Faces of the Future: Race, Beauty and the Mixed Race Beauty Myth
Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota
American Studies Department Honors Projects
In November 2009, popular fashion magazine Allure revealed the “Face of the Future”. Between pages of glistening models with features ranging from freckled faces with full lips to loosely curled afros and almond-shaped eyes, photographer Marilyn Minter gave us not only the changing face of America, but the changing face of American beauty. As the highlight reads: “more than ever before, beauty is reflected in a blend of ethnicities and colors.” The accompanying editorial by fashion journalist Rebecca Mead extolls the “extraordinary” beauty of mixed race people and their potential to change “the fashion and beauty industries.”
She begins with the growing numbers of mixed race people in the US. With 6.8 million Americans identifying as mixed race in 2000, and nearly half of these being under 18, she says, “young America is starting to look very different from old America, and not just because it has far fewer wrinkles and better muscle tone.” The article goes on to describe each of the models according to her ethnicities, which are given in terms of both nationalities (“Barbadian,” “German,” and “Brazilian) and American ethnic or cultural groups (“African-American,” “Hispanic,” and “Creole”). Mead includes brief quotes from two of the women about their experiences with mixed race identity, particularly around phenotypic ambiguity. She emphasizes the unique looks of these models, saying that “fashion and beauty industries sometimes don’t know what to do with these models, but they had better get used to their like,” because they will soon be—if they aren’t already—the epitome of American beauty…
…To satiate readers’ need to categorize, the women’s ethnicities are listed in the corner caption of each picture along with the makeup products that they wear. In these representations, their heritages or composite “parts” become nothing more than products that they can put on for a photo shoot, and that the reader might just as easily purchase for herself. This reduction of identities and histories to an optional appendage that one can simply put on and take off at will, or to a commodity that can be bought in stores, reflects current post-racial ideology of the neoliberal individual subject who is supposed to move freely through society unfettered by race, class or gender.
Problematically, while the article claims to celebrate ‘ethnic’ beauty and ‘difference,’ it still upholds whiteness as dominant, as all of these models have European heritages, and all, as blogger Latoya Peterson critiques, “would easily pass the paper bag test” (2009). This rhetoric of inclusion only reinforces the boundaries of difference by excluding blackness as too other—too far outside the norm to be accepted.
In the narrative about mixed race bodies that Allure weaves, identity is individualized, privatized and depoliticized. The mixed race subject is included in the institution of beauty, but this comes at the cost of others. Here, inclusion of the mixed race subject not only reifies the dominance of whiteness, but also further otherizes blackness. This inclusion also hinges upon racialized and gendered paradigms of bodily essentialism. While mixed people may be welcomed into the institution of beauty, it is under specific stipulations. Mixed race identity is defined as inherently different from all other racialized groups, as necessarily part-white, as socially and racially flexible, and as inherently beautiful…
…But what prompts the proliferation of conversations in popular magazines, television, advertising and model agencies, and even scientific inquiry, about the reigning beauty of multiracial women, ultimate cuteness of mixed race kids, and overall attractiveness of “mixed” people? What (other than vanity) prompts us to say that mixed people are the most beautiful? In this project I hope to explore the question: Why are mixed people the most beautiful?—or why does everyone seem to think they are?
To get at this question I take two routes: I will first examine popular conceptions of beauty and how these have been linked with race, I will bring mixed race bodies into the conversation of beauty standards and ideals, asking: What do people mean when they talk about “beautiful mixed people”? Is it a certain type or combination of racial identities? And if so, how does this image fit into pre-formed ideas about race and beauty?
For the second leg of my journey, I will take on the question of beauty as something more than skin-deep. Many scholars of beauty have said that the construct and its definition – who it includes and excludes – is linked to not only personality and moral character, but also to racial inferiority and national identity. Here I ask: What is being said about beauty and mixed race? How is this discourse being circulated?
And finally: Why now? Why mixed race? How does the myth of mixed race beauty fit into current discourse around mixed race identity? How is the concept of ‘beauty’ representative of broader social trends such as citizenship, neoliberal inclusion, and new racial projects concerning multiracial identity?
This paper combines an interdisciplinary review of theories on beauty, race, gender with a critical mixed race studies lens. Previous scholarship on the history of American beauty standards and ideals lays the groundwork for my exploration of racialized beauty standards. Scholarship in critical mixed race studies and critical race studies are the-foundation for my discussion of the beauty myth as part of a larger social trend around race and mixed race identity. Contemporary cultural texts such as the “Face of the Future” article inform my investigation of current beauty ideals and my discussion of the discourse around the mixed race beauty myth and beauty in general. This project uses commentary from focus groups conducted with students at Macalester College. The findings from these focus groups represent the opinions, ideas and dialogues of and between contemporary subjects who live within this beauty culture. The results from these focus groups situate my work in the experiences and opinions of real people and guide my analysis of the mixed race beauty myth.
My contribution to the discussion on beauty will be the inclusion of modern-day mixed race subjects. Thus far there has been research on the hypersexualization of mulatto women during slavery, but the racialized sexualization of mixed-race women today has been less explored. I also critically analyze the presence of previously described beauty ideals and types in contemporary culture, testing the theories of previous scholarship and the standards of years past for relevance in our current cultures
I place the mixed race beauty myth within a broader conversation about multiraciality. Both of these discourses elevate the mixed race subject in the popular racial imaginary-to the status of super hero. Through analysis of the mixed race beauty myth, I want to contribute to a larger critique of the idea that mixed people will all somehow save the world, simply by existing—or simply by being beautiful.
I chose this project out of personal interest. As a woman with a mixed race identity, I have heard this statement that “mixed people are the most beautiful” many times. As a woman immersed in a culture that emphasizes the importance of femininity and attractiveness, the question of beauty has concerned me. And as a light-skinned woman of color I have been bombarded with conflicting messages telling me that people who look like me are or aren’t attractive, or that I am, but my darker-skinned sisters cannot be. It is necessary for me to recognize the positionality that I bring to this project, because it doubtless informs the way I approach these questions, their answers, and my entire process…
Read the entire honors thesis here.