Sheryl Underwood

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Women of Color in the Media and Society’s Beauty Standards

Between Sheryl Underwood’s recent comments that natural African-American hair is “nasty” and Julie Chen’s public confession that she underwent eyelid surgery to enhance her career by looking “less Asian,” the women of daytime television’s The Talk have been at the center discussions on race, women and standards of beauty.

In an interview with model Heidi Klum, Klum shared that she enjoys keeping her children’s hair after haircuts for sentimental reasons.  Klum, who is white, shares children with recording artist Seal, who is black.  She described her children’s hair as “huge afros.”  African-American host Sheryl Underwood then chimed in that she failed to see why anyone would want to keep hair of that texture.  Underwood said:

“OK, I’m sorry, but why would you save afro hair?  You can’t weave afro hair. You never see us at the hair place going ‘Look, here, what I need here is, I need those curly, nappy beads.’ That just seems nasty.”

After host Sara Gilbert added that she also keeps her children’s hair, Underwood added: “Which is probably some beautiful, long, silky stuff.”  After a social media backlash accusing Underwood (who routinely wears silky textured wigs on air) of self-hatred, she issued an apology for her statements, taking to the airwaves on Steve Harvey’s radio show.  Underwood offered: “I want to apologize for my recent attempt at humor that missed the target and hit my people squarely in the heart. To all of you I say, I’m very sorry for my failed attempt at humor surrounding something that’s very sensitive to us: our hair.”

The issue of natural hair has indeed made waves for African-American women in the working in the media.  African-American TV Meteorologist Rhonda Lee was fired from Shreveport’s KTBS for defending her short, natural hair on the station’s Facebook page after her appearance was attacked by a viewer.  This occurred years after being told by a news director at a different station that her hair was “too aggressive.”   In this case Lee’s racial appearance was blatantly held against her, with a definite implication that her short hair also called the femininity of her appearance into question.

However, such comments are not limited to African-American women’s hair.  More recently, lead-host of The Talk Julie Chen admitted to having her eyelids surgically altered to appear less Chinese.  Chen quoted a former boss:

“He said ‘Let’s face it Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we really have in Dayton? … On top of that because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera, when you’re interviewing someone you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they are so small.'”

Though women of color may be employed to work in front of the camera, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to appear less “ethnic” and to represent an idealized standard of beauty.  Looks matter.  Whether that means African-American women wearing long, silky textured wigs, Asian women having eyelid surgery to make the eyes appear more rounded or women of all races being expected to be a certain body size and shape (remember the fat-shaming of anchor Jennifer Livingston?), the message is that “White is Right,” and that being a racial minority is acceptable so long as there is an effort to appear as white as possible.  And being a woman is acceptable so long as she is physically attractive under a very narrow definition of beauty.

Feminists both male and female need to continue to challenge these standards of beauty for women who work in the media.  The messages we receive from the constant stream of media in our lives run deep.

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