When I came back from the study abroad program in India, a heated debate took place during my group’s post-trip meeting.
Some of us brought up that when we were visiting an orphanage, a little girl was holding a Barbie with gold hair, blue eyes and fair skin. It turns out that all of her dolls look like this, with distinctive Caucasian features. One Case Western Reserve University student asked, “ Do you have a doll that looks like you?” The kid looked pretty surprised and just said, “She’s beautiful.”
She seemed to never have thought of having a toy that looked like her. In her mind, beauty was fair skin, blue eyes and gold hair.
During the trip, girls from our group were constantly complimented. “ You are pretty.” “ Your eyes look so beautiful.” “ I like your hair.” While we gratefully accepted these compliments, we couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable in the meantime. When they said “you are pretty,” we heard “Caucasian features are pretty.”
Sitting on the bus and looking outside the window, I was captivated by the billboards and street advertisements we passed by. A majority of them, especially when related to beauty products and fashion, used Caucasian models for demonstration, even though they were selling indigenous products targeted at local people. This phenomena is not uncommon in my home country of China as well— products sell better with a Western face on the commercial.
During our meeting, we all expressed how we were struck by the symbolization of beauty. While there are a million other ways to define beauty, somehow it is restricted to a specific set of physical features, like light skin color. In an interview of Radhika Parameswaran, who studies colorism in India, she stated her belief that colonialism could have contributed to colorism just as slavery helped perpetuate skin color hierarchy in the U.S. Granted, many factors play a role in people’s perception of beauty, but colonization is at least one that shapes the aestheticization of Caucasian features.
I have to admit I felt privileged in India. We had special tunnels entering the temple; we were not charged at public restrooms; we were constantly asked to take selfies with excited locals. Every time things like this happened, I hated to link them with the idea of colonialism. However, I couldn’t help but realize that even in today’s world, hundreds of years after colonization, its heritage is still affecting us. Parameswaran also mentioned in her interview that the tendency of worshiping Caucasian physical features is not limited to India.
Even in countries like China, which was once invaded but had never been fully colonized by any country, I still couldn’t ignore the yearning in the whole society for a standardized western beauty. When I searched “make-up tutorial” in Bilibili, one of the largest video websites in China, I found a whole category called “Euro-American Makeup”. In these videos, the hosts would teach the audience how to use makeup skills to make their faces look like Americans and Europeans. When I looked up most popular choices for plastic surgery, I found procedures to lift the bridge of the nose, expand the eyes, thicken the lips: surgeries that make people look like Caucasians.
A terrifying idea is that colonialism is no longer about a specific event or history, but instead has become a culture. For that girl in the orphanage, that Barbie was her understanding of beauty. At such a young age, she was already convinced that the ideal look is not one that resembles her or anyone around her. Moreover, the dolls were likely to be donated to the orphanage. Intentionally or not, the culture was exported and is still being exported.
While most American girls are worrying about their height and their weight, girls in countries like India have one more thing added to their list— they are not Caucasian enough. We realize that the modern society is symbolizing beauty, but in other parts of the world it is symbolized in another sense, or acculturated. This trend is further strengthening white supremacy in our post-colonization world. While we promote a diversity of beauty, we should also realize that such diversity should not be restricted to western societies. And we can start by stopping the practice of giving only white Barbies to Indian kids.
Yingying Cai is a first-year anthropology major.