I’ve been thinking about appropriation–not just cultural appropriation, but of a variation of appropriation that is equally if not just a little more sinister: the appropriation of appearance. This is something that is bodily, involves policing the autonomy itself of women of color, and results in valuing the woman wearing the imitation more than the woman whose body inspired it.
There is, in other words, a kind of appropriation that is merged with white supremacist ideals of beauty, and how, in order to remain the standard, these ideals have relied heavily on disparaging physical features of people of color that are otherwise “objectively” attractive. For example, the first thing that comes to mind are caricatures of black women’s/men’s lips as drawn by racist white artists. Because these lips are stereotyped to be fuller, they’ve been exaggerated in political and cultural cartoons/”art” to ridicule the entire black race.
But fuller lips are more appealing. And as a feature, they are not just appealing on women; they’re equally as appealing on men. I would even be so brazen as to argue that people who are attracted to men tend to prefer full lips on men–if not for the aesthetic, for the sensation. It’s bizarre then that this was one of the features chosen to be mocked. To be a little more impudent, I would go so far as to allege that it’s jealousy.
There’s historical evidence for this being a petulant act of jealousy. The hair of women of color, which tends to be thicker, more voluminous & abundant, and has the ability to hold a variety of styles with less effort, is constantly under attack as “frizzy”, “unkempt,” and altogether “unprofessional.” Consequently women of color are compelled to change our hair, sometimes at devastating (financial and personal) costs. And because most salons charge extra (typically an extra $10) to the list of provided services for women with “more hair,” not measured only in length but thickness (read: mostly just women of color) we’re not just driven to appeal to white standards of beauty but simultaneously discouraged from “raising our statuses” with these additional costs. But as Cassandre explains, black women were banned in the 1800s from showing their hair in public–not because it was unsightly but because it was too attractive:
Apparently, women of color were wearing their hair in such fabulous ways, adding jewels and feathers to their high hairdos and walking around with such beauty and pride that it was obscuring their status. This was very threatening to the social stability (read: white population) of the area at the time. The law was meant to distinguish women of color from their white counterparts and to minimize their beauty.
While women of color are discouraged from wearing their hair without flattening, thinning, chemically treating, or otherwise travelling great lengths to force it to comply with the settled string-yness of white hair, white women meanwhile seek out all means possible to thicken their hair–because, of course, white people quietly know what is actually attractive, and a function of institutionalized racism is convincing women of color that they aren’t, while white women transform themselves to have these very features. The shelves of any store selling shampoo are lined with products promising to provide volume. It doesn’t stop at hair either, of course–the descendants of white artists who parodied the lips of black men and women in outrageously racist cartoons are the first clients for lip injections that imitate the very feature they publicly disparage.
And a woman (most likely a white one) might angrily and defensively claim that I’m stretching it by including this, but, I kid you not, a white woman once tackled me in a drug store because I had picked up the last jet black mascara.
She was blonde.
So were her eyelashes. I was 17 at the time and aghast at the fact that I had just been tackled. Why do blonde women insist that their eyelashes have to be full and voluminous and jet black? Stunned as she flew out of nowhere into my vision and pried the mascara from my hands, I cried, “That doesn’t even match your hair!” It was a cruel thing to say, I realize. But by the mercy of all that is heavenly, she just, like, physically assaulted me. For mascara.
It’s characteristic of both women and men of color to have fuller and longer eyelashes, but that’s something desirable, that isn’t as prominent as hair or lips, and is thus never attributed to race. There’s a lot about “the problems with Asian hair” or “the problems with Black hair” but never about “the problems with white eyelashes.” White people, you’ve got to stop tackling me at Rite Aid with your eyelash issues, seriously.
One of the (obvious) reasons it’s so irritating that white people will often reply with, “But light skinned women tan their skin all the time!” in response to black women bleaching their skin and using harmful lightness creams is that a white woman who has tanned her skin to be the same color as a woman of color’s natural skin will be valued more highly for her beauty–even though it’s only an imitation. I don’t mean to sound all, “But are they REAL?” about this, but it’s a clear and disturbing indication of how harmful cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to appearance, is when a white woman attempts to thicken her hair, tan her skin, inject her lips, and assault a woman of color for her eyelashes and still walk out considered more beautiful. This phenomenon has all of the symptoms of a kind of appropriation: when these features/customs are worn/practiced by a white person, it’s “stylish, worldly, and beautiful”; otherwise, it’s something that needs to be altered and suppressed at all costs.