Colonialism Influenced Beauty Standards, Activist Says

The sound of snapping fingers echoed throughout the crowd as Zahira Kelly, an award-winning writer, artist, and activist, shared her struggles with her identity and body image.

Kelly addressed Boston College students in a lecture titled “Decolonizing Bodies and Beauty” Tuesday night. As part of Love Your Body Week, she addressed the underlying flaws with current societal beauty standards around the world and the influence of colonialism on their development.

Her activism was initially driven by a blog that make her feel a calling toward discussing these issues.

“I was advocating for my own humanity,” she said. “At first, when I started the blog, I thought I was talking to myself, but people started commenting and following, and I realized it was something bigger, and [I] could make an impact.”

She said that she was taught to hate the color of her skin, rendered “subhuman” by society. She further said that as an Afro-Latina woman raised in the Bronx and the Dominican Republic, she grew up without a sense of identity or belonging to either community.

“I used to look in the mirror everyday and hate my reflection,” Kelly said. “It’s something I still struggle with to this day.”

She argued that society’s understanding of beauty was profoundly altered by colonization and imperialism, which imposed a standard of “whiteness” to measure of beauty. This, she continued, led to the notion that “whiter is better.”

This concept, Kelly explained, resulted in the exploitation and oppression of minority women, who were forced to conform to certain societal standards or face ostracism. She cited pressures to lose weight, get plastic surgery, change hairstyles, and alter one’s behavior (a practice known as “code-switching”) as present-day consequences of colonialism.

The beauty standards imposed on minorities are also caused by a “hierarchy” within people of color. She said that in Latin American countries, identity, status, and beauty generally rest on one’s racial makeup. One’s skin tone and facial features have an impact on these factors too.

Specifically, colorism, which represents discrimination based on one’s skin tone, establishes these hierarchies within race. Those who most closely resemble Europeans rise to the top of the caste system. Kelly noted that while light skinned Latin Americans represent the minority, they compose the most affluent, politically powerful and are the most represented group in media.

In contrast, Kelly said, indigenous and dark-skinned people are “erased from the history books,” causing a “denial of blackness” in Latin America. Kelly expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that minorities are underrepresented in politics, entertainment, literature, and social media.

“I was a unicorn, I never saw myself.” Kelly said.

As a result of these phenomena, Kelly argued that “beauty is power.” As such, it is not merely a shallow, superficial concept, but a means of survival and protection.

“Beauty is a matter of life and death, of being housed and fed or homeless and hungry,” she said. “People who do not fit standards of beauty are denied resources.”

Until everyone is respected, included and acknowledged, she explained, toxic beauty standards will continue to dictate and dismantle society.

“We can no longer ignore the past,” Kelly said. “[We] must accept it in order to bring justice to victims and instigate change for the future.”

Featured Image by Jake Evans / Heights Staff