Earlier this month, journalist Ester Honig had what seemed to be a pretty good idea. Having stumbled upon Fivver, a freelancing platform that connects freelancers around the world for a variety of tasks, Honig decided she’d send a makeup-free picture of herself to 40 individuals in 25 countries with one simple instruction: “Make me beautiful.” On the project’s webpage titled “Before & After,” Honig wrote that she hoped each designer would “pull from their personal and cultural constructs of beauty to enhance my unaltered image.” As she told The Creators Project in an interview:
“Though I did not see the patterns or the presumed archetypes of beauty that I had expected, I decided to make this into a project examining how the standards of unobtainable beauty vary across cultures on a global level.”
What followed was a series of Photoshopped images that depicted Honig with freshly applied make-up, brightened (and predominantly blue or green) eye color, clearer and often lightened skin, and an array of (mostly overbearing) jewelry.
Mic and Buzzfeed were quick to pick up the project, calling it “striking” and “mesmerizing.” Mic went on to comment that the project reveals “the subtle differences in beauty standards around the world.”
I beg to differ.
Scrolling through the Photoshopped images (and ignoring the bizarre make-up additions), what we see time and time again is a young, white, thin, and blue-eyed woman: an image that does not differ from Honig’s original portrait. “Subtle” differences in beauty? I think not. Not once is a heavier or curvier woman depicted, though India and Bangladesh did airbrush her face and neck to slim her down. Not once is a woman with curly, afro-textured hair depicted, though the US and the Philippines did give her long, shiny hair. Not once is a darker-skinned woman of color depicted (even with the images submitted from Latin America, India and Kenya), though Germany elected to make her already fair skin a pale ghost color. And where her nose is made thinner, not once is her nose made wider.
Oh, and only once out of the 28 images is fair-skinned Honig made to look like she put on a tan.
Nowhere — and I mean nowhere —do we see non-white standards of beauty. And why is that? Because white, thin, and blue-eyed young women are the universal standard of beauty. Take, for instance, that although darker-skinned Brazilian women have become more prominent in Brazilian society (black and mulatto citizens make up nearly 45 percent of the country), the country’s fashion models are predominantly white. Multiple Brazilian model scouts told the New York Times in 2010 that this tends to be the case because scouts specifically look for “the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in” to help “produce the tall, thin girls with straight hair, fair skin and light eyes.” These girls, they said, tend to be the most successful.
One commentor wrote that they were surprised the skin color was not changed much, saying they “figured that some countries would feel that women with darker skin would be considered very beautiful.” Another dwelled on Kenya’s seemingly unaltered image writing, “Well, I guess they had no brown Crayola in Kenya.” But others caught on, writing, “Yay for the white supremacist beauty standard and horrible Photoshop skills?” and “These photos are all of a very young skinny woman with clear skin. I guess that standard is international.”
But what’s so ironic and painfully telling about this project is that Honig utterly fails to recognize that she is the international standard of beauty—and in doing so fails to recognize how her white race has everything to do with the fact that the project’s image alterations are merely minor changes to makeup, jewelry taste, and white beauty ideals rooted in a history of colonialism and Western media domination. The very idea that she does not see “the patterns or the presumed archetypes of beauty” that she had been expecting tells us that she fails to see how her whiteness is the norm, and thus a privilege.
While the driving idea behind this project had an incredible amount of potential to speak towards how beauty is perceived internationally, the project would have been much more meaningful had the original portrait been of a woman whose appearance deviated from deeply rooted white beauty ideals. For example, a photo of a heavier black woman, or a curvy Latina for that matter, Photoshopped into a lighter-skinned, thinner version of herself (like L’Oreal and Pepsi have done to Beyoncé and Sofia Vergara, and what Beyoncé later did to herself in her “4” album cover) would actually show us the “othering” and exclusive project of mainstream media’s and history’s colonialist beauty ideals. (What’s more, if Germany felt so inclined to lighten Honig’s white skin, what’s to say something would have stopped them from bleaching the portrait of a woman of color?)
These “anglicized” changes, in comparison to the majority of changes made to Honig’s image, would be wholly unattainable for most women of color – and that’s what makes these kinds of images not only so telling, but dangerous. That’s because these “othering” tactics that project sometimes impossible and unattainable standards of beauty, argues Patricia Hills Collins in her book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, have historically and presently influenced black women (and, I would like to add, other women of color as well) to become strangers to their own bodies. Such personal estrangement and societal alienation can follow these women into their careers, motherhood, and old age. All of this and more could have been communicated if Honig hadn’t been so oblivious to how her “Before & After” is a fundamentally racial project.
But what’s perhaps the most disappointing is that nowhere do Honig, Buzzfeed, Mic or any of the other online platforms that reported on the project reflect on race. And neither did the vast majority of the hundreds of commenters (and the handful that did were of color). This, plain and simple, is just sad, as it only further illustrates how women of color are not only invisible to what the world understands as beautiful, but absent in immediate consciousness at large.
Honig was right to say in the project’s artist statement that each image is “intriguing and insightful in their own right; each one is a reflection of both the personal and cultural concepts of beauty that pertain to their creator.” Unfortunately, however, due to a colonialist past that continues to feed all avenues of mainstream media’s international imagery and sustains Honig’s (perhaps unintentional) blinded ignorance, her insight falls much too short. And with it, so does her project.
Alana de Hinojosa is a senior thesis student at Hampshire College, where she studies the intersection of U.S. immigration history, Latin@ cultural studies, political theory, and literary journalism. She also enjoys fiction writing, and most of her fiction revolves around love’s navigation of space, Latinidad, and stories about growing up as a mixed heritage girl. She is from California. Follow her on Twitter @alanahinojosa.