The Sydney Morning Herald: Biceps, beauty standards, and Michelle Obama

The Sydney Morning Herald: Biceps, beauty standards, and Michelle Obama

I had a piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, about the spike in upper arm surgery that has been partly attributed to First Lady Michelle Obama:

My first reaction, as a feminist, is to lament that tens of millions of people, 91 per cent of them women, are getting plastic surgery to “fix” the “flaws” on their bodies: their small breasts, their wrinkles, their “unacceptably” un-toned arms. We ought to bemoan the power of the feminine beauty ideal, so narrow that the only way to approximate it is to slice oneself open, and so compelling that people are willing to collectively spend $11 billion a year for that slicing.

And yet, there is something remarkable about Michelle Obama, an African-American woman, being considered so attractive that women will undergo surgery to resemble her. In a country where African-American women have for so long been considered unattractive by default, this is, in some ways, a mark of increasing racial equality.

In the US, as in Australia, the dominant idea of feminine beauty is white. The faces – and bodies – of “beautiful” women in America are still, overwhelmingly, white. A glance at the newsstands in any given week is greeted with a host of white starlets, with the occasional splash of colour. Only a handful of black actresses have won Academy Awards in the nearly century-long history of the event. Vanity Fair’s annual “young Hollywood” issue is notoriously, outrageously devoid of people of colour. The runways at New York Fashion Week are similarly lacking in melanin. The Miss America pageant didn’t start admitting black women until the 1970s, when its prestige was already waning, and it didn’t crown its first black Miss America until 1984. Only six other black women have won the title since. The black women who make it in the mainstream tend to be fair-skinned, with “Anglo” facial features and slight frames, like Halle Berry. Some will argue that megastar Beyonce is an exception to this rule, and they are correct, but only because Beyonce is exceptional in almost every way. As a rule, beautiful is white, and anything else is considered “exotic”, or in the case of dark-skinned black women with “typically black” facial features, outright unattractive.

You can read the whole thing here.


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