Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who's the fairest of them all?

A few months ago, I asked my readers why they thought white had become the standard of beauty. After talking to her mom, my white friend JD offered an explanation that had to do with the Dutch Masters.

Do the rest of you talk to your moms about my blog? I hope so.

Anyhow, I told JD that I was going to read a book called The History of White People . I did, and now I want to share what I learned. This one's for you, JD...

I have to start by saying that the book was really long (400+ pages) and it's been awhile since I read it. It makes me think about reading comprehension, because the whole idea of reading stuff is that you remember it. But I think that is easier said than done sometimes. Okay, I am getting off on a tangent.

There were two reasons that I took away to explain why white = pretty.

1) When the concept of whiteness was getting popular, Americans were really interested in the Greeks. For whatever reason (I'm guessing the whole "founders of democracy" thing,) all things Greek were awesome, including Greek sculptures. The features of those people in the sculptures were celebrated and the whiteness of the plaster (or whatever sculptures are made out of,) was celebrated as well.

What these guys forgot about was that those sculptures were originally painted, and that the paint wore off over the ages. So that bright white color was not an accurate representation of what the Greeks looked like. It reminds me of the realization that dinosaurs might have been all sorts of wacky colors, and that we don't really know since all we ever see are their bones.

2) When the whole idea of white women being beautiful started gaining steam, it was in reference to these women (the Circassians) who were basically being kept by powerful men as sex slaves. You know, like a harem? These women were praised for their beauty, when in actuality they were about as good looking as non-Circassian women. The author posits that is was the sexual availability of these women that was so attractive to men, not something specific to their appearance.

I just had a realization as I looked back up at the title of this post. We all know fair is a synonym for pretty, but it's also a synonym for white! Whoa, man...

I thought the book was good, and I would recommend it if you are interesting in learning more about the emerging field of "whiteness studies." it seems to have some similarities to African-American Studies and the like. It makes sense, because if groups of color can be analyzed and examined, it would follow that the ins and outs of whiteness can be too, and not in some trite "white people can't dance" sort of way.

If you have more you'd like to add, leave me a comment.


  1. Intersting. I wonder if some of white=beauty comes from a time when women with dark/tan skin were known to be poor because they had to work outside, and woman with lighter skin were rich enough to stay in the house and do....ummmm I don't know what you do if you have someone else doing everything for you.:)

    There are some verses in Song of Solomon 1:6 that reference this very thing,'Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I had to neglect.'
    Just a thought. I still am uncertain how it came to carry over to people who's skin is naturally dark, or why we now work so hard (as white people) to be darker, but still not accept black people as the standard of beauty?Andrea

  2. Anonymous5:28 PM

    Thanks, myblackfriend! This was a really interesting post.

  3. I agree with The Three Wise Menn. At least, this is certainly the case with most of Asia. Light skin is "high-class" and prized even to this day, so much so that many Asian women buy "skin brighteners."

  4. Anonymous11:26 AM

    PS I think our original conversation was about why blonde hair/blue eyes were the standard of beauty. I think your other readers' input about working vs. leisure class and the ideal of light skin is true as well. There was a time that being plump was considered the standard of beauty, as well. That changed, so maybe skin color will someday, too.