Wednesday 29 June 2016

Guest Blogger Meeta Rani Jha

Beauty as Structural Inequality: Femininity, Race and Skin-lightening

In this post, Dr. Meeta Rani Jha discusses the role beauty plays in creating structural and individual privilege, as well as contributing to discrimination and inequality. Her research focuses on the ways in which the categories of beauty and femininity intersect as key sites through which exclusion and structural inequality in life opportunities are reproduced across hierarchies of gender, race, colour, caste and class.

The power of beauty can be understood by examining its racialized and colonial history illuminating the values assigned to skin-colour. The attributes of white femininity were borrowed from Enlightenment philosophers, who understood beauty as a virtuous and divine attribute of truth and justice. Race was defined as a biological category, and racial differences were understood as reflecting the moral character and intelligence of the different racial groups.

The superiority of whiteness was consolidated by speaking of it as a moral and progressive force, and non-white people were labelled as less beautiful, even ugly, because of their biological differences and thus defined as less moral, less developed and less human. The white standard of beauty created a hierarchy of humanness with Europeans at the top of the racial hierarchy. We can see that beauty functions as a symbolic marker of cultural and moral superiority in a hierarchy of racialized difference, assigning goodness, innocence and godliness to white femininity. Thus, cultural attributes assigned to "idealized femininity" were established historically by European ideals of beauty.

Beauty is an integral aspect of femininity. From listening to women’s experiences we know that beauty practices create positive feelings, pleasures, playfulness, creativity, bonding and female community as well as negative feelings of self-hatred and shame. Girls from a very young age are socialised into beauty rituals and practices. Last week, my six year old niece asked me if she looks fat. After six long years in our world, she has already learned that femininity means self-surveillance and self-deprecation.

In all cultures, women learn to understand themselves by the internalisation of patriarchal knowledge, myths and stereotypes of femininity. Femininity is the social conditioning of women by imposed gender roles and identities and can be used as a way to socially control women’s desires and aspirations. Beauty practices are a way of performing femininity in order to fulfil heteronormative gender and sexual roles that prevail.

Skin-lightening is a beauty practice engaged in primarily by women of colour who perceive and understand their natural dark skin as a disadvantage and as a barrier to attaining idealised femininity. Thus, for many ethnic minority women the desire to lighten their skin is founded rationally to surpass racial and working-class penalties by accessing advantages of dominant beauty ideals and norms.

Beauty inequality is the condition that many women find themselves in when their natural appearance is perceived as undesirable and can create barriers to accessing life opportunities. Naomi Wolf (1991) theorized that the standards of beauty create “lookism” and beauty advantages based on a beauty and ugliness dichotomy, where ugliness confers a penalty, and beauty confers an advantage. Margaret Hunter (2011) further enhanced our understanding of beauty inequality by elaborating on the importance of skin-colour in her concept of ‘racial capital’. Hunter (2011:161) explains that the desire and the

“quest for white beauty is very important because white or light skin is a form of ‘racial capital’ gaining its status from existing racial hierarchies. Racial capital is a resource drawn from the body that can be related to skin tone, facial features, hair texture, body shape, etc.”

For many women, beauty is a site of deep emotional connection with popular cultural female icons and with other women in everyday media and cinema practice. However, mass-media and popular-culture images of female sexual attractiveness also reinforce skin-colour discrimination valorizing black and Asian women with lighter skin as sexually desirable and attractive. Women with darker skin are discriminated against in ethnic minority communities and lose out to their lighter-skinned sisters in both economic and marriage opportunities. So for example, Mark Hill’s (2002:80) research based in the U.S., revealed that black men also internalise and adopt dominant Eurocentric beauty standards and conflate femininity and sexual desirability with lighter skin, and dark skin with masculinity and male sexual virility, and discriminate against women with darker skin when dating.

Gendered colourism impacts black and ethnic minority women’s lived reality psychologically and economically. So for example, Radhika Parameswaran (2012) brings attention to a collective stigma directed at dark-skinned people, primarily impacting women in India to define colourism “as a systematic discrimination, historically practiced all over India and integral to the social, institutional and cultural fabric of Indian society.” She connects colourism to “skin color discrimination, in which dark-skinned people are seen as inferior, less beautiful, less competent, less intelligent, and less accomplished than light-skinned people” (quoted in Gupta, 2012).

My research investigates these forms of beauty inequalities. I am currently engaged in a pilot research project in collaboration with Dr. Veena Naregal from Institute of Economic Growth (India) that examines the linkages between colourism, class and caste inequalities, norms of feminine beauty and the production of contemporary exclusion pertaining to South Asian communities in contemporary Britain.

Dr. Meeta Rani Jha is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Winchester. 


Gupta, J. 2012.Understanding Colourism. August 3. Accessed June 28th, 2016.

Hill, M. E. 2002. Skin-Colour and the Perception of Attractiveness among African Americans. Does Gender Make a Difference? Social Psychology Quarterly, 65 (1):77-91.

Hunter, M.L. 2011. Buying Racial Capital: Skin Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalised World. Journal of Pan African Studies 4(4):142-64.

Wolf, N.1991 The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women 
New York: William Morrow and Company.


  1. Thanks so much for this article. I am now on the last of my dissertation and was happy to read this. Thanks

  2. One of the beauty tips that's often neglected is the use of a facial mask once or twice a week. A mask that is appropriate for your skin type should be applied after exfoliation and before you moisturize.
    Emilys beauty tips


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