalized racism was penned by Rabindranath Tagore in the 1900s, much ahead of its time. Given today’s global institutionalized beauty ideals, I wonder if Tagore would consider us to be progressing forward or retreating back.

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