Several months ago, I read this blog series on the evolution of skinny toys, where the author examines how toys have changed over the years to become thinner and sexier and what messages and values these changes communicate to our children.
As I was recently reading some Strawberry Shortcake books to Natalie, I noticed a disturbing evolution of one of the characters – Orange Blossom has been whitewashed.
Whitewashing refers to the process of making African American, Asian, or Latino women appear more “white.” This article is an excellent discussion about whitewashing in American popular culture and gives several examples and pictures.
Recently, we received two different Strawberry Shortcake books – one used to belong to my cousin when she was little, and was printed in the 90s. The other is a more recently published book, and the look of all the characters has changed drastically. But the change that bothers me the most is how Orange Blossom has changed.
In the book from the 90s, Orange Blossom is an African American girl with dark skin and curly pigtails. However, in the more recent book, her skin has been significantly lightened, and she now has long, flowing hair instead of curly pigtails. Her facial features are indistinguishable from the other characters who are all white.
Why does this bother me so much?
It bothers me because these examples send a powerful message to young girls about what the ideal standards of beauty are. In American culture, the ideal is light skin, long flowing hair, and Caucasian facial features. When we alter the look of African American girls and women to conform to this standard of beauty, it sends a powerful message that somehow dark skin and naturally curly hair are inferior and not as beautiful as light skin and long straight hair. These messages are even more insidious than our culture’s emphasis on thinness, because these messages strike at the heart of a girl’s sense of culture and identity.
Thanks to globalization, these beauty ideals are being spread all over the world. Skin lightening is big business in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and the marketing of skin lightening creams reinforces this idea that light skin is better, more beautiful, and that light skinned people will be more successful. Fair and Lovely has some of the worst commercials I’ve seen – in this one, the featured actress blatantly states, “I realized the obstacle to obtain my dream job was my skin.” After lightening her skin with Fair and Lovely, she not only obtains her dream job but also catches the attention of a handsome colleague.
At a time when American culture is becoming increasingly diverse, it is disturbing that the standards of beauty are becoming increasingly narrow. We need more examples of natural beauty from all cultures, like this recent photo shoot of Viola Davis, whose natural skin and hair are celebrated instead of changed. Young girls from all cultures need to see more examples of characters and celebrities who look like they do, naturally. Because it’s not just about beauty – white ideals of beauty are just one way that our culture continues to implicitly communicate the racist messages that are so harmful to young girls both in the US and around the world.