Mass media is a powerful communication tool which produces prepackaged ideas of women. These ideas frame the dominant discourse that society holds in regard to women. Through mass media, we consume ideas of how women should be, what they should do, and how they should look like. Mass media constructs societal ideas of beauty and women; it defines our beauty ideals and we learn that beauty must fit into the narrow criteria that the media presents.
Predominantly, the media portrays thin, white women with large breasts, blue eyes, a small waist, small facial features, and light coloured hair as the beauty ideal. In her book, “Writing Beyond Race: Living theory and practice,” bell hooks explains, “the politics of white supremacy creates an aesthetic where the color and texture of hair determines value, setting standards where lighter, straighter, and longer hair equates with beauty and desirability” (hooks, 15).
This beauty ideal is seen presented across multiple forms of media such as film, television, advertisements, and magazines. The image of the ideal woman is constantly repeated throughout these various forms of media and society repeatedly receives the message that this is what women must look like to be considered beautiful.
Mass media uses the textual technique of repetition in order to persuade us of its’ constructed image of ideal beauty and to anchor its’ message that women must look this way. We see images of blue-eyed, blonde women so frequently, we increasingly become “accustomed to blue-eyed blondes seductively touting a variety of products” (Kilbourne).
With a significant lack of diverse representations of women in the media, we learn that only a single type of beauty exists. Upon examination of the representations of women in the media, it is clear that representation across multiple groups of gender, race, ability, age, class, etc. are largely excluded.
Beauty standards, explains Christine C. Iijima Hall, ” are primarily based on Caucasian-European-American ideals. Society is deluged with this beauty ideal constantly through media. People furthest from this ideal, specifically women of color, may suffer the psychological effects of low self-esteem, poor body image, and eating disorders” (8).
Girls and women of colour learn that the essentialist, biological elements of their identity are not desirable. Mass media sells and persuades women of colour that they can achieve impossible biological ideals, however, this is not true. The beauty standard that the media portrays is unattainable and especially distorts the perception of identity for girls and women of colour.
Girls and women of colour do not have the agency to change their ethnicity to model the image of the white, blonde, blue-eyed archetype of beauty as depicted in the media. Furthermore, the lack of representation of diverse groups is problematic as it affirms the marginalization of oppressed groups.
It actively legitimizes the dominance and normalization of white power and privilege as the only representation of beauty that is portrayed is one constructed by the white gaze. Considering the diverse and particular ways that dominant beauty standards position women of colour, beauty standards maintain racial and gender inequality (Craig 163).
Mass media also perpetuates the idea that women of colour are “the other” which the beauty ideal defines itself in contrast (Kwan and Trautner 61). Slim, white women with smooth hair and fair skin and eyes are normalized whereas any women who does not fit the beauty ideal are otherized.
Mass media delivers society messages deeply embedded in ideologies which bell hooks describes as, “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (4). hooks explains that “this phrase is useful precisely because it does not prioritize one system over another but rather offers a way to think about the interlocking systems that work together to uphold and maintain cultures of domination” (4).
It is important to consider who the media producers are and to determine who makes the media, writes the stories, and perpetuates the ideologies of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. Examining who the producers of the standard of beauty are reveals that the producers or encoders of these messages are also the ones who hold dominant power and privilege in society. The social construction of the beauty ideal reflects men’s institutions and men’s institutional power (Wolf 13). Society is the audience that consumes these messages of beauty that is delivered by the dominant class.
Because the images we see of women are so deeply entrenched in imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, we internalized it and learn to perceive beauty through the white gaze. We learn through various institutions such as family, friends, community, religion, and school. Yet, media proves to be a powerful institution through which we learn about the world.
Sut Jhally discusses the power of visual images in IMaged Based Culture, stating:
Given that our understanding of reality is always socially constructed (that “ideology” is present in any system or situation), visual images are the central mode through which the modern world understands itself. Images are the dominant language of the modern world. We are stuck with them (Jhally 256).
We model what is given to us and what is repeatedly given to us is a narrow socially constructed idea of beauty. Children are incredibly impressionable and internalize what they see. Kilbourne states that “adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they are new and inexperienced consumers and are the prime targets of many advertisements. They are in the process of learning their values and roles and developing their self-concepts.”
Media depictions laden with embedded imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy ideologies influence what children learn about their identity and the world around them. “Young women hold racist beauty ideals” (De Casanova and Erynn 287) because racist beauty ideals is what is delivered to society by mass media. bell hooks elaborates, stating: “white supremacist thinking is seeping into the heads of children who cannot protect their minds from the ideas entering their consciousness through mass media, especially television” (159).
Especially for girls and women of colour, attaining physical traits such as white skin, blue eyes, blonde smooth hair which depict the white beauty archetype, is largely unrealistic. hooks explains that, among other forms of media, “it is primarily television images which mirror white supremacist aesthetics” (154).
Society learns that the single representation of beauty – being white and slim with smooth, blonde hair, and blue eyes – is the only image of beauty. Therefore, we learn that other women and girls are not beautiful. Kilbourne further explains how powerful the media institutionalizes distorted perceptions of beauty, stating:
There is the real tragedy, that many women internalize these stereotypes and learn their “limitations,” thus establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one accepts these mythical and degrading images, to some extent one actualizes them. By remaining unaware of the profound seriousness of the ubiquitous influence, the redundant message and the subliminal impact of advertisements, we ignore one of the most powerful “educational” forces in the culture — one that greatly affects our self-images, our ability to relate to each other, and effectively destroys any awareness and action that might help to change that climate (Kilbourne).
A diverse group of women exist and it is important that there is a wide representation of various groups across race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and more. We need to acknowledge, criticize, and deconstruct the internalized and conditioned messages that mass media has constructed in order to decolonize our minds and build healthy perceptions of identity and esteem. Social and cultural histories and relations may inform people’s experiences and realities but we possess the agency to change the way it affects our consciousness, ideas, and perceptions.
In order to construct a strong capacity to reflect on our experiences and outlooks, the ideologies embedded in media images must be challenged and images of diversity need to be included within the media. Girls and women of colour need to know that their image not only exists – but is beautiful, worthy, and important. Challenging imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ideologies is crucial in order to foster healthy environments for girls and women of colour, among other marginalized groups. As bell hooks states, “when we call attention to the conditions needed for the growth of healthy self-esteem, work that must begin with childhood, we help create an environment where white supremacy can by challenged in all its many manifestations” (hooks, 159).
Models: Malia and Kiana Belan, age 4
This project was motivated by my own personal struggles with concepts of beauty and race as a Khmer girl growing up in Canada surrounded by media images of white beauty. Throughout my adolescence, I wished for white skin, smooth blonde hair, and blue eyes. I once lied about my appearance on an online chat website stating that I was a white female with blue eyes and light brown, straight hair – constructing a false image of myself according to what I learned was considered to be beautiful by societal ideals. It has been a long process of decolonizing my mind and learning to accept myself entirely.
I sought to shoot photographs to represent the struggle that women of colour face with concepts of race and beauty as a result of media images. Through these photographs, I wanted to portray the gaze from different perspectives – the white supremacist, imperialistic, capitalist, patriarchal gaze that society holds as well as the internal gaze that women of colour personally hold of themselves.
The number of dolls in the photographs are used to depict the repetition of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal beauty ideal that we constantly consume through the media. I wanted to emphasize how these ideologies are repeatedly embedded into our perceptions and thinking through the repeated use of the dolls in the photographs.
I used Khmer-Czech twins, Malia and Kiana Belan to model in the photographs to illustrate the struggle between ourselves and societal standards of beauty that women have. Kiana, dressed in hyper feminine clothing and in a blonde wig, represented the identity constructed to societal standards of beauty whereas Malia, dressed in gender neutral clothing, represented a natural, essentialist identity.
During the shoot, I allowed Malia and Kiana to explore the magazine, photographs, and dolls on their own while I observed and photographed their behaviour. I found it shocking to witness how quickly the girls picked up on the media images and imitated what they saw. For example, upon looking at images of a woman putting on lipstick, the girls later imitated putting on lipstick themselves. Later, when presented with an array of photographs depicting women of different ethnicity, the girls picked the white woman when questioned which woman they thought was the most beautiful.
This experiment with Malia and Kiana illustrates how quickly the deeply embedded ideologies within media images affect our consciousness, ideas, and perceptions of beauty and race. Overall, the twins’ reaction reveal the need for a more diverse representation of women in the media in order to challenge the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ideologies and make progress towards a more healthy environment for girls and women of colour, among other marginalized groups.
C. Iijima Hall , Christine . “Asian Eyes: Body Image and Eating Disorders of Asian and Asian American Women.”Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention 3 (1995): 8.Taylor and Francis Online.
Craig, M. L.. “Race, Beauty, And The Tangled Knot Of A Guilty Pleasure.”Feminist Theory 7.2 (2006): 159-177. Print.
De Casanova, Erynn M.. ““No Ugly Women”: Concepts Of Race And Beauty Among Adolescent Women In Ecuador.”Gender & Society 18.3 (2004): 287-308. Print.
Hooks, Bell. Writing beyond race: living theory and practice. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Kilbourne, Jean. “Beauty…and the Beast of Advertising.” Center for Media Literacy. N.p., n.d. <http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/beautyand-beast-advertising>.
Kwan, Samantha, and Mary Nell Trautner. “Beauty Work: Individual and Institutional Rewards, the Reproduction of Gender, and Questions of Agency.” Sociology Compass 3.1 (2009): 61. Wiley Online Library.
Dines, Gail, Jean McMahon Humez, and Sut Jhally. “IMaged-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture.”Gender, race, and class in media: a text-reader. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995. 256. Print.
Wolf, Naomi. The beauty myth: how images of beauty are used against women. New York: W. Morrow, 1991. Print.