Home Sunday Commentary In the Garden of English Roses

In the Garden of English Roses


[Originally published at Black Feminist Rising on July 20, 2013. Republished with permission of the author.]

Ugly. Is irrelevant. It is an immeasurable insult to a woman, and then supposedly the worst crime you can commit as a woman. But ugly, as beautiful, is an illusion” – Margaret Cho, Comedian

A few weeks ago, actor Dustin Hoffman made headlines when a clip from an interview gained popularity online. In the clip, Hoffman discusses the reasons behind the film “Tootsie” and why he was so compelled to the film. The clip gained popularity not just because it reiterated what women already know–but because it was a man saying what women already know.
In an October 2012 Ted Talk, model Cameron Russell spoke about female beauty. Russell said she had won a “genetic lottery,” and that people of color, short people, heavier people–were all at a disadvantage. Russell said that even though she’s a top model, she’s insecure–something that is blatantly obvious throughout her speech.

When returning from a road trip, I stopped at Wal-Mart and picked up the June/July issues of Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Glamour, respectively.
white models on fashion magazine covers
All of the issues featured white women.
All three were skinny, had porcelain skin and big bright smiles with shiny white teeth.
I bought the magazines specifically for a blog post that I wanted to dedicate to female beauty. But honestly, I rarely buy women’s magazines because I can never find images of “me.”
They also have a strange way of telling you to “be yourself” but most importantly, to be the whiter, skinnier, fitter, healthier, funnier, younger, more willing to party and hookup but not slutty–version of yourself.
They effectively mirror the conflicting views women are told all their lives about what they should know in terms of health, beauty, sex, relationships and education.
The next morning, I spent two hours counting all of the images in the magazines.
The front and back covers on all of the magazines featured white models.
For all of the magazines, more than 80% percent of the images of women were white.
In the 682 combined images of women, 324 of them were women of color. These women were often celebrities–Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Mendez, Janelle Monet, Jennifer Hudson and Rihanna.
And these weren’t just fashion photos, they were ads for medicine, mental illness and other serious issues that people need to be informed on.
Blacks were the most represented minority, while Asians were the least represented.
Even now, when Google imaging the word “Beauty,” all of the images were of women, and in wasn’t until the 27th row that an image of a minority showed up.
When standing in front of the magazine display in the store and seeing the only women of color were on the covers of Cosmopolitan LatinaEbony and Black hair magazines, I felt a bit insecure.
And how could I not?
The message is very clear–there is a standard of beauty that I don’t live up to, and not a lot of female friends do either–despite them all being extremely intelligent, active in the community and campus and super ambitious. Hell, even the models themselves don’t live up to it.
I agree with Cho that beauty is an illusion, and so are the standards. But the consequences of these illusions are very real and very costly.
They’ve created a funnel in which few women can slip through–and if they do by chance make it through–they realize that they can’t grasp it.
Female beauty in Western culture is the Green Light.
And this isn’t some dystopian statement–it’s happening right now. Studies have shown that that almost 1/3 of elementary school girls report being insecure about their looks and the rate of teenage plastic surgery has grown exponentially. Studies focusing on how  teachers interact with different genders have shown that girls are more likely to be complimented on their appearance and manners than their intelligence.
When’s the last time you’ve seen an image of a woman with stretchmarks? Without it being for an ad to remove them?
When’s the last time you’ve seen images of curvy women, without it being for a weight loss ad, or an “embrace yourself” article in a women’s mag, only for the following article to be, “5 Ways to Look Good in Your Bikini?”
We almost always make complex issues such as female beauty an argument solely built on straw men. But this isn’t a Black or White , a rich or poor, or a men v. women issue. It’s a complex issue in which its building blocks span decades and centuries of influence, popular thought and power.
But most importantly, a world in which women cannot believe in themselves and constantly have to look for praise instead of embracing self-fulfillment, is a world in which the human race cannot survive.

It’s very easy to talk about the problem, isn’t it?
Harder to find the solution.

“Pretty,” a spoken word poem by Katie Makkai


  1. We know different cultures may have different perceptions and definitions of beauty or even thinness, since Asian women considered to be of normal weight and figure in an Asian culture may be considered underweight or anorexic by Westerner ideas of body size. But the central issue here is not so much cultural definitions of beauty or body size – it is the dangerous lengths some people will go in order to achieve those ideals. Essentially, women are viewing a distorted reality and holding themselves to the unattainable standard set by the non-reality of popular media – and most often, those standards are based on oppressive, power-laden ideals of whiteness.