Zadie Smith’s On Beauty Blog by Holly Gray

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“‘Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,’ said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies—it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.” P.197

Where the issues of black identity and the issue of appearance meet, On Beauty tackles the matter of white, European beauty standards and how they affect the black female characters.

One example of this is Howard’s affair with Claire Malcolm, and how it enrages Kiki in a somewhat irrational way. She has almost moved past the affair until the subject is revealed to be Claire, at which point she screams at her husband for sleeping with a white woman, or as Kiki repeats – ‘a tiny little white woman’. Kiki goes on to say that she feels she is ‘alone in this… this sea of white’. She also says ‘you married a big black bitch and you run off with a leprechaun?’, referring to herself with derogatory language, trying to exemplify how she feels in comparison with the ‘sea of white’ that surrounds her, including exaggerating that she probably weighs less than Kiki’s leg. This clearly brings to light the deep seated issue Kiki has with the affair; her husband has chosen to betray her trust with the pinnacle of the Eurocentric beauty ideals that she does not fit into.

Another interesting facet of these ideas of white/black beauty in the novel is within the young black women in the novel; particularly Victoria and Zora. Zora is very dismissive of Victoria, and she repeatedly refers to her as ‘pretty’ but also as ‘vain’, and ‘shallow’. As Victoria is black, this recognition of her beauty goes further than the white beauty standards she is conditioned to recognize; yet it is unclear whether this is because Victoria conforms to the standards by being slim and ‘charming’ or because she is objectively pretty.

Eurocentric ideas of beauty have recently become increasingly relevant in modern culture as we recognize the affects that living in a society that praises these features so outwardly has on young black people, and as the younger generation who are affected by these ideals speak out against them. As explained at around 1:30 in the above video, whitewashing and skin bleaching are just some of the ways that people of colour feel as though they have to conform to these narrow ideas of beauty.

Within the novel, Zadie Smith explores the little-discussed long term effects of these issues, such as black women experiencing insecurity. Are there any other examples of white beauty standards limiting the black characters in On Beauty? Also, with the book released ten years ago, has there been any change in response to these problems, or a change in attitudes on beauty?

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Eliza on February 1, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    I think what ‘On Beauty’ does highlight is the way in which image alienates women from each other. I can’t think of one scene where Victoria is presented as having a friendship or a positive relationship with another woman, and it seems as if it is her beauty that alienates her from everyone else, particularly from other women. However, through the relationship between Kiki and Carlene, we see the possibility for women to support each other – as Carlene quotes in her final note to Kiki, ‘There is such a shelter in each other’. One of the problems with the ‘beauty myth’ is that it alienates women from each other, turning them in on themselves – divide and conquer, so to speak.

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  2. Posted by Eva on February 2, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Kiki says there is no way to control the hatred of women and their bodies, yet according to ‘The Beauty Myth’, the beauty ideals that cause this self-hatred is the exact way for society to control women and keep them down, so to speak.
    While there may seem to have been some improvement in attitudes towards beauty lately, with Barbie embracing different body types and skin tones, and slightly more magazine covers with women of colour on them, I don’t think there has been much improvement in reality. With today’s social media we no longer only see celebrities look ‘flawless’, but ‘normal’ people too, which takes the issue of comparing oneself to others’ perfection to a whole new level.

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  3. The widespread self hatred that women have of their bodies is evident in any long conversation between two women. This is evolving in modern culture, apps to make someone look ‘flawless’ and ‘perfect’ relates to Naomi Wolf’s argument that this enables women to be controlled by media outlets. The fact that Kiki says that the hatred is uncontrollable adds to this notion and shows that there needs to be a lot more education, especially for younger girls so that they don’t become obsessed.

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  4. Posted by Lukas on February 2, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    The novel also shows how society punishes the women who do not cohere with the beauty myth. Howard cheats on Kiki – twice, Monty cheats on Carlene, and they are both mirrored in Zora when she finds Carl sleeping with Victoria. Although Carl and Zora never were together, the novel suggests that had Zora been conventionally beautiful, instead of a hard-working, intelligent, coolheaded, determined student. Through the ending of the novel, where Kiki can break away from Howard due to inheriting the painting from Carlene, suggests that the way to go forward for women to find happiness and respect is by standing together and supporting each other.

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  5. Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’ centres on black identity and female self-esteem and how the two are intrinsically linked. Howard’s affair with Clare is a poignant part of the novel and relates directly to this theme. This betrayal fed Kiki’s insecurities about her own body image and skin colour. Being the polar opposite to Clare, Kiki begins to wonder if this is the contributory factor in the reasoning behind her husband’s infidelity. As women we empathise with Kiki, already feeling alienated in Wellington amongst the ‘sea of white’, her insecurities are then heightened about her race being undesirable.

    The character of Kiki is a representation of the black females that are fighting for an accepted identity within today’s Eurocentric ideal of beauty. These confining beauty standards rarely recognize black women ‘…unless they had, like Beverly Johnson, virtually Caucasian features.’ (Naomi Wolf, Beauty Myth) This poses the question whether this injustice stems from centuries of black oppression across the western world and whether or not we have made much progression in the process of equality.

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  6. Posted by Christie on February 2, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    Female insecurity as a result of the Western beauty ideal is an issue which will affect almost every female individual at some point in their lives. However, a black female audience is likely to experience further feelings of insecurity and alienation due to factors such as the colour of their skin or their natural hair – as Holly’s video clip highlights – which add a further layer to the unobtainable Western beauty ideal for black women.
    Whilst the solution seems simple, the problem is so widespread throughout the media that it seems it is now unavoidable. Noticing younger female relatives of my own post pictures of themselves on social media with heavy make up and captions ridiculing their appearance etc. really emphasises how widespread this issue is. However, I also believe it is a problem that is receiving more and more publicity in society nowadays so hopefully this offers the younger generation an insight and opportunity to grow out of insecurities and learn to accept themselves as they are.

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  7. Posted by Phoebe on February 2, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    I think Holly raises a key debate when she asks ‘with the book released ten years ago, has there been any change in response to these problems?’ Beyonce, a supposedly inspirational figure to young black girls, continues to conform to western ideals of beauty, bleaching both her hair and skin. In her newspaper 2008 article, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown accused the singer of ‘betraying all Black and Asian women.’ She states that too many black and Asian children grow up believing that due to their dark skin, they are somehow inferior to others. In more recent times, African singer Denica released a skin bleaching cream called ‘Whitenicious’, justifying its name with the statement: ‘white means pure’. Released in 2014, the cream proves that this is still a prevalent issue today.

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  8. When I was studying in Grand Valley state last year, I took a Women and Gender studies class – one of the pieces we did was The Beauty Myth. We did other pieces such as Size Six: The Western Woman’s Harem, and had in class discussions that were very interesting in the way that they were very mixed in their opinions.
    We used Victoria Secret beauty standards as a point of discussion – the majority of the class, mostly consisting of white cis women, (but not entirely) admitted to having had issues with their bodies and that images of these models probably didn’t help.
    There was one girl in the class who worked at Victoria Secret and had this example; “White girls frequently turn to me and ask ‘does my ass look BIG in this?’, black girls turn to me and ask ‘does my ass look GOOD in this?’.”
    We’d been sat discussing how these images affect everyone, and yet, as a black woman herself, in her opinion, they didn’t. They affected people very differently.
    It was interesting to me after seeing so many online discussions talk about how it’s worse for women of colour because the hegemonic standard of beauty is a racist one.

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  9. Your post brings to mind the issue of cultural appropriation, a controversial topic which has made more headlines over the past couple of years than ever before. As you rightly mentioned, young black women are increasingly pressured to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty and this is an issue explored within the novel. However, more so in recent years, mainstream ideas of beauty have devised from Black culture and it’s interesting to consider the implications that arise as a result of this.
    Elements of Black culture, such as hairstyles, are made ‘fashionable’ by mainstream media for the purposes of white consumption. This results in Black culture being robbed of it’s traditions by white people who take their traditions and claim them as their own – and quite often they are unaware they are doing so.

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  10. Posted by Salma AlTabari on February 3, 2016 at 2:42 am

    Howard’s affair with Claire reminded me of a similar incident in the novel Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Adichie. Adichie has written and spoken a lot about issues relevant to this blog. One of her main arguments is about the dangers of a single story, and how popular narratives are what create standards which are seen as the best. In this case, what makes white beauty the ultimate standard for beauty goes back to the industries that promote beauty: cosmetics industries, fashion industries and beauty magazines, those who set the “standards”.
    The only recent response I can think of that has attempted to make a dent in these issues would be Barbie’s recent change of its dolls; they have made various shapes, sizes and skin tones for Barbie that are much more realistic.
    However, I feel that the real issue is not simply about a conformist beauty ideology, rather I feel the issue is in the attitudes that place a great deal of emphasis on beauty in general.

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  11. Posted by Wafaa on February 3, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    Kiki’s sense of self consciousness and insecurities are noticeable from the beginning of the novel. The intimidation of not being accepted as we are can go as far as affecting people’s lives and relationships because there is a lack of recognition in diverse and multinational looks people are born with and are almost forced to only try to conform to the Eurocentric idea of beauty. Media plays a huge impact on people when images they portray are repeatedly shown of one similar style reducing people to being unhappy with themselves and their unique and different looks, body and skin colour. Making them feel inadequate and other.

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