By Rhoda Gao
Image by Cindy El Sayed
Well, if you’re ethnic, or something.
Was the cry that ethnic women, fat women, and the like, did not have to conform to Western ideals of beauty refreshing in the sixties? The cry is today echoed by everyone, from states, interest groups, East Asian plastic surgeons, to Chris Rock, to Meghan Trainor. The voice is unanimous: “these women are beautiful too.” Heck, all women are beautiful.
My discomfort with this discourse started thanks to a high school economics teacher – he said, “The demand for labour is derived demand.” McDonald’s cashiers are wanted because burgers are wanted. Likewise, women with the right waist-hip ratio were desirable because fertility was desirable, and it stuck. Often women wanted light skin, because it implied their wealth excused them from outdoor work, and it stuck. For too long, Chinese women had bound feet because it indicated obedience and daintiness (well done, Men! Marked for wealth and virtue!), and it stuck too. It stuck until history changed what indicated the primordial triad of values: virtue, health and wealth.
It sounds like a paint by numbers chore now, but I am not saying a Stone Age chauvinist with an ENTP Myers-Briggs score woke up one day and said, “Right! We like them symmetrical. Big boobs, small waist, and eyes not too close together please. Shows they’re healthy and wealthy, which is good for me.” I believe whole villages, whole towns, whole states, whole empires of men (and women) gradually thought and bought that. They affirmed it until beauty became a value in its own right. With the advent of modern imperialism and globalisation, race got into it like never before. The range of physical criteria to choose and craft “beauty” out of grew broader.
African American women did not start relaxing their hair, and East Asian women did not start curling them en masse in the jazz age because White was automatically beautiful. White, among other things, indicated class, power, modernity, which hangs around the “wealth” camp – and that made it beautiful. Herein lies the problem: Being physically beautiful only means you have something that is considered good in almost everyone’s opinion. That’s pretty dope; but it does not mean value, it only means acceptance.
When the chorus chants “Black/big/monolid/[insert something wrong here] is beautiful”, it is not a chant of self-determination. It is a prayer to be accepted, to be included as being beautiful too. Pick me! Pick me! – to be accepted into that exotic/disabled aisle. The calls of “Pick me! Pick me!” will extend the aisle longer and longer, till the manager decides it is too long and they should section it off, put it back into inventory, or do a stocktake sale one day, or something.
If I could change discourse, the chant would be “___ is ugly! I am ugly” – because ugly is ok. We do not need to be beautiful – the value of beauty is just derived value.
You have every reason to judge this as too abstract, too artsy, too impractical. I’m not sure about the first two accusations, but it is definitely impractical. Corsets were impractical too. So was foot-binding. So are high heels. We recognise beauty because we bought it. Let’s buy into ugliness.