Defining Beauty through a Tainted Mirror

2 Jun

“I see you getting a tan.  Better stay out of that sun, girl,” cautioned the security guard at the library near my parent’s house.

“I don’t mind,” I replied, with my Texas twang  firmly intact.

I laughed to myself, remembering the pride and accomplishment with which many of my Babson peers would return from Spring Break.  “Great tan,” would echo throughout the school, between multiple parties with freshly baked skin.

Oh how differently we define beauty.

Once upon a time, fair skin was the universal marker of beauty.

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all,” inquired the Queen in the fairy tale Snow White.

I have only recently begun to unravel the true significance of this statement.

For years, I simply interpreted the word “fairest” as a synonym for “most beautiful,” “prettiest” or “most attractive.”

Yet, Snow White’s physical description exemplifies the literal meaning of the word fair: As her name suggests, Snow White had “skin as white as snow.”

Seems that her beauty and her pale skin were linked.

Who knew?  The word fair and beauty were and still are completely interchangeable.

“Fair maiden” is a common phrase used to describe a young beauty in classic fairy tales.

And let’s not forget “My Fair Lady,” the 1964 film that starred Audrey Hepburn as a diamond-in-the-rough transformed inside and out to become the lady of her dreams.

The origins of this pursuit of fairness are logical.  Fair skin is a status symbol.  Those donning it had obviously not spent time toiling under the glare of the sun: it was a easy way to identify the proletariat from the bourgeoisie.

This  equation of fair skin with high status resonates across many cultures.

When I visited China last year, nearly every store I visited offered a row full of creams, lotions, soaps and cleansers that promised white skin.

The same assumption holds true.  Dark skin reveals one origin as a peasant or person of little means, who must work under the sun for survival.  Fair skin suggests a comfortable and even sheltered living.

In India, one’s skin color is also associated with status.  Fairer skinned Indians are deemed more attractive.  They also reside high in society.  Those with darkened skin are often relegated to society’s trenches.

And of course, the pursuit of fairness thrived and continues to reign right here in the States amongst blacks, who are still scarred by the preferential treatment of fair skin blacks historically.

The slaveowners even subjected their slaves to brown bag tests, where the skin of each slave was compared to the color of a brown paper bag.  If lighter than the bag, the slave was given domestic duty.  If darker than the bag, the slave was sent to the fields, a much dreaded fate.






The memory lives on.
Everyone seems to want to be fairer.

Everyone, that is, except those that are naturally fair.  Instead, they seem to be shedding the antiquated metric of beauty for skin kissed by the sun.

This hasn’t always been the case.

“The Romans and Greeks, for example, used lead paints and chalks to whiten their skin, often with disastrous long-term effects like lead poisoning.

Arsenic was another favorite skin whitener. . .”

“In Elizabethan England, pale-faced women would even paint blue lines on their skin to make it appear translucent, and women carried parasols to protect themselves when they went outdoors.

But since the 1920s and on, amongst certain circles, tanning has become all the rage, with those born with porcelain skin seeking bronzed and caramelized tones.

One group welcomes the rays of the sun while the rest of the world shuns its glare.

Why the shift and why hasn’t the rest of the world caught on?

Just like the quest for fairness began at the top, the quest for tanned skin began after a famed French socialite in the 1920s was seen with sun-tanned skin.

That lady was none other than Coco Chanel.

Fans loved the look so much that they sought to catch some rays of their own.

The timing was perfect. It was soon after Nobel Prize winner Niels Fin sen discovered Vitamin D as the cure to many diseases.  Vitamin D, as we all know, is a result of sun exposure.

A whole new culture was born, introducing the world to both Coppertone and bikinis.

The tanning industry is a 5 billion dollar industry speckled by products, salons, beds that all offer the temporary promise of darkened skin.

But other cultures seem to still cling to the metric of the past: For most of the world, fair skin is still in.

In example, when I first met my date’s mother, she exclaimed with glee, “You got a yellow baby,” to her son in reference to my relatively fair skin.  I scowled.

We seem to have openly accepted Western standards of beauty for so many years.  Now that magazines and television features bronzed beauties instead of pale-faced ones, will the rest of the world follow suit?

Will those of color suddenly want to be darker?

Or are we all simply forever trapped in the pursuit of something that can only be achieved artificially for a limited-time only.

That seems to be the nature of the beauty business.  And as long we all remain discontent with the skin in which we are born, they will have life-long customers for generations.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to learn to “love the skin we’re in.” (Dove Commercial Quote)

I’ll close with one of my all-time favorite songs, Unpretty by TLC.

Until next time. . .


5 Responses to “Defining Beauty through a Tainted Mirror”

  1. Aishwarya June 3, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    LaShonda, I am so glad you wrote about this! Your experiences are so similar to my own, especially with my extended family in India where even today, “fairness” is considered more attractive. I get compliments when I’m “lighter” and warnings when I’ve become “dark”. It is so insulting that ideals of beauty like this still exist even today. I was unaware that other communities have something similar as well. I thought the whole “fairness” ideal was something that was indigenous to India alone. I love the way you ended this post: “love the skin we’re in” is so apt and so true. Hopefully more and more people will subscribe to this ideal.


    • lcooksmarketer1 June 3, 2010 at 9:54 pm #

      Thanks so much, Ash. Before visiting Asia, I thought the skin-complex was limited to blacks. Apparently, people of color around the world are all torn of the issue of skin. Glad you enjoyed!


  2. Amir Dewani August 22, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    “Natural beauty needs no decoration”.

    Liked by 1 person


  1. Face Value « The Re-Education of LaShonda - August 20, 2012

    […] has gaps to fill without the scrutiny that comes with being too fair for the part. The topic is particularly touchy given the history of colorism among men and women of […]


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