- Arri Smith
What is Featurism?: A Guide
Featurism, or the “prejudice towards individuals with certain features and a preference towards those with features that correlate with a set beauty standard” is embedded in societies across the world. It is an umbrella term for a number of prejudices that are most often used against people of colour.
In this guide, we will break down a few of these prejudices, the way they are practiced in society, and the impact they have on the individuals that face the consequences.
First off, featurism itself can alternatively refer to the features on any given person. This includes whether or not they have a clear complexion, free of acne or dark spots. From the skincare commercials that prey on insecurities to the scholars that study the socio-psychological impact of acne, it is clear that acne can lead to a decrease in the quality of one’s life due to not only the way an individual feels about themselves, but also because of the way they are treated by others. The same is true for one’s teeth. If they are crooked, discoloured, or missing, it can greatly affect a person’s confidence as well as the way they are treated.
While acne and dental issues (with adequate resources and finances) are variably fixable, there are some aspects of featurism that have more serious ramifications for the individuals that experience it. This includes facial features that people are born with, like their noses, lips, and eyes.
The blog Dear Dark Skinned Girl links this idea to racism:
“Facial features, so often an indicator of ethnicity alongside skin colour, can affirm or deviate from a set standard of beauty.”
Facial features are often directly correlated to a person’s race in society and beauty standards have historically been set by white, European features - commonly thin lips, a small or slender nose, and rounded or almond shaped eyes - which means anything deviating from this standard is deemed to be less than beautiful.
For example, a woman with plump lips, and a wide nose (traits that are often associated with individuals of the African diaspora) are rejected as beautiful. A person with small, narrow eyes (a feature often associated with those of the Asian diaspora) may also feel dejected by the beauty standard. If a person’s features vary, for example plump lips, a slender nose, and a narrow eye shape, this is often attributed to a person likely having a mixed heritage, which is viewed as a positive. Supposedly, the closer someone is to European beauty standards, the more beautiful they are. It is one of the reasons the phrase “you’re pretty for a black girl” is so common and becoming increasingly reviled by black women as they learn to own their natural beauty. The phrase insinuates that a person is beautiful despite their pesky heritage attempting to hinder that beauty.
Below, we’ll dive into specific facets of featurism that continue to pervade our culture and harm people of colour.
Texturism is another form of featurism. It is a preference for looser, Eurocentric hair textures over thicker, curlier, or kinkier hair textures. Texturism, like all featurism, can happen both interracially (between or among different races) and intra-racially (by members of the same race).
Black people with thicker hair textures are discriminated against more often than black people with a looser, curlier hair texture. If we take a look at Black women on television, from childhood favourites like Sister, Sister or That’s So Raven, to now with series like Scandal or Chewing Gum, we can see the main characters either never wear their natural afros, instead opting for a wig or straightening their hair (Scandal, Chewing Gum) or the characters are played by lighter skinned/biracial women (Sister, Sister) who are portrayed as having two black parents. For Black girls, representation at a young age is crucial and modern entertainment continues to create characters, so those girls feel seen. However, this representation is not always effective. The message of Black girl characters who are consistently represented with looser curl textures and straight hair leaves little room for girls with kinky and coily hair.
When Leigh-Anne from Little Mix posted a message on Instagram in 2018 encouraging black girls to love their natural hair, she got some pushback. “Love your curls, love your Afro.. we need to teach young black girls that that IS just as beautiful ❤️” However, many people noted that Leigh-Anne, who is biracial, does have curly hair, but does not have an afro. While her post contained no ill-intent and is meant to lift up the little black girls who (curly hair and afro hair alike) may not feel confident about their hair, it also exemplifies how much space women with a more acceptable hair type take up in the natural hair movement. The movement was meant to lift up women with kinkier hair textures but was co-opted by women with looser hair textures.
The message received is that thicker hair is not appropriate for mainstream media, and that it does not fit within the beauty standard. This becomes a larger issue in the workplace, where women who deign to wear their afros are told by management that their hair is unkempt or distracting even though it is the natural hair that grows out of their head, the same as any white, Asian, or Latina woman’s. Hair discrimination in the workplace is such a pervasive issue and has affected the professional lives and income of so many black women, that the CROWN Act was introduced in 2019 in the United States. This law codified the protection and equality of people with all hair textures. However, hair discrimination continues. Most recently, in the UK a school banned a young girl from wearing her hair in designed cornrows and a mother took her son’s school to court after he was reprimanded for wearing locs.
So, while biracial women like Leigh-Anne do indeed face adversity in the workplace, school, and in their community, it is useful to be aware that people with kinkier hair textures often face discrimination at a higher rate and are less likely to be represented in the media or set the beauty standard. This culture puts a pressure on young black girls with thicker hair textures to shell out hundreds of dollars a year on harmful treatments and products like relaxers and cancer-causing perms, or hiding their hair under expensive wigs.
While texturism is an issue that mostly plagues the black diaspora, the issue of colourism is more ubiquitous across ethnic minority groups. Colourism is prejudice or discrimination, especially within a racial or ethnic group, favouring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.
The origins of colourism are rooted in different ideas for different cultures. For example, in the Asian diaspora, colourism is rooted in class; darker skinned Asians are associated with impoverished rural areas that have limited access to resources, education and a lack of proper etiquette. In Latin and Hispanic culture, colourism is ingrained in the history of ethnic mixing between indigenous, European, and African cultures due to centuries of repeated colonisation.
In an article for The Washington Post Lorgia Garcia Pena explains the ethnic stratification:
"White Spaniards were deemed as the real humans, as the only humans, and then below that were Indigenous people and then below that were African people who were brought into the country.”
This mirrors colourism in the black community where lighter skin is a marker of beauty within the community and also within mainstream white media. It is best evidenced in myriad rap lyrics glorifying light skinned women. On the song ‘Redbone Girl’ Lil Wayne raps ‘I like my girl high yellow…I like them light skin, lighter than a feather.’ The song itself is an ode to black women of lighter complexions, fetishising them for their proximity to whiteness, yet retaining desirable black features like their curves.
Colourism is most often perpetuated intercommunally. The Washington Post cites a Pew study which found that:
“nearly half of Hispanic adults say they have often or sometimes heard a Hispanic friend or family member make comments about other Hispanics that might be considered racist or racially insensitive.”
Another example is the booming skin-whitening industry in south Asia. Skin bleaching products not only promise to lighten brown skin, but also make the consumer more beautiful and successful. “In 2016, one Thai company advertised skin-lightening tablets with the slogan ‘white makes you win’” an article from The Diplomat reveals. While it is true that people of colour with lighter skin are statistically more likely to be successful and live longer lives, products like these and the companies who create them work to ensure that darker skin will continue to create a stigma for the people that inhabit it.
Colourism also affects people when dealing with the law. Recently, Texas district attorney Waymond Wesley has come under fire after tweets and accusations from 2016 resurfaced of him belittling black women, comparing them to garbage and encouraging them to commit suicide. One of Wesley’s alleged victims remarked on one of his tweets: “You commented on one of my pics on my old account and said my dark skin made me ugly, I was in high school... You said if I was light skinned I’d look better.” He commented that one Black woman looked “too black” in one tweet and commented that a dark skinned woman in a picture with her lighter skinned friends “messed up the pic.”
Lawyer Stephanie Nicholas and academic Kimberly Foster both speak about the statistics and dangers of people with open colourist biases enforcing the law. Nicholas breaks down the statistics using a range of academic studies. One shows that: “darker skinned black Americans are considerably more likely to experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, receive longer criminal convictions for the same crimes, and suffer an economic penalty of thousands of dollars relative to their light skinned counterparts... In some cases, the gap between the social and economic outcomes of light skinned black Americans and dark skinned black Americans are as large as the gap between white Americans and black Americans.”
In her video, Foster examines one 2014 study which shows that:
“darker skinned blacks and Latinos are stopped and arrested more often than lighter skinned members of the same group when controlling for delinquency alone. Blacks experience…an 18% increase in the odds of being arrested by police. As skin tone darkens for Latinos, the interaction of skin tone and gender significantly affects the odds of police stops and arrests.”
While Wesley has apologised for his past remarks and states that he has changed, some are skeptical. Foster explains that “my abolitionist impulses tell me that anybody can come back from anything. I don't think there's a such thing as an irredeemable person, but my abolitionist impulses also tell me that you can't come back without doing some work. You can't just fire off some tweets: ‘I'm so sorry that was the old me and now I'm good.’ That's not how repair works. You cannot just come out after you get caught, after you literally were telling teenagers that they are ugly because they are dark skinned.”
So, what does repair look like?
Where we go from here
Now that we understand how featurism works to keep those with closer phenotypical proximity to their ethnicity suppressed in society, we can find work to challenge those biases.
Many recent social justice conversations focus on white privilege, however featurism shows how non-white people may also be afforded privileges due to their proximity to whiteness. Lighter skinned and biracial people of colour should call out bias when they see it and take the time to examine their own bias and privilege.
By now, many of us are aware how harmful the phrase “I don’t see colour” is; it erases a part of a person’s identity, sometimes implicitly coercing them to assimilate into whiteness. We can instead acknowledge a person’s differences – whether they are cultural or physical – and embrace them instead of ignoring them. Embracing differences is a way to normalise them and will create a more inclusive, accepting environment for those who need it the most.
If you are a person of colour and you see someone in your community being treated worse than you because of their skin tone, hair, or facial features find a way to support them. Validating someone’s lived experience can go a long way in building community and creating lasting change.
Edited by Rinakshie Rams