Jeon: Cherishing Bodies of Color
In Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye,” the young black female protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, longs for a pair of blue eyes. She sees white features à la Shirley Temple as inherently more beautiful and valuable than hers. Pecola’s self-loathing is made all the more heartbreaking by her mother’s reminders that she is an ugly, unlovable child. The internalized racism and colorism portrayed in the novel are topics seldom discussed among people of color in the United States and abroad. Yet I have seen how these destructive sentiments permeate the fabric of American and Korean societies, and no doubt they affect many others as well.
Evidence shows that whiteness is privileged in the mass media. A 2015 University of California at Los Angeles study on the racial composition of the Hollywood entertainment industry found that although non-white peoples constitute almost 40 percent of the U.S. population in 2013, they remain outnumbered by whites in media representations. In film, the racial ratios favor whites by greater than two to one for lead roles, two to one for directors, and three to one for writers. Likewise, minorities are underrepresented in lead and creative roles by similar or larger ratios in broadcast and cable shows.
These statistics mean that millions of children of color grow up consuming movies and television programs that implicitly validate the physical appearances, behaviors and lifestyles common among whites and ignore those of non-whites. The typically negative and reductionist portrayals of minorities, in the rare cases when they are included, only serve to reinforce this hierarchy. One need only glance at beloved Disney animated movies like “Pocahontas” (1995) — which portrays the titular Native American heroine as a mere appendage to dashing Englishman John Smith — to grasp that minority individuals in mass media rarely receive the serious and complex treatment they deserve. Recent attempts at highlighting minority experiences, such as the television series “Fresh off the Boat” (2015), are commendable but run the risk of degenerating into a caricature. Its repeated, stale jokes about Chinese food, for example, left a bad taste in my mouth.
I see a connection between the under- and misrepresentation of minorities in mass media and the results of Kiri Davis’s experiment in “A Girl Like Me” (2005). The documentary shows 15 out of 21 black children who had been asked to select a black or white doll opting for the latter and ascribing goodness to it. This experiment, though small, mirrors similar findings published by the psychologist duo Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1939 and 1940. Dolls and animated films, though distant memories to adults, form the first building blocks of a child’s self-perception. That black children in both these studies consistently deemed white dolls more desirable is a chilling testament to the impact of social norms on children of color’s self-esteem.
In South Korea — reportedly boasting the world’s highest per capita incidence of plastic surgery — teenagers face pressure from their own parents to undergo skin bleaching and other procedures that engineer more Western-like features such as double eyelids and sharper noses. In my opinion, the sense of self-deprecation in Korean women’s psyche is such that ludicrous phrases like “Barbie-Nose Rhinoplasty” adorn the 400 to 500 cosmetic surgery shopfronts packed into a square mile in the capital’s wealthy Gangnam district. Some defend this practice by arguing that more conventionally attractive features increase one’s employment prospects or that people may as they please with their bodies if it enhances their happiness. Nevertheless, these are warped rationales for a phenomenon prevalent not only in South Korea but also in other non-Western societies that I think emanate from the harmful psychological effects of centuries of Western imperialism on non-white peoples.
In contemporary discourse, decolonization and empowerment of minorities in the U.S. and elsewhere are often framed in terms of strengthening political and economic power. But I believe that such a movement must include a collaborative effort among all people of color to restore confidence in their own looks and lifestyles. Without love for monolid eyes, natural hair, hooked noses, dark skin and other distinctive physical features belonging to bodies of color, people of color cannot hope to build and celebrate a proud cultural or national identity of their own.