On perceptions of beauty and race, with film recommendations

The availability heuristic is often summed up as the human tendency to think that easier something is to remember, the more frequently it must occur. Another neat summary, this time from a Wikipedia contributor, runs as follows:

“The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind.”

 

It can cause us to make a number of errors, such as overestimating the prevalence of a given phenomenon following an increase in media coverage of that phenomenon. By extension, it also causes us to accept as ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ occurrences or phenomena that are in reality only one version from within a wide range of possibilities. Another error we make for this reason, is the association of groups of people with certain traits or characteristics based on depictions of those persons in the media.

 

An example might be associating people from the Middle-east with violent extremism because international news coverage for that region is focused on warfare and violence, providing our minds with a disproportionate number examples of overlap between people of a certain religion, appearance or nationality, with those traits.

 

Similarly, media depictions of certain traits can be disproportionately linked to a given group of people. An example might be when national crime reporting unnecessarily specifies the nationality of a suspect when they are not native to the country, but often omits the nationality (or race) of a suspect when it is in line with majority of the population. Violence, theft or other acts are therefore disproportionately linked with minority races or nationalities in the public mind.

 

This undercurrent of media influence is what prompts much of the research on gender and media, such as the findings shared in this recent post on the visibility and representation of women in mainstream film.

 

Today’s post concentrates on a subject equally vulnerable to media-influence, our concept of beauty, particularly female beauty. Advertising, film, television, magazines and so on, heavily lean toward one, very specific, depiction of female beauty. That depiction influences our social norms and our beauty ideals.

 

We all know the depictions of female beauty in the media are less than genuine. We know about photoshop, professional lighting and make up. We also know they tend towards one body type, including weight range, height, bust etc. Considering how much alteration these images undergo and the very selective representation of women, we also know that the body type depicted is considerably more rare in reality, than it is in our media. These depictions present a fiction as a reality and make it the goal and the expectation.

 

But what about race? When you think of “female beauty” as depicted in the media, how many of the related images in your mind involve women of colour?

 

Media depictions of beauty also create another norm; they promote a predominantly white beauty ideal. Depictions that do involve women of colour often represent them as “exotic”, a distinctly “othering” term with highly sexual connotations. Black women in particular are sometimes portrayed as bestial, animalistic and thus quite literally de-humanized, while the implied “wildness” heavily sexualizes them. You may also notice that the media more often displays black women with features more typically associated with whiteness, such as lighter skin and chemically relaxed hair, rather than with natural hair.

 

This leads us to the first of two documentary suggestions, looking at predominantly female-centred beauty ideals as they intersect with race; Chris Rock’s Good Hair. As informative as it is entertaining, this film explores what is meant by the term “good hair”, the business behind it and the worrying perceptions that some people appear to have of natural hair, considering it less presentable, less professional and less attractive.

 

For me, the most affecting aspect of this film was seeing women in India have their hair removed, ostensibly for religious sacrifice, only for the hair to be later sold to distributors in the United States and elsewhere. Suppliers will eventually sell the hair to a predominantly female, African American customer base as one means of conforming to the innately prejudiced beauty ideal dominating society.

 

If you have a particular interest in this topic, you might enjoy reading, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” by co-authors Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, originally published in 2002 and now updated for 2014.

 

The second film I want to recommend is entitled Dark Girls, by film-makers D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke.

 

Dark Girls explores the concept of colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker to describe discrimination and prejudice based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. The term is usually only applied to prejudice occurring within one’s own race. The film doesn’t limit itself to the United States; and while it discusses the white beauty ideal in mainstream media as one factor, it also covers the historical causes related to white imperialism and slavery.

 

Following the release of Dark Girls, a news discussion featured a short excerpt from the movie, showing a brief clip of some telling research on children’s perceptions of others, based on skin colour.

Sadly, the clip is representative of the majority findings of the study, both black and white children displayed a bias in favour of whiteness. The bias was stronger among the white children. And the study also found little difference among the two age groups involved 4-5 and 9-10 years old.

Finally, I leave you with the video below, an award winning short film, entitled “A Girl Like Me”. Even if you watch nothing else recommend in this post, I urge you to watch this.

Despite a running time of only seven minutes, it manages to express the broad scope of its topic. In the interview-based début documentary by director Kiri Davis, a series of young black women express views on physical appearances including skin colour and hair, societal perceptions and expectations, and the impact culture can have on self-esteem and identity.

 

 

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