Pretty Hurts : Code Switch Some may think of beauty as frivolous and fun, but on this episode, we're examining a few of the ugly ways that its been used to project power.

Pretty Hurts

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Shereen, who's the most beautiful person that you can think of?


My mommy.


MERAJI: And my Titi Wanda.


MERAJI: They are very beautiful. There's Instagram proof. What about you, GD?

DEMBY: My fiancee, obviously.

MERAJI: Obviously. Yes.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Good answer.

DEMBY: I'm not trying to get in trouble. It's true. It happens to be true. But also, I'm not trying to get...

MERAJI: She is very beautiful.

DEMBY: But also, I mean, Teyonah Parris is, like...

MERAJI: (Laughter). Why are you doing that to yourself?

DEMBY: Yeah. I know. This is - that's going to be conversation later. Anyway...

MERAJI: It is.

DEMBY: So for thousands of years, people have been trying to figure out, to wrap their minds around, what constitutes beauty. Is it symmetry? Is it the golden ratio - health, goodness, youth?

MERAJI: Is anything objectively beautiful?

DEMBY: Good question.

MERAJI: Or is beauty, as people love to say, in the eyes of the beholder?

DEMBY: Was beauty really her name, like Sisqo (laughter) alleged?


DRU HILL: (Singing) And beauty is her name.

MERAJI: I thought that was Dru Hill.

DEMBY: Sisqo, he was singing the hook, though.


DEMBY: (Singing) Beauty is her name.


DRU HILL: (Singing) Steals your heart.

MERAJI: You know the global cosmetics industry was valued at more than a half a trillion dollars in 2017, speaking of beauty?

DEMBY: Is that for real? What?

MERAJI: That's for real.

DEMBY: Oh, my God. That's a lot of Fenty. (Laughter).

MERAJI: It is.

DEMBY: And that's what we're talking about today. Today is all about beauty. Although, every episode with Shereen is about beauty. All right?

MERAJI: (Laughter). Yes. I am so beautiful.

DEMBY: This week, we're talking about beauty and power and politics and culture.

MERAJI: Yep. And we did a call-out a few weeks ago asking for your questions about race and beauty. And we got a ton of great ones. We're going to look into some of those in a minute.

DEMBY: But first we're going to spend a little bit of time talking about what exactly it is we mean when we talk about beauty.

HEIJIN LEE: It's the feeling that people get right when they look at another person and there is a kind of pleasure, right, in the looking.

MERAJI: That's Heijin Lee. She's a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU.

LEE: But not just pleasure. There's an aspiration. I think the kind of beauty that I'm thinking about when I teach my course or when I'm writing my book is the way we want to look.

MERAJI: That course, it's called The Geopolitics of Beauty. And that book is about South Korea's plastic surgery industry. She says she's trying to get her students to think about beauty as something beyond just what we like and what we don't like.

LEE: I think we tend to think about beauty as related to taste, right? And we think about taste as something deeply personal, something that is organic, something that comes out of the self. In my class, I try to get my students to think about beauty and taste as something that is also very much constructed by and influenced by larger forces - nationalist projects, international relations, geopolitics.

DEMBY: Heijin says that we also tend to think of beauty culture as being really static, as stuck in place, especially in places with a lot of brown people. So people love to talk about ancient African beauty secrets or South Asian eye coal traditions. But actually, beauty norms everywhere are constantly in flux. They're always changing. Take, for instance, 19th-century Japan.

LEE: At that time in Japan, one symbol or marker of beauty was to black-in one's teeth. And this was a sign of utmost beauty.

MERAJI: A sign of beauty until the beginning of the 20th century. That's when the West was becoming an economic superpower, and one of the things Japan did was ban teeth blackening as a way to try and keep up.

LEE: And so, you know, that's a way in which a beauty practice shifts from being something that symbolizes beauty, luxury, maybe an elite symbol of beauty, right, and it becomes coded as something perhaps antiquated or something not to be done, right, because the entire country is undertaking this project of modernization.

MERAJI: And like we said, race is a huge factor in how we create beauty norms that are tied to national identity. Heijin brought up the example of Miss America. There were no African-American Miss America contestants until 1970. There was a rule that stipulated that all the contestants had to be, quote, "of good health and of the white race."

LEE: And that might seem trivial. But what is happening there, right, is it's really teaching the American public about ideal American beauty, which, as we know, then becomes shaped as sort of white, feminine beauty becomes the ideal American beauty.

MERAJI: Heijin says it's no coincidence that one of the slogans of the Black Power movement in the '60s and '70s was Black Is Beautiful.

DEMBY: She pointed to another, more recent, example of this transformation happening with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So AOC, as everyone calls her, she got this huge response when she wore red lipstick and gold hoop earrings to her swearing-in ceremony for Congress.

LEE: And it was just this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful moment where, you know, so many black and brown women were, you know, tweeting, you know, I see you, I see myself reflected in you.

MERAJI: So things can change. And on a national scale, here's another example. Heijin says that about a hundred years ago in South Korea, it was considered taboo to alter anything on your body that was a gift from your ancestors. Many women wouldn't even cut their hair.

LEE: Fast-forward a century later, and South Korea has, you know, the highest rates of plastic surgery per capita globally.

DEMBY: All of this gets back to power and politics and the economy. If you go back to 1997, Asia was experiencing the Asian financial crisis.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Stocks in Hong Kong fell about 4 percent today, and the sell off immediately reverberated across exchanges in Japan and Europe.

DEMBY: For people who don't remember, it was this huge mess that started in Thailand, and then it hit Indonesia and then South Korea got hit really hard.

MERAJI: The region's economy is in danger of collapse. People are struggling to get the few jobs that are available. But in the wake of all this, there's a spike in plastic surgeries.

LEE: In South Korea, photos are required on resumes. And so in the U.S., we tend to think of plastic surgery as something about vanity, luxury. Particularly, the way it's packaged on reality TV, I think we think of it as the domain of the really rich celebrities. In South Korea, we see an example of plastic surgery becoming a kind of economic necessity. If you are competing for a job with many other people and the economy is hard hit then you have to sort of do all the things that you can to get a leg up on that competition.

DEMBY: OK. But let's take it back even further. So Heijin said that when people think of plastic surgery in Korea, they often think about the double eyelid surgery, which is where people get a stitch in their eyelids to make their eyes have an extra fold. I know we've talked about that on the podcast before.

MERAJI: We have.

DEMBY: That surgery actually traces back to the end of the Korean War. She said that the U.S. military was launching this big public relations campaign where they're giving out candy and Spam to everyone in Korea. And then U.S. military doctors are also performing surgery on Koreans injured and wounded in the war.

LEE: Well, one of these military doctors, surgeons, was, you know, doing reconstructive surgery on Korean war victims but also decided to start performing the double eyelid procedure on Koreans, as well. And so his first patient was his own translator, who, you know, he said he was trying to alleviate his "suspicious-looking eyes," quote-unquote.

MERAJI: This American doctor, Ralph Millard, wrote in 1964 that the absence of the eye fold produces, quote, "a passive expression, which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental," unquote.

LEE: And that's really the first time that the double eyelid surgery becomes available to the masses in South Korea. And when you read and look at his sort of surgical notes, you really see the language of race pervading his logic as to why this is necessary and important and why he's really performing this kind of humanitarian service.

DEMBY: OK. So that's disgusting.

MERAJI: Yeah. It's awful. But Heijin says that even this procedure has this really janky history, the beauty and cosmetic surgery industry in South Korea has taken on a life of its own. Sure, lots of Americans talk about double eyelid surgery as East Asians trying to look more white...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...But in Asia, this look is coded as very Korean.

LEE: So, you know, that's very clearly this moment where beauty is affected by war, by empire, by a kind of colonizer-colonized relationship. I think what's important in thinking about that, though, is to also hold that moment in relationship to the current moment, where South Korea has a $12 billion cosmetics and beauty industry.

MERAJI: And that right there brings us right to our first listener question.

DEMBY: OK. Let's hear it. Let's hear it.


MERAJI: It came from a tweet from Claire Roth (ph) in Columbus, Ohio. And she says, (reading) I'd be interested to hear how Korean skin care came to the West and became the paragon of routines.


MERAJI: And it really has become the paragon. And Heijin says that's a big change.

LEE: If you were to ask someone of my parents' generation, if you were to ask my mom, right, - she's 70-something - who makes the best skin care products? I think she would still probably say, right, like, the French. You know, this kind of association of elite and luxury beauty products with Europe or the West. But if you were to ask one of my 20-something college students, they would say Nature Republic or The Face Shop. They would talk about Soko Glam.

MERAJI: And the 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now I'm going to go into sheet masking. So now that the weather's getting colder...

MERAJI: The person credited with bringing those steps to the West is a woman named Charlotte Cho, who founded Soko Glam with her husband in 2012. It's one of the most popular vendors of K-beauty, which is an umbrella term for Korean skin care products that have gained massive popularity across the world.

LEE: And this is really an astonishing shift, not because we're talking about the actual production of beauty products, but because what we're really talking about is who is seen as a producer of style.

MERAJI: And for more on K-beauty, I talked to NPR correspondent Elise Hu, who works out here with me at NPR West.


MERAJI: I'm really excited to be doing something with you because the last time we did something together, it was on Korean hiking culture. And I was in Los Angeles, and you did it from Seoul, South Korea.

HU: Which is where I was posted for 3 1/2 years, but now I'm back here with you in Culver City.

MERAJI: And that's actually why we brought you here, to talk about - and I'm going to throw you something right now. So you're going to have to...

HU: All right. Let's see what this is.

MERAJI: ...Describe it to the listeners after I throw it to you.

HU: K.

MERAJI: We're going to talk about this. (Laughter).

HU: OK. It just hit me in the face, but that's actually not the wrong place for it to hit me because this is a face mask. This is a Korean sheet mask, which is in a flat, thin container. And what it is is essentially, like, a baby wipe that's cut out into the shape of a face with eye cutouts, a nose and a lip cutout. And you just put it straight on your face and leave it there for 20 to 30 minutes. And it's supposed to be hydrating or cleansing or brightening, depending on what you're looking for.

MERAJI: And they're pretty popular right now.

HU: It's gotten huge in the West just within the last few years. I went to Korea. I moved to Korea in 2015. And just in those years - so since 2015 to now, where we're at - it's really exploded, this whole notion of K-beauty. And when we talk about K-beauty, it's an extension of Korean cool - this whole Korean wave phenomenon that includes Korean pop culture. So we're talking about K-dramas, which we're now seeing more on Netflix. We're talking about K-pop. Right now, BTS, that boy band, is one of the most popular boy bands and touring acts in the world, including the West.


BTS: (Singing in Korean).

HU: And so as Korean pop culture has gotten big, so has Korean lifestyle. And what's part of the Korean lifestyle is the Korean look.

MERAJI: So beyond these masks, what else is there out there?

HU: All sorts of things to make sure your skin is as radiant and youthful-looking as possible. So when we talk about Korean skin care, it includes multisteps, like a nighttime routine and a wake-up routine that might be 12 different products - at least three different products. And so not only do you have your cleanser and your toner and your moisturizer, there's also products called emulsion or essence and then sprays to make sure that you've stayed moisturized and dewy all day.

So when we're talking about the Korean look, we're talking about a very youthful look and this dewiness. So in the U.S., for instance, we use powder, but that's kind of verboten in Korea because that takes away that youthful look of moisture on your skin. It is kind of a different beauty standard. And Kim Suk-Young, this professor at UCLA, she talks a little bit about that.

KIM SUK-YOUNG: With the rise of K-beauty, I think it's doing some corrective to that notion of abject Asian-American bodies that - you know, beauty standards could be shifting from this very white bodily phenotype to something else.

MERAJI: All right. So we talked about how K-pop is really popular, and this has kind of pushed some of the Korean beauty standards and Korean beauty products here into the United States. But is there anything else at play? Is there any other reason why Korean beauty products are so popular?

HU: Yeah. That's a good question because the large context is really important, and this is all a vestige of Korea's modern history. So Korea is an exporting country. So in economic terms, what that simply means is that it exports a lot more than it consumes. It considers itself a shrimp between whales because it has Japan on one side and China on the other, and it has had to compete globally. And it's done very well. Think about - we drive Hyundai cars.

MERAJI: Yes, Kia, as well.

HU: Hyundai and Kia cars - we have Samsung and LG televisions, Samsung phones, Samsung washer-dryers. All of those are Korean exports. And that came out of Korea's industry and government being very tightly linked in deciding, hey, this is what we're going to manufacture and package and really put a public relations effort behind and export. And Korean pop and Korean cool - all of that is part of it.

And so now, as skin care becomes big, it's also a product of that same general idea, that, hey, private industry is going to get rich by really packaging and promoting these products. They're going to target kind of younger audiences because when we talk about these masks - you know, tweens can use them. It's not like it's a bunch of punk rock makeup or a bunch of mascara that parents might not like.

MERAJI: And they're really cheap. They're pretty affordable.

HU: The price point is really important, Shereen. I'm glad you brought that up because, you know, they've targeted a market where you can just get kind of lip balms and makeup at lower price points. And so when you see sections for K-beauty now in Sephora or CVS, a lot of those products are much cheaper than if you were to buy a Benefit product or a Bobbi Brown product.


MERAJI: Elise Hu, thank you so much.

HU: You're welcome.


DESIIGNER: (Rapping) Bentley basketball, we playin' that a lot, I'ma just get to the chicken, whip it, then I flip it, then trap it all, I got to get to the dollar - on the haters and back them off, smokin' on gas a lot, ready to whack them all, whack them all...

DEMBY: All right. So homie - I know, Shereen, you are an aficionado of these K-beauty products.

MERAJI: I have never done the 10-step routine, but I love the masks. And they have these patches that you put under your eyes to make them less puffy that are made out of snail slime.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Snail slime? Really?

MERAJI: Yes. And I don't know if they're working. I feel like they're working.

DEMBY: I was going to ask, like, do they work? But...

MERAJI: They work for me in that they force me to stop talking and to sit still for 10 to 15 minutes and chill. And relaxation is good. It's good for every part of your body. So in that way, I think they work very well.

DEMBY: Well, you certainly glow.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Thank you.

DEMBY: We're going to take a few moments to get our snail slime on - our gels and serums.

MERAJI: And when we come back, we'll talk about how hard it is to be slim thick. And we ask, is it possible to say [expletive] all this and decolonize our beauty routines?

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. All right, Shereen. So you're going to answer our next listener question about beauty.

MARIA FERNANDA: Hi. My name is Maria Fernanda (ph), and I live in Ann Arbor, Mich. When I was in undergrad, I remember talking to my Latina friends about my experience with an eating disorder and hearing, didn't we all go through that phase? - which is so sad. I guess what I'm really interested in is how this issue of eating disorders in the U.S. affects Latinas specifically. How do American beauty standards affect what Latinas are hearing from their friends and family about what we should look like?

MERAJI: To help me answer her question, I asked the Center for the Advancement of Women at Mount Saint Mary's University here in LA to help me organize a roundtable of Latinas who were willing to talk openly about eating disorders and body pressure. The Mount, as the students call it, is an HSI - a Hispanic serving institution - and a majority of the students are women POCs like Brianna Tetch (ph). Brianna's 21 and a sociology major.

BRIANNA TECH: You hear about Latinas usually having voluptuous bodies. And I feel like we're very subjected to only that type of body. And if you don't fit into that stereotype, I like to call it, then it's like, oh, you're not a desirable Latina.

FLOR CARPIO: I feel like there's also this, like, standard to be, like, thin. But then, like she was saying, we also have to have curves. So it's like, you just have to be, like, really curvy but also really tiny waist.

ANGELICA CRISPIN: And so you have people that look like J.Lo and Sofia Vergara. And that's who everybody aspires to be. I see it online. It's a phrase I see often. They want some - everybody wants to see a girl that's slim-thick. Everybody wants to aspire to be that.

MERAJI: You also heard there from Flor Carpio (ph) - she's a senior psych major - and Angelica Crispin (ph), who is a second year. Angelica is the one who introduced me to the term slim-thick. I had never heard that term before. So these women are talking about the pressure they feel to not only be thin, but curvy at the same time.

And while they said they're happy that there's Latina representation in the media - what little of it there is - most of those stars have very similar body types. Flor says the type, slim-thick or skinny-curvy, feels impossible to achieve naturally. And she thinks it's even harder than being straight-up skinny.

CARPIO: How do you do that without, you know, going to get stuff done? Like, I don't know.

MERAJI: Desiree Mejia (ph) is a 23-year-old senior and psych major. She says she likes wearing baggy clothes and sneakers but feels constant pressure to wear tight, revealing outfits.

DESIREE MEJIA: It's the question I always ask myself. Like, why do I need to show my body all the time? Which - still trying to figure out the answer to that.

MERAJI: Where does that pressure come from for you? Where do you hear it most?

MEJIA: I don't really hear it from friends. But I hear it from family, like, you know, when we're going out and we got to present ourselves to people. So it's like, look your best. Make sure you're wearing tight clothes so you can show your body. I think I've been hearing that since I was in middle school or something, which is kind of weird because why do you need to be telling a kid in middle school to be doing that?

MERAJI: I can identify with all of this - the societal pressure to be the slim-thick, sexy Latina and the family pressure to always look presentable and pretty in public. It is exhausting. These women told me their families are constantly commenting on their looks and their weight. It's often the first thing they hear about when they walk into a family party or when they see someone after a long time.

A friend who I mentioned this story to told me that whenever she goes to visit her nina - her godmother - the very first thing she hears when she walks in the door is almost always a version of this question.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: Are you fatter, or are you skinnier? Yes. It's the most maddening way of showing affection. And I do believe that's what it is, that it comes from a good place. Our families want the best for us, and they know that American society rewards thin people in all kinds of ways. Now, here's the thing. They also show us love by cooking for us and encouraging us to eat and have second helpings and to be sure to eat everything on our plate.

So there's a lot of mixed messaging going on, and it's something that Jeannine Cicco Barker, a licensed psychologist, hears her clients talk about a lot. She identifies as Latina herself and leads the eating concerns team at the University of Pennsylvania, where she specializes in supporting students of color.

JEANNINE CICCO BARKER: So I think about what's said in our families' comments on weight all of the time - you know, so-and-so looks like they lost weight; so-and-so has gained weight. If you are a child of immigrants or, you know, you're second-generation, first-generation in this country and you're also dealing with the acculturation pressures, to hear that you are fat, even though it can be meant as a term of endearment - it could be devastating.

MERAJI: But she also says that's just one piece of what's causing Latinas stress, anxiety and depression - all of which, by the way, are risk factors for eating disorders.

BARKER: One of the things that I really would love to see is just education to communities of color, low-income communities who are grappling with so much that if they are struggling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, it's not because there's something wrong with them. It's because there's something wrong with the world. I think a huge piece that often gets missed in treatment and in research is - are systems of oppression. In this case, you know, we're talking about the Latinx community and the ways in which we are devalued and deemed not worthy.

You know, I think about the history of colonization and - in our countries of origin and to indigenous peoples when they were deemed not worthy and not good enough. Their food was not worthy. Their clothes were not worthy. You know, everything about our being, in many ways - we're given the message that we're not good enough. It's everywhere. It's in our schools. It's in the communities we live in. It's high rates of poverty in our communities. It's sexism. It's racism. It really trickles into everything.

MERAJI: All these stressors stacked on top of each other put Latinas at greater risk for eating disorders. But they also make it super difficult for Latinas, like Desiree, Flor and Angelica, to admit to themselves or to their families that they may be struggling with eating problems.

MEJIA: It's always hidden or just not discussed about because we don't want to make it worse for our community. We're already seen as not important, you know? And it's like, why are we going to bring up eating disorders and make it worse for ourselves and the society?

CARPIO: Coming from, like, a low-income family, like, it was always about the bills. It was always about, like, are we going to be able to pay the water on time? Like, do we even have enough money to put food on the table? I never felt that what I was going through was enough to kind of bring up because there were so many other problems we were having.

CRISPIN: So for a lot of people, eating disorders are for people who have everything. And they're just looking for something to complain about at that point. And that can't be applied to us because we already have other things going on.

MERAJI: The stereotype of a person with an eating disorder is a thin, middle- to upper-class, straight, white teenage girl or woman, AKA women who seem like they have everything, which brings me back to something our listener Maria Fernanda said in her question.

FERNANDA: I remember talking to my Latina friends about my experience with an eating disorder and hearing, didn't we all go through that phase? - which is so sad.

MERAJI: Jeannine Cicco Barker told me studies show that Latinas suffer from bulimia and binge-eating disorders at the same rates...

BARKER: And in some studies, even higher rates than white, cis women. And research is also showing that Latinas are, in some cases, at greater risk for bulimia and binge-eating disorder.

MERAJI: A vast majority of eating disorder research and treatment, however, is focused on white women who are very thin. It's something that Mae Lynn Reyes-Rodriguez has been trying to address since she was a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico in the '90s. All these years later, she says things haven't changed that much. The studies are still done, for the most part, by white researchers on white women.

MAE LYNN REYES-RODRIGUEZ: When we see clinical trials only include Caucasian populations, sometimes with a small sample size of African-American or more acculturated Latinas because they have to speak English and to do everything in English, we are not responding to the current demographic reality of the U.S.

MERAJI: Mae Lynn works at the Center for Excellence and Eating Disorders (ph) at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill now, where her clients are mostly Latinas who don't speak English. She told me there's so much we still don't know about how disordered eating affects the Latinx community. And she's not even sure the tools she's using to diagnose her clients are working as well as they could be because they were developed and adapted for white women. And they definitely don't take into account the differences between Latinx folks. We're talking about class differences and cultural differences depending on our countries of origin.

REYES-RODRIGUEZ: I need to learn. I need to know more about the Mexican culture, Central America culture, knowing that it's not the same like Puerto Rico.

MERAJI: One difference she's already noticed in her work stems from the trauma of immigration. She told me some of her clients who didn't have enough to eat on their journey from Central America or Mexico to the U.S., they've developed binge-eating disorder. Now that they have access to food, she says, they're unable to control how much they eat. The trauma and the anxiety from being without food for so long triggered the eating disorder.

Another trigger that we already talked about are those comments about our weight that we often get from our families. You know, you're looking chubby. You're looking too skinny. Your butt disappeared. You know, you have chunky arms like your mom. It's really too bad you can't move that tummy fat up higher. Why aren't you eating? You don't like what I made you. There are starving people in the world. You better eat everything on your plate - those kind of comments. Mae Lynn says she's working on ways to fix that by incorporating family members into her clients' treatment.

REYES-RODRIGUEZ: What we did was to educate the patient and the family how to change that kind of dynamic, identifying triggers, what kind of comment was not helpful for the patient. And in that sense, the family - they were very responsive.

MERAJI: The Latina students I spoke with at Mount Saint Mary's University told me what's been helping them is really limiting the barrage of online messaging they get about fitness and dieting, especially at the beginning of the year. Desiree Mejia says she was following a lot of women on Instagram who were workout-obsessed and always posting selfies.

MEJIA: Constantly exercising, constantly posting what are they eating in order to maintain their weight. And then I realized, like, it was just worsening the feelings I had towards myself. It's like, why am I not having this body? Like, I'm not working out as much as them, therefore, I'm not - like, I'm not acceptable. I can't accept myself. I'm not eating what they're eating. I can't accept myself. So what I had to do was, like, I had to actually go through my list of, like, who I was following and unfollow all of that.

MERAJI: This is actually something that psychologist Jeannine Cicco Barker also encourages her clients to do. And she sometimes suggests Instagram handles that they may want to follow instead, like @thebodyisnotanapology or @bodyposipanda, @recipesforselflove, @latinxtherapy, @transfolxfightingeds - that's folx, and ED stands for eating disorders - and @nalgonapositivitypride, which is an Instagram handle run by Gloria Lucas.

GLORIA LUCAS: All right. I'm just pulling over.


LUCAS: I'm in the middle of the desert, and I just found a neighborhood to drive in to.

MERAJI: I caught her on her cell. She's based in LA but was in Arizona leading eating disorder awareness talks and meetups for Latinx and Indigenous folks there.

LUCAS: I run Nalgona Positivity Pride, which is a Xicana-brown-Indigenous body-positive project. And I identify as an eating disorder survivor and public speaker.

MERAJI: Gloria started this because of how hard it was for her to come to terms with the fact that she had an eating disorder.

LUCAS: Well, I'm not white. I'm not middle-class. And I don't have anorexia, and I'm not thin. So why did I develop an eating disorder?

MERAJI: After doing a ton of research on her own, she knew her bingeing and purging was a real issue, and one that was hurting her work, her family, her relationships - everything. And she knew she needed help, but she couldn't afford treatment. So Gloria went about trying to fix things alone.

LUCAS: Accompanied by, like, Overeaters Anonymous, which was the only free resource for me at that time. And I was always either the youngest or the only person of color. I don't recommend that to anybody because it's extremely hard.

MERAJI: She refused to, as she puts it, wait for the medical-industrial complex to get its diversity training to do something to help people of color with eating disorders. So she started a free monthly online support group called Sage and Spoon.

LUCAS: You know, I'm a firm believer that in order to heal, we have to connect. We need to start saying our own stories and supporting one another in our own ways. Food is not something that we could just eradicate from our lives, maybe like drugs or alcohol. We don't need those to live, but we do need food, right?

Food is always around, and diet culture's always around. Racism is always around. And then on top of that, there's not even language to talk about food in our own homes in a healthy way. So we have to look at recovery as an ongoing process, such as healing.


DEMBY: All right, Shereen. So we've talked about how beauty was one way that nations projected their power out into the world. We've talked about the ways in which we metabolize these ideas around beauty, sometimes, as we just heard, with life-threatening consequences. And that brings us to our last listener question.


CECILIA FERNANDEZ: Hello. My name is Cecilia Fernandez (ph). And my question is, besides the natural hair movement, what ways do people have of decolonizing their beauty routine?

MERAJI: Great question. And I can't wait to hear the answer and start the decolonization process.

DEMBY: Decolonizing your beauty routine - like, what does that even mean?

MERAJI: Leah Donnella, one of our editors here on CODE SWITCH, has the answer.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: OK. So first off, it is recognizing the fact that a lot of our Western beauty standards are celebrating whiteness, not some objective, biological, evolutionary, perfect-ratio thing, but literally just being a white person.


DONNELLA: In fact, if you go back and look at the work of some early racial theorists, people like Christoph Meiners and Johann Blumenbach, when they were first defining the category of whiteness, they described it as the most beautiful race.

NELL IRVIN PAINTER: So it was important for them to be superior in all areas.

DONNELLA: That's Nell Irvin Painter. She's an artist and historian who taught classes at Princeton about race and beauty. She also wrote a book called "The History Of White People." And she told me that those early scientists and intellectuals were white supremacists, not in a cross-burning, KKK sense, but in that they conceived of white people as better.

PAINTER: So they not only wanted the people they called their women to be the most beautiful and their men to be the most virile, they wanted their countries to have the best politics. So they wanted to have everything better, and that included beauty.

DONNELLA: So if you want to decolonize your beauty routine, you're going to have to find a way to decenter these ideals that are based on whiteness. And throughout history, there are a bunch of ways that people have tried to do this.


DONNELLA: Our listener Cecilia brought up the natural hair movement, which comes out of the broader Black is Beautiful movement.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Black is beautiful.

DONNELLA: That started in the U.S. in the 1960s in the midst of the civil rights movement, and it was about affirming aspects of blackness that were considered ugly by these white, colonial standards. Nell Painter says this movement had a huge effect on her family.


PAINTER: My mother was very beautiful, but my mother was dark-skinned, so she never thought of herself as beautiful.


DONNELLA: Her mom was born in 1917, way before the Black is Beautiful movement. In the '60s and '70s, organizers of the movement started to embrace the political power behind the idea that all aspects of blackness are beautiful - dark-brown skin, natural hair, noses, lips, bodies, fashion.

PAINTER: For black people, the idea of black as beautiful - that was a real breakthrough. And so my mother emerged as a beautiful person, and people told her she was beautiful. And it took her a long time to accept it.

DONNELLA: Dr. Painter actually told me that her mom wound up writing a book called "I Hope I Look That Good When I'm That Old" because that's what people started telling her all the time.

By the way, the natural hair movement didn't just affect women. Malcolm X famously talked about his very-colonized hair routine, where he would use lye, which can be pretty painful, to chemically straighten his hair. And that got depicted in the 1992 movie "Malcolm X."


ALBERT HALL: (As Baines) That's what the white man wants you to do. Look at you, putting all that poison in your hair.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) I think you've been in prison too long, my man, because everybody on the outside conks.

HALL: (As Baines) Why? Why does everybody on the outside conk?

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) They don't want to walk around with a nappy head, looking like...

HALL: (As Baines) Looking like what? Like me? Like a nigger? Why don't you want to look like what you are? What makes you ashamed of being black?

DONNELLA: There are other movements that have tried to address beauty as a political force. There was the Indigenous movement in Mexico. So maybe one of the most famous icons of that was Frida Kahlo. In her self-portraits, she's dressed in pre-Columbian clothes and hairstyles, and she paints herself with visible facial hair and hair between her eyebrows. Many people have described her work as being a radical rejection of colonial beauty standards.

These days, a lot of women push back on the idea that they should remove facial hair, underarm hair, body hair - all of that - in order to be considered beautiful or hygienic or professional. And here's a little hidden history for you.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) Are you ready?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Start with Gillette for women and be ready for anything.

DONNELLA: Hair removal goes back, like, thousands of years to the Stone Ages. But a bunch of people have written about the fact that a big part of why women started shaving their legs and armpits in the U.S. was probably just so Gillette could sell more razors.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Gillette for women. Are you ready?

DONNELLA: Another recent example of people decolonizing their beauty routine is the body positivity movement. So it's the idea that disabled bodies can be beautiful, old bodies can be beautiful, fat bodies can be beautiful. And that movement grew out of the fat acceptance movement.

The fat acceptance movement differs from the body positivity movement in that it's not trying to broaden the definition of who is beautiful, but rather say that people should be treated with respect and autonomy whether or not they're considered beautiful.

All of these things involve collective political organizing. It's not just about buying products that were designed by women of color or fashion from Indigenous designers. Again, it involves fundamentally reorienting yourself to what is beautiful and why.


NOLIWE ROOKS: I was walking by a bus stop, and there were two older black women there. And I heard one say to the other, like, oh, my God, what has happened to her hair?

DONNELLA: Noliwe Rooks is a professor at Cornell who teaches classes on beauty. And she wrote a book called "Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture And African-American Women." She had just started to lock her hair. She says it was still in the kind of awkward stage when these women decided to comment.

ROOKS: I felt this kind of racial shame. I felt gender shame. Like, I felt this racial shame because, you know, as black people who could say, oh, you are appearing in the world in some way that will make the rest of us look bad or that will give white people generally some view of who we are that's not comfortable, that's not settled, that's not attractive.

How we appear out in the world as women, as people that identify as women, you know, really matters in places you - in different kinds of categories.

DONNELLA: Rooks gave a few examples. So there's been research done that says that fat women are graded more harshly in school than thin women. Lots of people have written about the way that older women become irrelevant and ignored. Markers of queerness get scrutinized in all sorts of ways.

So there are consequences to decolonizing your beauty routine. And Rooks says those consequences won't just be coming from racist white people. Hampton University is an example. It's an HBCU, and its business school has a policy that you can't have dreadlocks. They say it's unprofessional.

ROOKS: And so the choice that you make then, if you're someone who feels like - for body positivity and self-affirmation and adornment, and - you know, this is what I'm going to do. I want dreadlocks. Well, your choice is - yes, you can do that. You can decolonize that look in the way that you feel is important to you.

You can't go to that school. You know, like, it - they're clear. Until recently, you couldn't serve in the military. There's all manner of corporate jobs that, if you're decolonizing your body, you can't have.

DONNELLA: Rooks brought up a theorist named Susan Bordo, who wrote about the fact that beauty can be a playground - something fun and light. Are you hanging out with your friends, choosing between bubble gum pink lipstick and candy apple red?

ROOKS: Or is it a battlefield, where all these other things are going to come into play? And it's rarely gray for very long.

DONNELLA: When we're talking about personal beauty, having a beauty routine at all means that you are consciously or unconsciously accepting the idea that you need to change. The way your hair falls or the shininess of your skin or the curl of your eyelashes - it will all be more beautiful if you spend time and money to make it different.

And that's not just a matter of vanity. It's also a matter of survival and social mobility, especially for people who aren't thin and cis and white.

ROOKS: Yes, you - we can live in a world where we try to battle with those overarching narratives that tell us all that beauty is only skin-deep, and be a good person and, you know, if you love yourself, everyone will love you. We can do that. But the forces pushing back against it in many parts of the world - it's quite a headwind that you're moving against. And I think the more that we recognize it - instead of, you know, preparing girls to - if I love myself, everyone will love me - well, this is just not true.


DONNELLA: Rooks says she gets why people want to say that. She teaches young people. And she would love for the world to work that way.

ROOKS: But it's literally not true. And so I don't think that - I think having people - young women, young girls, men, all of us - really understand the forces that are arrayed against us when we talk about beauty, to understand beauty as politics, to understand intersectionality, like, you know, yes, this can mean this for you over here, but when you go over here, maybe it won't - like, to have a more complex engagement with these questions than just, I can do whatever I want to, and that will make it all right.


DONNELLA: Any way you go about it, the process of decolonizing your beauty routine is probably going to result in a lot of people being uncomfortable with your appearance. But that's also the only way things have a chance of changing. So you got to know your politics. What are you trying to say with your beauty routine? And what are you willing to deal with?

Now, I think there's another big question to be asked here, which is, if beauty is reinforcing all these racist, sexist, classist ideas about who matters, should we really be striving to be more beautiful at all? I mean, Nell Irvin Painter, who we heard from earlier, said the easiest ways to be beautiful are to be young, well-rested, healthy and not poor. She literally said, do not be poor. And that made me pretty uncomfortable. So I asked her, if you need money to be beautiful, can you ever actually decolonize your routine?

PAINTER: So when I talk about don't be poor in terms of your beauty routine, I mean, I'm almost being ironic because it's so much larger than how you look. You know, it has to do with the ethics of our society, the ethics of our politics, the ethics of our political economy. But we are talking about appearance. And to my mind, the great destroyer of nice appearance is poverty.

DONNELLA: And so if trying to have a nice appearance is predicated on not being poor, then is beauty a kind of fundamentally unjust concept to be striving for?

PAINTER: In that sense, absolutely, yes. Just to talk about teeth, how many ways do we take care of our teeth or change our teeth? I'm thinking about braces or teeth-whitening and all that. And it all costs a lot of money.

If you start, as we have started, from the question of beauty, then we go from beauty to poverty. If we were talking generally about what I would like to see in our culture, I would say for people not to be poor. And I wouldn't go directly to beauty there. I would go to health or to education or to personal safety. But since we're talking about beauty, it comes back in.


DONNELLA: So back to the question at hand. You could argue that a profound way to decolonize your beauty routine is to have none, is to say, my body and my face are valuable and beautiful without modification. That will obviously have deeper consequences for people who are already marginalized and, therefore, more likely to be considered not beautiful to begin with.

The other really radical thing, I think, would be to try and reject personal beauty as a measure of worth. That's something that a lot of people in the fat acceptance movement in particular have done a lot of work towards, not just broadening beauty ideals, but saying, we should respect people regardless of whether they're considered beautiful.

And I think ultimately, beauty is a facet of power. So you can play into our current beauty norms, or you can try to change those norms, as people in a lot of these different movements have done, or you can decide you're going to opt out of the whole process. But from a social standpoint, even if you decide not to play the game, the game is still being played, and you're still stuck on the field.


DEMBY: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter, y'all. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is You can always send us burning questions about race that are befuddling you with the subject line, Ask Code Switch. Sign up for our newsletter at Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan, Leah Donnella, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Sami Yenigun and me. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Steve Drummond and Kat Chow. Our intern is Tiara Jenkins. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.