“Mixed” Feelings: Looking at Racial Identity in Beauty, Fashion, and Beyond

In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the politics of racialized bodies more than usual. As a person of biracial descent (my mother is white, and my father is half-black), this isn’t an issue that is ever far from my mind. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked (by perfect strangers, no less) “what I am” and “where I’m from.” I’ve been asked (when out with my white mother) if I’m adopted. I’ve faced questions and received comments, based solely on my appearance, that would never be asked of or directed towards individuals who are white. For racial, biracial, and multiracial individuals alike, the constant interrogation over our appearances—and the assumptions of identity and behaviour that often accompany this barrage—are a constant reminder that in a culture where whiteness is still considered the norm from which all else deviates, those who appear different are always forced to answer for who they are.

Ken Tanaka’s recent video for YouTube Comedy Week, entitled “What Kind of Asian Are You?” cogently points to the sheer ridiculousness of the logic of this interrogation of race and ethnicity by turning the tables on a white man after he asks a Korean woman “where her people are from.” In a similar fashion, NPR’s Code Switch project, which features a team of journalists writing about race, culture, and ethnicity, put together a slideshow of some of the awkward and offensive questions that racialized people face on a daily basis. When General Mills launched a new commercial for Cheerios, featuring an interracial couple and a biracial daughter, the internet exploded: General Mills had to halt the ability to post comments to the video on YouTube because of the sheer amount of virulent racism hurled towards it.

This is just a small sample of what’s been going on in the media lately regarding racial identity, and of the many struggles that racialized people face on a daily basis. It’s also an indication of the fact that racism, both overt and covert, is still extremely prevalent within our culture. Now, I’m going to go out on a very generous limb by suggesting that many of the comments, questions, and labels about racialized appearances do not emerge from a location of sheer malice in the style of white-supremacist groups. However, these articulations exist within a spectrum, in which natural curiosity, internalized narratives of racism, and the ignorance and denial of white privilege all exist. 

What fascinates me most, as someone who is interested in the body as read through the lenses of fashion and beauty, are the comments that pertain to the ways in which racialized beauty (and, in particular, biracial or multiracial beauty) is read. Indeed, many of these comments are earnestly seen or intended as compliments, rather than as symptoms of the historical commodification and sexualization of racialized women. I’ve written before about my various criticisms of a lack of critical thought about diversity in the fashion industry, although I’ve focused mostly on diversity of size and shape. However, as we well know, among the other privileges that exist within the modeling industry (youth, thinness, and some arbitrary definition of “beauty”), white privilege is alive and well, and, in my opinion, the privilege that often underlies many of the others.

As someone who has dabbled in modelling, and who has interviewed with a couple of modelling agencies, I know first-hand that one of the first things out of agents’ mouths are questions about ethnic and racial heritage. I was reminded of that last week, when a local agency—Wilhelmina Vancouver—posted about two of its biracial models.

In introducing one of their latest models, Wilhelmina used the following hashtags: “#eurasian #mixed #halfer.” I must point out that this post was later edited to exclude the word “halfer.” A couple days later, an update about a model on an international contract featured the hashtags “#eurasian #mixed #exotic.” Now, I can see how those who are writing these posts may conceive of these words as simply descriptive, and that they are using terms like “exotic” and “halfer” in order to point to the beautiful mosaic of all colours and creeds that are ostensibly represented in our wonderful, multicultural society. I can see how they might think that these are totally, non-problematic compliments.

And yet, it’s important to call attention to the fact that these seemingly innocuous posts are symptoms of the exact same things that Ken Tanaka and NPR’s CodeSwitch are trying to address.

For instance, why is it that only the racialized models receive hashtags that a) identify their race and/or ethnicity, and that b) link their racial identity directly to their beauty? I certainly don’t see the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde models identified with hashtags such as #purebred #white #alabaster.

  • Why is it that modelling agencies ignore the ways in which whiteness has appropriated, commodified, or sexualized racialized beauty by calling it “exotic”, and, more tellingly, the manner in which the praising of biracial beauty often comes at the expense of and the exclusion of fully-racialized individuals?
  • Why don’t we talk about the fact that the racial makeup of people is often still spoken about in the same way as dogs’ pedigrees are: in terms of “purity” and fractions of heritage?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that white models still make up the large percentage of models featured on magazine covers, runways, and in catalogues in North America and Europe?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that white models have their eyes taped and their faces painted black in order to mimic racialized physical traits?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that surgeries to achieve more Western features and products such as skin lightening creams are part of a multi-billion dollar industry?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that most lines of makeup are created for and advertised with skin tones on the much lighter end of the spectrum? Or that “flesh” tone is still code for “white”?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that biracial or multiracial individuals are still constantly interrogated about their racial identities, because there is a fervent desire to attach a label or category to “othered” appearances, and that these labels allow for organization, commodification, and marketing of appearance to various markets?
  • Why aren’t we talking about how we still police people’s racial self-identification? How some women aren’t considered black enough, or white enough? How people fall between the gaps when they identify as something other than what people WANT them to identify as?
Ondria Hardin in blackface.

Ondria Hardin in blackface.

I acknowledge that fashion isn’t usually seen as a particularly potent arena in which to begin meaningful discussions of oppression of any kind. People are very willing (in the name of capitalism, under the guise of “art”) to blatantly exploit race, and to continue obviously racist practices, such as the recent use of white model in blackface for an editorial entitled “African Queen.” People are very willing to subscribe to the “multi-culti” narratives of inclusion and love, willing to claim that they “don’t see colour,” and that they have “evolved past racism.” However, since fashion and beauty are all about the visual, all about the image, they provide a unique environment in which to observe the types of narratives and attitudes that are created around and about racial identity and appearance. It’s a microcosm, in many ways, of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and it’s worth looking at. As Touré notes in a NYT article, we do not live a post-racial world. We don’t live a place where we can casually throw around words or questions about race without any historical or social attachment to them. But we can live in a place where we begin to think and talk a bit more critically about racial issues, and start to face them head-on. We can question why we want or need racialized beauty to be exotic, why we need to know “where someone’s from” or “what they are,” and to think deeply about how we have come to learn about, understand, and live out race in our own lives. Racial issues are difficult: they can force us to confront out privileges, our biases, our assumptions, and our desires. Just because I’m part-black doesn’t mean I haven’t had to deal with my own privilege from often “passing” as white, or white enough. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to learn about the history of Orientalism, or the disproportionate amount of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women. I’m not exempt from this process of inquiry: none of us are.

But from where I’m standing, from the racialized body in which I’m living, that’s a hell of a lot more beautiful, honest, nuanced, engaged, and community-oriented than the depoliticized hashtags, labels, and identities that we often assign each other about how we look.


Thoughts on Vancouver Eco Fashion Week

When I first imagined blogging about fashion or being involved in the modeling business, I was a teenager with somewhat naïve thoughts about what the industry was really about. I had grown up doing ballet and theatre, and to me, the catwalk and the photography studio were just extensions of the same type of performance, the same types of artistic expression. Beautiful fabrics, stunning makeup, gorgeous hair. In my late teens and early twenties, I studied technical theatre, and the intricacies of lighting design, sound production, stage management, and costume design only solidified my beliefs that despite the problems of the fashion industry – from the overuse of thin, white, young, tall models, to the ridiculousness of overpriced garments – there was really a space for creativity.

   As I’ve gotten older, however, and learned to be a more careful critic of the industry, the more I find myself needing to position myself not as a fashion aficionado, but as someone who calls the industry out for the various forms of hypocrisy that it espouses.

I have previously written about some of these inconsistencies in an open letter to Vancouver Fashion Week.. In that letter, I suggested that VFW’s alleged commitment to diversity was not as noble as it seemed, given that the element of racial diversity still came at the expense of diversity in body types. The answer I was given, somewhat predictably, was that designers simply offer certain sample sizes in order to be able to present their work consistently to the public in a multitude of venues. There was no mention, of course, that the preferred aesthetic of tall and slim is also endorsed by the agencies who only choose to represent this particular type of model, or that there is an inherent laziness in not having the time to at least present a few select pieces in each collection on different types of bodies, and to put calls out for models who fit these proportions. Having walked the catwalk for Brilliant!, a charity fashion show that took place in Vancouver in fall of 2012, I know first-hand that a serious effort was put into selecting models of a variety of shapes and sizes (and ages!) from the pool of volunteer models (most of whom were just regular people) that auditioned for the show. And surprise, surprise, the participating designers were able to find clothing for all of us.

This week in Vancouver, another fashion week is taking the stage: Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week. On first glance, the event’s commitment to addressing the wastes of resources in the fashion industry, and the need for a more sustainable form of clothing production is admirable. Certainly, as we know from recent reports about companies such as Zara, whose products were exposed by Greenpeace as having hazardous chemicals in them, it is important to talk about how what we wear can affect our health, and the health of our planet. It’s key to address, as VEFW does through its use of collections that are assembled from pieces sourced from thrift shops like Value Village, that the creative use of second-hand clothing can offer just as many options for fashionable self-expression as buying items new. The depreciation in value for clothing is just as real as the depreciation of cars that are driven off the lot: we’re being gouged at the register, and many of us are willing to buy into the lure of name-brands and 800$ pairs of jeans.

However, there are a few things about VEFW that I take issue with, and I would caution anyone reading this not to simply take the view that because a “eco-friendly” standpoint is being promoted, that this event is not depoliticizing or ignoring other equally important issues.

  • VEFW, as opposed to VFW, only uses agency-represented models for its shows. Thus, not only are freelance models being excluded, but the types of models that are featured in these shows are representative of the narrow standards of beauty that most agencies feature in their fashion/runway rosters: tall, thin, young, conventionally beautiful. Emphasis on the tall and thin.
  • By having a very narrow body type on which to feature collections of clothing from thrift shops, a strange message is being sent out, namely that consumers are encouraged to have greater economic access to fashion by buying stylish clothing at second-hand clothing stores, or greater ecologically responsibility by buying from eco-conscious designers, but the aesthetic, the bodies on which they are featured at VEFW (and, indeed, the experience of walking the runway at VEFW) is something that only a select few can have access to. Exclusivity in the fashion industry is huge – it’s what the glamour of modeling and of haute couture thrives on, and VEFW is no exception in promoting this principle by its exclusive use of agency models.
  • VEFW has a large affiliation with Value Village. Unlike a local, independent, non-profit thrift shops, Value Village is a highly-successful, for-profit corporation. The prices at Value Village are, often, still inaccessible for many, because they are priced in such a way that the company stands to make a multi-million dollar profit in sales each year. I’ve been a thrift-shopper since it was uncool and deemed as the lot of the poor or the unfashionable, and I’m still shocked that when I visit, I see items at prices that are still relatively unaffordable. While Value Village does have some fantastic finds (hello, I bought my favourite cowboy boots there for 7$, and my favourite jeans for 9$), it certainly is primarily interested in the accrual of profit, not necessarily only in providing a way of taking care of the environment by re-using clothing.
  • The economic realities that have long-governed thrift shopping – i.e. that many individuals and families simply cannot afford to purchase new clothing items – are being completely erased. Thrifting or vintage shopping is super-trendy now, unlike when I grew up. VEFW’s Value Village collections seem to suggest that despite certain clothes being previously worn and less expensive, ensembles are still supposed to appear as though it could be an ensemble that rivals the most expensive designer clothing. Don’t look poor. Don’t look as though you have to shop at these stores by necessity. Erase the economic inequities that the fashion and clothing industries fundamentally revolve around.
  • Essentially, my issue with Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week, as with all corporate or profitable initiatives that take up the ecological cause, is that I find it increasingly harder and harder to separate our interest in justice and care for our planet without justice, equality, and care for the people living on it. While VEFW is doing some amazing work around providing information about sustainability, starting conversations and offering workshops about the true environmental cost of producing clothing (i.e. the amount of fertilizer and pesticides involved in making clothing from non-organic cotton), I think there is always room for improvement.

And here’s why.

  • I find it hard to accept that we can talk about fashion without talking about economic access and financial privilege. “Hobo-chic” is a politicized issue, because homelessness is not a fashion trend. Second-hand clothing is a politicized issue.
  • I find it hard to accept that we can show eco-friendly clothing on models whose body types are representative of those that our culture values most, and those that our culture still holds up as a way to shame those who do not fit a particular brand of beauty or embodiment. The ecology of our planet and our biosphere is inherently dependent on diversity. How can we attempt to break down the monocultures of things like food production and energy production when we can’t even break down our monocultures of beauty in magazines, advertisements, and on runways?
  • I find it hard to accept that we can talk about ecological waste without talking about the ways in which the fashion industry itself constantly promotes the quarterly purchasing of new clothing and accessories and accrues billions of dollars by brainwashing us into thinking we need new things, more things, prettier things, fashionable things. If we can’t admit that we’re selling “eco” as a product, and that we don’t want to stop making more things instead of using and wearing what we already have, how can we ever break the hold that rampant capitalism has on most of us? Aren’t our closets full enough already?  How can we encourage people to participate ecologically in other ways, like planting gardens and taking care of our waterways, in ways that don’t require buying something, but rather involve giving something back?

I am not suggesting that we bring the fashion industry to a screeching halt, nor that VEFW should not be a fixture of the local fashion scene. I am friends and acquaintances with many models, makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion designers, and photographers. I love the beautiful things my friends create. I am in awe of how people are able to create clothing out of recycled items, out of earth-friendly materials. Upcycling things, rather than producing completely new things: totally awesome. And people need to make a living, and should make a living out of providing things that people desire (and possibly need). But there needs to be a balance.

By thinking critically about these issues, and acknowledging the ways in which certain parts of the fashion industry operate, I hope that I am able to spark a discussion how how we might approach an ethical, holistic fashion industry. Is it possible to combine social justice efforts with fashion in more than a tokenistic manner? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s entirely possible to take out all the “isms” (racism, sizeism, ableism, ageism, and, obviously capitalism) that converge in this industry, but I know that we can do even better than we’re currently doing.