I don’t know if epiphany is the right word, and I also don’t know if I’ll come off as a jackass while relating this experience, but it was one of those moments that kind of wakes you up in a very visceral (as opposed to intellectual) way to the fact that your experience of the world is utterly foreign to someone else — even if they live in the same society, at the same income level, and have the same education as you.
So, here’s the experience: I was at the grocery store, standing in line and looking at all the magazines piled on the racks around me — Current events and entertainment and cooking and fitness and all those so-called “women’s interest” magazines.
As my gaze passed over the tight, shapely models on the various fitness magazines, I enviously noted their tight abs and narrow, muscular thighs. The headlines promised that I could look this way, too, for a mere 10 minutes of special exercise a day or slight, practically unnoticeable diet change.
I felt a slight flare of indignant frustration — while I do want to lose about 20 pounds, I do not want to be toned. I don’t want a six pack, or glistening tanned skin. I understand those things are considered attractive by many, but I don’t care. I don’t want to look like that, and I felt a flare of frustration that fitness magazines continue to perpetuate the myth that one must be toned and tanned and muscular to be considered fit. A person who is a healthy weight (but with a little jiggle or padding to them) and lives an active lifestyle (but wears sunscreen and isn’t tanned) is somehow “not fit”.
I wished they had a normal-sized woman on there, and I began scanning the magazine covers, looking for even one model I could relate to — just one who wasn’t unrealistic and photoshopped into unattainable perfection. Only one came even remotely close — I can’t remember what it was called (edit: googled it, it’s called “More”), but Queen Latifah beamed out at me from the cover.
I stared at her a moment, thinking about the fact that whenever I see a larger woman on a magazine, she’s invariably old (Paula Deen) or black (Oprah, Queen Latifah). I began re-scanning the magazine covers, planning on counting how many larger black ladies vs. average-sized black ladies vs. skinny black ladies I saw.
That’s when I realized something stunning: Out of all those magazines, only one had a minority featured on the cover. Every single other magazine had skinny, tall white ladies with long silky hair and a smoldering or confrontational gaze. Their hair and eyes were all different shades, but their skin was white –tanned white or porcelain white, but always white. Except for the one magazine with Queen Latifah, there were no covers featuring minority models of any other race.
When the realization hit me, I felt a sort of reeling disassociation. I tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in line and gaze at magazine covers that rarely to never acknowledged my existence.
I imagined being a mother of another race, watching my daughter or son internalize these messages of what is beautiful and acceptable and right. I looked back at my teen years, and wondered how much harder they would have been if I’d been black or Asian or Hispanic, and gotten this repeated societal message that white women were the beauty standard I needed to aspire to.
Obviously, I knew about this. In an intellectual way. I’ve read about how the feminist movement differs between white and non-white communities. I’ve read about how black barbies are just white barbies with brown paint — the features are still white, the hair doesn’t change in texture. The message is the same unattainable ideal everyone attributes to Barbie, but with the added insult that only white features are beautiful and acceptable, even if the skin is brown.
I’ve read about minorities in media, and the lack of strong lead roles for minority women. I read a fascinating essay from a young black women who was moved by the character Uhura in Star Trek. She made a point I’d never considered before: as females, we have few enough strong, intelligent, independent female role models in sci-fi and fantasy, and for minority women, the pickings are even slimmer. The essay was in a livejournal post, back when J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie first came out. I tried to find it and couldn’t. If I do, I’ll link to it.
I read the essay, “What if White Women Were Black
?” with it’s fascinating and enlightening comparisons and reversals of “pure” sexual traits/ features to “impure” ones, and how these subconscious preconceptions contribute to ongoing victimization and justification of sexual assault.
I’ve studied privilege in society, male privilege and white privilege and feminine privilege. I knew about white female privilege in an intellectual, detached way — but standing there in the grocery line, looking at the magazines all around me with white cover models, I felt suddenly furious and ashamed at once. Furious at the stupid blindness of our society, of our cultural unwillingness to include representations from all walks of life. Ashamed at how I’d never really noticed all the white girls on the magazines before, despite the many voices that had pointed this phenomenon out to me.
I guess . . . this is a recounting of one of those moments when the world shifts under you for a moment, and you really realize that you don’t understand the world at all. It was the disorienting shift from an intellectual awareness of a problem to a more visceral, felt sort of knowledge — but with the shuddering realization that any understanding I have gained is just a drop in the bucket.