Beautiful Rebellion: When Media Breaks Down the Walls of Segregation

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The media, especially advertising, is often criticized for our warped expectations of beauty. There is no doubt about it: photoshopping, highly sexualized portraits and impossibly thin models, create unrealistic — even harmful — visions of the ideal. We just love to lambast the media, and I get it.

But then there are those instances when advertising becomes a source of progress. It challenges the status quo and pushes us to demand a better way. Even in the world of beauty.

Take the recent campaign by Shea Moisture, “Break the Walls.”  Shea Moisture is a line of skin and haircare products primarily for people of color. This ad, and the accompanying YouTube film, shed light on the segregation of “ethnic” beauty products to the a small portion of the beauty aisle.  As the spot points out, there the a beauty aisle for white people, and there is the ethnic aisle for everyone else.  The implication: white people are beautiful, others are, well, “ethnic,” i.e., not beautiful.  The hell with that!  The video dramatically shows the aisles blowing up as a metaphor for breaking our assumptions about what beauty is. It’s great!

As someone who grew up in the world of advertising, I see both sides.  I realize that we, in media, can present unrealistic worlds of exceedingly happy families, the glory of wealth and prestige, or flawless beauties.  But, I still believe that there are, and bear witness to, those times when advertising can raise our awareness to society’s ills a suggest a better way.  When I worked in the ad industry, believe me, all we wanted to create was something meaningful, no matter how idealistic our clients were. Given my years at DDB, I still can’t help but quote Bill Bernbach who said:

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

For any of us who create media in some shape or form, let’s always strive to lift our world to a higher level.  And for those of us who merely engage with it (all of us, actually), let’s not just view it with a disdainful eye but fully embrace and applaud those advertisers and media makers who help lift it for us.

When We Criticize the Plastic Surgery of Non-Caucasians are We Just Be Self-Centered?

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It’s undeniable.  Rates of plastic surgery have risen among young adults, especially among Asian women both in the U.S. and in the Far East.  Plastic surgery is also quite common among other non-caucasians — here and abroad.
And it seems to be taken for granted that the primary reason for this surgery is for these men and women to look more “Western” or “caucasian.”
But should it be?
Would the people receiving these make-overs totally agree?  Could it be that “Westerners” just assume that?  And maybe it’s those who look caucasian among us that need to stop be so egocentric!
What is prompting this reaction?
I had some time on my hands as I was watching my kids jump around the pool for a few hours and was able to finally crack open my back issues of New York Magazine.  In the July 28th issue, the cover story “Is Race Plastic” by Maureen O’Conner, challenges many of these accepted “truths” about the culture of plastic surgery.
If any of us engaged in the cultural conversations around physical beauty over the past decades, we would be surrounded by theories stating that, while our tastes for beauty can be attributed to evolutionary or biological factors, so much of what determines our judgements around beauty are culturally based.  And the more dominant the culture, the more that culture will determine them.  This explains Jewish and Arab women’s investment in plastic surgery to shorten their noses, African women’s desire to narrow their noses and Asian men and women’s rush to open their eyes.  All of these changes help these folks look more Western, right?
O’Conner shows us that it’s not so simple.  What we think of as “Western” changes, many of these beneficiaries of plastic surgery think of as slight changes to make them feel more beautiful.  As O’Conner writes: “While working on this article, I found that people of all races had principled reservations about and passionate critiques of these practices.  But the group that most consistently believed participants were deluding themselves about not trying to look white, were well, white people.”
There’s no question, O’Conner goes on to say, that plastic surgery is often an attempt for people to “fit in.”  But, she proceeds to ask, “fit in where, exactly?”  Sometimes people choose to look more like their families or maybe more like others in their communities who have received similar surgery.  And sometimes it is a way to look more refreshed.
I’m not advocating that we all rush to cut our faces apart.  But I don’t think we should rush to judge others who do.  And especially, I think we should consider what we’re judging people for.  Let’s not automatically assume that the “poor people who undergo this surgery” are so in need to look like Westerners.  What does “Western” really look like these day anyway?!
Net net, we all need a dose of humility.