The Case for Race Against the Thin Ideal

“Beauty is in the
eye of the beholder.” For many, this idiom of beauty appreciation feels
inclusive. It seems to say that different people have different ideas about
what is beautiful. Simple enough. But how does this concept pan out when most
of the beholders seem similar? Let me be more specific: What happens when we think that all the beholders are
similar, when we think they share the
same eye for beauty?

The last
question arises due to what psychology professor Barbara Frederickson termed in
1997 as “self-objectification.” Self-objectification describes the process of
viewing oneself as an object or sight to be appreciated by others. This
perspective of self continually puts one in the eye of the beholder, often
leading to constant monitoring of the body’s outward appearance.

theory hardly seems new. We’ve heard it all before: ‘Don’t objectify me’; ‘I’m not a piece of meat’; etc. We know it’s wrong
to objectify anyone, to reduce anyone down to their physical body. If we’re
aware of its inappropriateness, why is it still relevant?

We live in a
culture saturated with sexual objectification of bodies, especially those
belonging to women of color. They are often exoticized and therefore seen and
treated as objects. I have even experienced this in a professional setting, where
an interviewer was more interested in my ethnicity that my credentials. As
females’ success is frequently linked to appearance, I have often felt
hyper-vigilant of my physical ‘otherness.’ It is not surprising that women of
color feel constantly objectified by others. In turn, they self-objectify and
learn to view their bodies as objects, too.

Raised by a
media-dominated culture, we learn through image and in America, these images often
fail to accurately represent what the large majority of women actually look
like. They often hyper-sexualize the female body, as well as misrepresent our
country’s true ethnic makeup. The majority of models in magazines, actresses on
TV, and celebrities in Hollywood fit a strict idea of beauty—one based on the white and thin ideal. As consumers of such images, we have come to
internalize this unrealistic ideal, which can be especially distressing for
women of color.

The trend
toward self-objectification permeates our Claremont bubble. Evident in a
fairly steady stream of posts on the Claremont Confession Facebook page, body
image and appearance occupy the minds of many female students. In particular,
women of color have expressed feeling an overwhelming pressure to fit into the thin, white American ideal.

proposes several psychological consequences of self-objectification, including
increased body shame and anxiety, decreased flow (the enjoyable state of
being fully absorbed in a physical or mental activity), and decreased
interoception (awareness of internal bodily states).

However, for
Claremont students, self-objectification doesn’t just translate to lower
self-esteem (which is hard enough)—it can also lead to lower grades. A 2006
study at the University of Michigan found that self-objectification interferes with attention and performance at a very basic level.

For 5C women of
color who already face stereotype threat (anxiety that one will confirm a
negative stereotype about their social group) in class, self-objectification
appears to add to the ways that racial identity prevents their success on

Strong racial
identity might seem to exacerbate the general bodily differences of women of
color from the thin, white American ideal—which can be internalized more at the
5Cs, a predominantly white space. Thus, 5C women of color may be more
susceptible to self-objectification body image concerns.

2013 research has found that strong multiculturally inclusive racial-identity
attitudes moderate the relationship between sexually objectifying experiences
and internalized sociocultural standards of beauty. In short, an attitude
appreciative of racial identity can act as a buffer against the internalization
of our culture’s unrealistic beauty ideals. 

So how can we
level the playing field for 5C women of color? In a perfect world, our culture
would promote a racially inclusive beauty ideal. But the world we live in is
not perfect, and neither is Claremont. To be sure, we can’t change the images
we see in media, but we as 5C students can work on developing stronger
multiculturally inclusive racial-identity attitudes. A perfect example is the
Women’s Union event “Dismantling Beauty,” which challenges standard definitions of
beauty. Support for the creation of such spaces and participation in these
dialogues is everyone’s responsibility.

Until that
perfect day, forget if anyone is looking and remember that you are beautiful
just the way (and color) you are.

Hannah Lea Doruelo PO ’16 is an intended Public Policy Analysis – Psychology major and French minor from Chicago, Illinois.

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