"I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you. How DARE you?!" - Tyra Banks, to Cycle 4 contestant, Tiffany Richardson, America's Next Top Model.
*now say gahhhh objectification but make it fashion*
While on vacation in Maine last month with my husband and my in-laws, I met the founder of an olive oil company -- a kind, impeccably chic-yet-chill white woman, at a mutual friend’s home. We immediately bonded over shoes (I was wearing Sabahs, of course) and put two and two together that we already followed each other on instagram and both held a special place in our hearts for creepy bordering on offensive antique shops.
In 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic when many of us extroverts are starved for in-person connections, this type of encounter is a fast track to friendship.
So when the founder texted me the next day with Maine antique shop recommendations and then casually asked if I would feel comfortable modeling for a photo shoot for a new skincare line her company was launching, I ecstatically responded: “I’d love to!!!!!!!!”
And you know what, my entire 3 hours as a supermodel were really fucking fun. We drank margaritas to *warm up*, I got to rub luscious body oil all over my body for 20 minutes and all of the photos were shot by a world-renowned photographer. Everyone was incredibly respectful, kind and cool.
So I was surprised, when, the next day, after my 180 minutes of fame, I couldn’t quiet the following debate inside my brain:
Happy Jesse Brain: That was SO fun! I can’t wait to see the photos!
Anxious Jesse Brain: Uhh hold up… anything suspicious about that experience that you’d like to…. unpack?
Happy Jesse Brain: Nope! I’m good!
Anxious Jesse Brain: Ummmmmmmmmm HELLO.
Happy Jesse Brain: Okay fine. What is it?
Anxious Jesse Brain: Well I mean… over on this side, we’ve been wondering whether the only reason you were asked to do that photoshoot is because you’re…..
Happy Jesse Brain: What? Tall? Thin?
Anxious Jesse Brain: And……….
Happy Jesse Brain: JUST SPIT IT OUT!
Anxious Jesse Brain: Black. You’re Black. But like… You’re acceptable Black. Palatable Black. Light enough that you can pass as exotic anything, but dark enough that it’s clear you are “of color.” And these days, light-skin people of color are treated like one of those collector’s items in the antique store you bought that pointless vase shaped like hands in. They have to be kept in a glass case with a lock, they’re so precious. Okay, well, that’s all for now! Have a shitty rest of the day, boo boo!
I know, I know, I KNOW. Why can’t I just let this go? Why can’t I just relish in the good fortune and awesome opportunities and not always go there. Well, because there is actually a sacred space that honors my self worth -- a space that houses my critical thinking, my curiosity, my memories, my voice and my well-being.
If you are a person who has never been the “only” person of color in a space, you may find my internal dialogue an overreaction. A leap. An inconvenience to your comfort. But anyone who has frequently been the “only one” in an all white environment knows that this question of why am I here, really? will creep up every time we are asked to participate in the promotion, advancement and success of white people. I truly believe we have a super power, those of us who have been the only BIPOC in a white space our entire lives, to read the room. But with that power comes annoying responsibility. We’ve been used as disposable diversity clout too many times to not be super vigilant or risk becoming complicit in white supremacy. No pressure though….
I have basically been the token person of color my entire life. And let me tell you so it is on the record once and for all, just because I am REALLY good at it, does not mean that it doesn’t exhaust every cell in my body. I.am.drained. The hair touching/complimenting/focusing/idolizing and therefore not challenging. The body gazing. The “you have such great style!” commenting. Even when the majority of people doing this really don’t mean any harm by their actions, it is still harmful. I am still being objectified. I am still being exoticized and seen as “other.”
Tokenism, according to Helen Kim Ho, is, simply, covert racism. Racism requires those in power to maintain their privilege by exercising social, economic and/or political muscle against people of color (POC). Tokenism achieves the same while giving those in power the appearance of being non-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use POC as racialized props.
Tokenism is e v e r y w h e r e. If fact, if you are a white person reading this post, chances are, you’ve tokenized someone and didn’t even realize it. It can be subtle (you recruit people of color to be the face of your organization without giving them any actual power in that predominantly white organization) or super in your face (like when paid staff for messaging at an org are White, and volunteer storytellers are people of color). It’s what happened when I was asked to be “the face” of my graduate program for the university magazine, while, at the same time, no one seemed to have the time to answer my concerns about our lack of diversity and inclusion practices within the same program.
And tokenism it’s also what happens when you are, according to nonsensical cultural standards, a conventionally, light-skin, pretty woman. Being an attractive, light-skin woman of color carries a LOT of contradicting baggage with it.
I first learned the term pretty privilege while listening to a 2015 episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday with trans-rights activist, Janet Mock. In the interview, Oprah asks about how Mock’s attractiveness played into her acceptance in mainstream cultural:
Oprah Winfrey: I mean, being pretty helps… would you not say?”
Janet Mock: Uh, yeah.
Oprah Winfrey: Thank you for saying that. I hate it when pretty girls always say ‘No it really doesn’t make a difference. You should see my cellulite.’
Janet Mock: Pretty privilege is real.
Oprah Winfrey: Pretty privilege is real, girl!
Pretty privilege IS reaaaaally real.
Besides my first few days on earth where I apparently looked like my Dad’s great Uncle Harold, I’ve always been an attractive person. In fact, in the critically acclaimed “Ride Wit Me",” Nelly wrote the lyric
I'm getting pages out of New Jersey from Courtney B
Telling me about a party up in NYC
And can I make it? Damn right, I be on the next flight
Paying cash; first class - sitting next to Vanna White
Okay not quite but like… sort of. As the story goes, when I was about two years old, I was in a plane, sitting on my mom’s lap, and Wheel of Fortune spinner, Vanna White, was in the seat next to us. Me and Vanna babbled the entire flight and before she bid us adieu she turned to my parents and said, “ What a beautiful baby girl. Wow.”
Point is - I could be modest and pretend I’m oblivious to my attractiveness, but what’s the point? Where does that get us? Not nearly as far as my good looks have gotten me, I can tell you that much. So then why am I cringing writing this? Why am I so pulled to downplay my looks? Why am I worried about how others will perceive my assessment of myself?
There are two periods of time in my life I can remember when I wasn’t considered “attractive” by narrow societal standards. The first time was in middle school. In the fifth grade, I had a unibrow. No really. I.had.a.unibrow. Honestly, the unibrow is having a MOMENT and I am fully here for it. But in middle school, it was rough. I remember a few boys laughing at me and suggesting I shave it. I went home that day and begged my mom to let me get my eyebrows waxed. She wouldn’t let me get them waxed, so we compromised on threading…. HOW WAS THAT ANY BETTER? I don’t know. My mom also once told me I couldn’t get a second ear piercing because I was on my period and would “lose too much blood.” It was the early 2000s. That’s her alibi and she’s sticking to it.
The other time I was considered unattractive was my sophomore year of high school. This one is more painful for me, because it was a time when I was just starting to come into my body. I have always been really tall for my age, and thin (if both of those statements make me sound like the literal worst to you, I get it, but please also keep in mind that when you’re young, people think of you as a string bean and not a supermodel. It’s obviously much more complex than this, but all I’m trying to say is, this is my journey and while I’m trying to be sensitive to everyone’s body experiences and staying #bodypositive, this is my party and I’ll complain about my body if I want to). Anyways…… during sophomore year I joined the track team and grew real, toned arm muscles for the first time. I was also (to my surprise) a really good runner, due to those string bean legs, so I was feeling pretty powerful and strong. That was, until one day before team warm ups, when I heard a White senior BOY say to his friend, gesturing over to me, “Woah, who’s the monster?”
It was me. I WAS THE MONSTER.
I can genuinely laugh about this now because that guy peaked junior year of high school and I guarantee is bald, works in finance, and every female coworker cringes when he walks into a room (WHO’S THE MONSTER NOW?) but at the time, it was really painful for me. I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to know that his comment was alllll about him and his own insecurities and I took it really personally. For the rest of the semester, I stopped doing push ups until my arms went back to their usual al dente spaghetti shapes.
We live in such a shallow, image obsessed culture, and while I wish I could say I’m totally above it all, I’m not. And I don’t think any of us are, really. Yes, our definitions of attractiveness may vary greatly, but physical appearance and attractiveness is a big part of how we choose our partners, our friends and who we want to surround ourselves with.
Ugh, it’s so complicated. Because on the one hand, I want to feel proud of how I look -- to celebrate myself fully, and not let others erase me. Sometimes I just want to post a selfie of myself because I LOOK HOT and I want others to bask in the warmth of my hotness. I’m kidding. Well, basically kidding. But there are definitely times when I’m feeling confident in my body -- strong, beautiful, healthy, and vibrant -- and I hold back out of fear that I will come across as too conceited.
As Mock wrote in a 2017 Allure article:
As a young trans girl, I wondered what it would be like to be seen not only as a girl but as a pretty girl. Like many teens, I struggled with my body and looks, but my despair was amplified by the expectations of cisnormativity and the gender binary as well as the impossibly high beauty standards that I, and my female peers, measured myself against.
This anguish began to subside as I embarked on my medical transition at 15 when how I saw myself inside began to slowly and steadily reveal itself on my outsides. I began to finally see myself. By 16, others saw my self-image as well, and I began to notice the way people treated me shifted. They no longer stared at my body in confusion. They no longer questioned my gender because I began to present more clearly as a girl --specifically, a cis girl. Suddenly, I was successful at “passing,” blending in with the pretty cis girls in class I had once watched in fascination.
I began living my teenage dream: I was seen and accepted as just another girl. With my gender nonconformity seemingly fading away, I began to attract the attention of 18-to-24-year old cis guys who began stopping to inform me that I was pretty.
Suddenly, I was let in, and I did nothing to earn the attention my prettiness granted me. I soon saw that people stared and smiled, offered me seats on the bus and drinks in the club, complimented me on my appearance, and held doors open. This was partly how I experienced pretty privilege -- the societal advantages, often unearned, that benefit people who are perceived as pretty or considered beautiful.
I come from a long lineage of beautiful women. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were HOT AF (see photo evidence below). Both the women and men are considered “good looking” and I am married to an extremely (he made me put the extremely) handsome guy. But really, as I’ve been pushing myself to unpack my intersecting identities and the ways they have impacted my experiences thus far, my pretty privilege is undoubtedly a part of that puzzle.
And as a Biracial, Black, attractive woman ooooooh boy is it messy. Recent research suggests that Black women report higher levels of experienced objectification than other ethnic groups (Watson, Marszalek, Dispenza, & Davids, 2015.) One common stereotypical representation of Black women is that of the Jezebel—an alluring and seductive African American woman who is highly sexualized and valued purely for her sexuality (Donovan, 2007. According to Jewell (1993), the Jezebel is a “worldly seductress” who “fulfills the sex objectification requirement of white womanhood.” She is reduced to her body and treated as little more than a tool that exists for the pleasure of others. Although hypersexuality and many features of the Jezebel stereotype can also be imposed on White women, the notion of the Jezebel is particularly pronounced for Black women, signifying their inferior status.
In “Revisiting the Jezebel” Stereotype, authors Anderson et. al (2018) wrote:
“The Jezebel stereotype was particularly common during slavery (Donovan, 2007), when African American women’s bodies were socially controlled as sexual objects based on racist, classist, and sexist ideologies (hooks, 1981). However, the stereotype still persists today, exemplified in the way Black women are represented in mainstream media. Recent research suggests that Black women are hypersexualized to a greater degree in the media than are White women. For instance, Turner (2011) analyzed the content of 120 music videos, finding that Black women characters (both central and background characters) were significantly more likely to appear in provocative clothing than any other character type, including White women. Other content analyses have revealed that Black women are typically depicted as hypersexual in rap music videos, with an overemphasis on their sexualized physical appearance (e.g., Stephens & Phillips, 2003). Rather than being shown as active agents in the clips, they are presented simply as decorative objects—their sole purpose being to look attractive and desirable to male audiences.”
I am a Black, Biracial, cis woman, with brown skin, curly hair and a tall, thin, size-6 shape. I have symmetrical facial features, a smooth, even complexion, and white, straight teeth that open into a wide smile. For me, pretty privilege operates in different ways depending on the spaces I enter, who is in that space, and whether people know how I fully identify or not.
Pretty privilege can lead to popularity, higher grades, more positive work reviews, and career advancement. People who are considered “pretty” are more likely to be hired, have higher salaries, and are less likely to be found guilty and are sentenced less harshly. Pretty people are perceived as smarter, healthier and more competent. Pretty privilege is also conditional and is
When I travel internationally, typically I am called “Morena” and assumed to be Brazilian or Dominican. When I am in mostly white, cis, male-dominated spaces, people tend to experience me as “exotic” and “different.” In largely Black spaces, I am seen as having “good hair,” with a cute-albeit-pancake butt, and almost always read as “Mixed.” When I am with other Non-Black POCs, I am seen as Brown, a sister, a familiar face.
The list goes on, but the point is, my attractiveness is often experienced in relation to whiteness, my proximity to it and how close or far from it I appear to others. This way of thinking has taken me a long time to wrap my head around, as I digest all the ways that I have internalized messages of what “pretty” means. As I dive deeper into facets of my identity, I am trying to move away from centering Whiteness as perfection or the goal. For me, I am in the center. Is that the definition of being self-centered? I think so… But what I mean by that is, I have little control over how others perceive me in a split second phenotype scanning, but I can reclaim power over how I see myself.
I can see myself as strong, gentle, beautiful, Biracial, Black, Mixed, or everything in between. I can see myself as a cis woman, an ally, a friend, and a soft woman. I can see myself as tall, healthy, naturally thin and complicated. I can see myself as a reflection of the views I’m re-learning and the ones I’m re-claiming; a reflection of the skills I am building upon and the life I am living.
I hope you see yourself in all your beautiful complexities too.