Holding a platinum blond Barbie doll, clinical psychologist Stacey Pearson of Counseling and Psychological Services said the doll is one way in which American society perpetuates the idea that “the standard of beauty is white and it doesn’t leave room for the diversity of sizes.”
“There is this proliferation in thinking that this is the ideal,” Pearson said. “This is the message, and it starts at Barbie.”
America’s history of colonialism and oppression of minorities as well as the ways in which it affects views of minority women’s bodies both in the past and present were the topics of a dialogue held yesterday in the Michigan Union.
American culture Prof. Andrea Smith talked about the history of sexual violence against Native American women and how it was a result of a colonial and patriarchal worldview. She said because Native Americans were depicted as being dirty and polluted, there was a view that sexually violating them was acceptable.
She added that women in particular became targets because of their ability to give birth. They were often mutilated or sexually violated throughout colonial history.
Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and history Prof. Martha Jones talked about some of the impressions of blacks written by European travelers, even from the very earliest encounters. She said that Europeans seemed to have a fascination with the bodies of black women, describing different parts of their bodies, physiques and their complexion.
“As long as black women have been in America, there have been ideas and images of them that have been constructed over time,” Jones said.
She said that while their images were often derogatory and obviously exaggerated, some accounts also indicated desire and admiration.
Historically, Jones said, there have been two stereotypical images often associated with black women. The “Jezebel” is a stereotype of black women as lustful and sexually unbounded. They are often of mixed descent and desirous of sexual relations with white men. In contrast, the “mammy” is an older, loyal, maternal figure and an advisor and energetic worker.
Jones also talked about ways in which black women have tried to resist stereotypes. One of the strategies was what she called a culture of dissemblance, by which some women have remained silent about their sexualities in an attempt to diminish the effect of stereotypical images and to avoid fueling degrading ideas.
She recounted her experiences as a lawyer in New York City working to provide legal assistance to minority women with HIV so they could apply for disability benefits. She said she observed a collective reluctance to speak publicly and openly about their bodies.
Pearson noted that these stereotypical ideas are still having an effect in modern society as a result of a 500-year legacy of racism.
“How do those images play themselves out today?” Pearson posed to the audience.
She used the example of the celebration of black women with big buttocks and breasts as another way to objectify black women, even within their own community. She said the harm lies in the value that it places on external standards of beauty.