Why Being Called a ‘Classic’ Beauty is Problematic.
‘You’re such a classic beauty!’ It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this comment. Always intended as a compliment, it never felt like one. Trapped within the limits of a definition, I felt more alienated than flattered. I’d heard this phrase all my life – but this was the first time I heard it at a casting audition of this magnitude. After hours practicing my lines for the role, followed by the standard chaotic maneuver across the barren yet bustling Los Angeles sprawl to the casting location, I climbed two flights of stairs to sit in a room full of women whose looks shared some resemblance to mine. Delicate features, light skin, a fine nose, approachable, pretty, and nothing too extreme. In other words, white.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines classic as: “Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind. Remarkably and obstructively typical. A work of art of recognized and established value.”
Upon reading that definition, assigning the term ‘classic’ to a woman’s appearance feels ill-suited – like we should be describing a vase or architecture. And yet we continue to casually toss the phrase around when referencing a woman’s looks, most often describing Eurocentric characteristics and features that reference the likes of actresses such as Kiera Knightly, Emma Watson, and Natalie Portman. In other words, white women. This definition of classic beauty inherently means that as a global culture, we have come to define aesthetic value through the framework of whiteness. In identifying an ‘ideal beauty,’ we have also come to define what is not ‘ideal’ – i.e. all other non-white features.
It was while standing in that casting room full of homogenous overtones that this realization became painfully clear. Even more painful was the awareness that while the majority of women in that room fit a ‘mainstream’ standard of beauty in some ways, there are very few women that fit them all. Myself included.
While my face ‘passes’ the ‘classic beauty’ threshold, my body never has. Growing up, I was constantly bullied for my figure. Curvy in all the wrong places for the times, I was forever reminded that I did not possess the straight, willowy silhouette du jour. I was made fun of and made to feel like I could never seriously pursue my dream of being an actor. I remember being shocked when, many years and multiple body trends later, I discovered that (thanks in part to Kim Kardashian), my body type and larger than average derriere had fallen into favor as the most desirable, coveted figure. How strange that what was once a source of ridicule for me was now the latest and greatest accessory to have. And yet, here I was, the exact same person. Just with added value now, thanks to the era I just so happened to be born into.
But as it goes with every fad, my body shape will not always be the shape that remains in favor. Just as how European features are considered classic, non-European features that fall into vogue are almost always considered the opposite. The use of the word ‘exotic’ is the perfect example of this. We reserve this term for aesthetics that fall outside of ‘classic,’ and apply it to non-white features. We try them on, fetishize them, and then discard them completely when we grow weary of them.
Social media has only made this devastatingly more clear – from the appropriation of full lips that are generally associated with Black features, to the ‘fox eye’ trend, which is so clearly an appropriation of Asian eye shapes. Body augmentation is another overtly clear example. From breast implants giving way to butt injections, we emulate stereotypical physical assets of various marginalized groups. The most popular fitness routines of today are even a clear example, overworking certain areas of the body to yield desired, au current shapes, equally based off the borrowing of non-white qualities. Meanwhile, this kind of hyper focus on augmentation through fitness can simultaneously create an imbalance of strength within the body as we obsessively push to overemphasize our ‘assets.’
That features could even be considered a trend at all is direct proof of the commodification and perspective of women as mutable objects. The value of our currency fluctuates with how closely we hit the desired marks of the time. Set against the classic beauty paradigm as a standard, this means that non-white features are seen as even more of a commodity to appropriate.
I still usually respond to the intended flattery of being called a classic beauty with a quick, ‘thank you’ before changing the subject. In my experience, the comment has never been meant with ill-will or with overtly racist connotations. However, this just goes to show how normalized it is. And while I choose to embrace and celebrate all my features (after all, self-love will always be a radical act), it’s my hope that I can further push against the boundaries of our rigid definitions of beauty.
Representation is crucial. Whether we like it or not, what we watch defines our perception of how we fit into the world and where we belong. My own experience of being lauded for one aspect of my looks while being cut down for another is a common experience for women in general. And it isn’t just relegated to whiteness and non-whiteness either (although that is inarguably one of the biggest influences), but extends to other limiting definitions, such ideas as age and femininity. It’s important to dig back and understand where our society’s values of beauty stem from. It’s a huge step in freeing ourselves from the pressures of impossible and hypocritical standards. None of us fit the mold – especially when the mold is forever changing (eerily hand-in-hand with consumer behavior and market trends, I might add).
As an actor, my hope is to remain aware of what is being celebrated and why and to hopefully be an example that we can be more than one thing at a time. After all, the more I’ve separated myself from standard beauty definitions, the more beautiful and confident I’ve felt. I want to prove that just because you don’t fit everything Hollywood tells you to be doesn’t mean you aren’t already everything you need to be. And that perhaps, it’s Hollywood that needs to do the changing, not you.
As a producer, I hope to elevate those who reject the mold and to support those that continue to push boundaries within the film and television sphere. As I’m navigating the industry with a still relatively young production company, I’m finding that this is not an easy task, especially as a woman. It’s a balance of protecting yourself and what you’ve built while simultaneously finding ways to fight for and open doors for others. But as a woman producer who has many privileges, I believe this is a part of my duty and it’s something I hope to work towards more and more. And I believe it’s a part of every creator’s duty, male or female or non-binary, white, or non-white. True art is created with an open mind. Therefore, pushing the boundaries of definitions as we know them is an inherently part of the process.
Written by Victoria Lacoste
Photo by Mike Van Cleven