The Outsider's Guide to Beauty
- by Sarah K.A. Fuller -
I grew up in a small beach town surrounded by farmland that almost no one north of Kitchener, Ontario, has heard of. If they have, it’s only thanks to recent mainstream media marketing it as a hidden gem for cottagers. There are no major industries outside of agriculture and tourism, the village dies in the winter months, and everything closes at nine PM during the week. It is a haven for baby boomer artists, retirees, and empty nesters.
It does have a seedy underbelly of addiction, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and racism, though. I have a simultaneous deep love and hatred for my hometown because I grew up queer, mixed, and female there.
The hometown of my childhood is the land of the skin colour crayon. It’s peach, not brown, or blue-black, or tan, or sepia, or sienna. If I could show everyone a class picture from my childhood they would immediately be able to pick me out of the lineup. I was the one with tanned brown skin, curly auburn hair, and dark brown eyes among a sea of white faces with straight hair and mostly blue or green eyes. I didn’t see anyone who looked kind of like me until I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. For many years I thought this meant I was ugly, unattractive, weird looking.
I wanted to appear as close to white normalcy as I saw it—that sickly yellow colour I was in the winter months—so I never went into the sun without SPF 30 sunscreen for fear that the melanin I was born with would kick in and make me brown again.
Piled on top of that was that I had been adopted by (very) white parents who didn’t know what to do with my hair or how to make me see that my value was more than the external, more than what people saw. It was a strange childhood to have, a childhood unusual enough that I have yet to meet another person with similar stories or the battered self-esteem that came with my experiences.
When I was in my mid-twenties I made the decision to go to school to study makeup for theatre, film, and special effects because I had been fascinated by science fiction and fantasy movies and television shows for many years. A love of speculative fiction is something I have found in common with many millennials who are people of colour and people under the LGBTQ umbrella. We didn’t see ourselves on television so it was easier for us to watch unusual creatures, aliens, fairies, and witches, and identify with their personality traits and allegorical versions of our own lives as outsiders. I’m pleased to say that this is getting better now that, in adulthood, there are more of us in powerfully creative positions.
After several days of travelling to the city for campus tours, applications, and an entry exam, I got accepted into an elite private school in Toronto. To be plopped into downtown Toronto for a year that turned into two years, was an eye-opening experience for me, a rural kid from the middle of nowhere. The most truly astonishing thing I experienced was the recognition of my own mixed ethnicity in the faces of others. The stares and nods of recognition from black women became a balm for the pained existence I had endured in my hometown. They saw me, they recognized me, they knew.
However, I didn’t quite understand until months after graduating why marks were taken off my practical exam because I chose not to contour my friend/model’s nose because I saw her wider features as inherently beautiful. I didn’t realize that I was being taught how to contour my face and the faces of other people of colour into submission, giving them the appearance of slim noses, making monolids into double lids, creating a jawline on a chubby double chin. It was a dark magic done with powder, liquid, and cream, and it made me uncomfortable. Experiencing Eurocentric beauty norms while within the belly of the white supremacist beast was far different from experiencing it alone surrounded by farm kids in my small town.
The socialized value of Eurocentric beauty is a burden to those of us who don’t fit it. I have a wide nose, deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, and almost no jaw line. These are my “flaws,” and if I want to be taken seriously as a makeup artist and a citizen of the beauty world I have to “fix” them with creams, liquids, and powders, every day. But what if we, as a woke society, stopped socially coercing people of colour through the actors and models we choose for movies, television, and advertising in mainstream media to change their appearances? Would we then be able to give proper human value to the millions of people who don’t look like model number twenty-seven in X-Y-Z fashion magazine or actor thirty-six in Another Romantic Comedy?
The hope I have held dear to my heart is that we can eliminate the denigration and/or exotification of non-European features. There’s not a mixed-race or ethnically ambiguous person alive dating online who hasn’t been told in a poorly spelled message that they look “exotic” and asked: “What are you?” So please, for the sake of our media-battered communities of colour, don’t contour the ethnicity out of your face. Enhance it; be pleased with your Nubian or Jewish nose, your monolid eyes, your racially ambiguous features. The lonely multicultural children of the world who fear they are ugly are watching you, and they deserve to see their own faces reflecting back at them.
© 2018 by Sarah K.A. Fuller
Sarah K.A. Fuller grew up queer and mixed in white small town Ontario. She is a graduate of CMU College of Makeup Art and Design. Sarah writes about small town life, being an outsider, gender, and whatever tickles her fancy.