Eurocentric Beauty Standards Begin To Affect Black Girls at 10 Years Old—but Parents Can Help

Research is now confirming what Black parents have always known—biased beauty ideals affect our girls early and it doesn't stop there.

An Black girl washing and drying her face looking at the mirror in a bathroom at the sink
Photo: Getty Images

Watch a TV show about teenagers, and it'll be clear that being a teen is an awkward period in almost everyone's life. But for Black tween and teen girls, racism and mainstream beauty ideals make that time and the process of finding oneself more difficult. They're confronted with Eurocentric beauty ideals that purposely exclude them.

As Black kids grow up, they not only have an identity development stage that all kids experience, but they also experience racial and ethnic identity development, which is more difficult when they grow up in a world that doesn't look like them or appreciate them, Dr. Janine Jones, Ph.D., a researcher and the director of the University of Washington's School Psychology Program, explains.

"We're always measuring ourselves based on how others perceive us, and when you're a racial minority, then that becomes another indicator that you're paying attention to," she says.

Studying Biased Beauty Ideals

The Dove Self-Esteem Project recently released a research report with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Deloitte Economics that found that racist and gendered beauty ideals cost society. We've lost $501 billion because of appearance-based discrimination that starts at age 10 and can include weight, skin color, and hair texture.

Specifically, that type of discrimination leads to a "loss of well-being," which is calculated through money spent on things like drugs, alcohol, and health issues like hypertension. This costs $233 billion. Beauty discrimination also results in labor market outcomes and other outcomes—like incarceration—which cost our economy $269 billion.

Dr. Jaime Slaughter-Acey, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota where she studies, among other things, systemic racism, colorism, and appearance-based bias. She also worked with the Dove Self-Esteem Project on their research.

Appearance-based bias begins early, Dr. Slaughter-Acey explains. People have their first experiences with colorism or hair discrimination early on in their childhood and long term, those negative experiences can affect mental, emotional, and physical health outcomes through premature aging, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more.

"We really need to not just think about prevention, but really act to interrupt the cycles of systems impacting Black girls, Black women, and the society they live in," she says.

Despite the evolution of the types of images young people are seeing, beauty ideals are still overwhelmingly Eurocentric in the way we interpret body image and body shape, Dr. Slaughter-Acey says. While the ideals have expanded, they're still not widely accepted until white people adopt them.

Body dissatisfaction and appearance bias can also start with the things we bring into our homes from products to books, she says. "They, too, have to be inclusive of a broader range of what beauty is and move away from that narrow, Eurocentric beauty standard."

With her own Black daughter, Dr. Slaughter-Acey had to intentionally counteract the effects of negative images from a young age. "I very carefully curated the media, messaging, friends, etc. that she sees so she can develop a strong sense of Blackness, a positive sense of her Blackness so that when she does encounter hair discrimination or shade discrimination or even body image bias, she's less likely to internalize those negative messages."

Building—and Maintaining—Self-Esteem

Jaynay Johnson, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with teenagers and families. When it comes to self-esteem, Johnson thinks in terms of the three C's: creating, curating, and cultivating it.

"The idea is that as a parent—as a community too—but especially as a parent, you have to create that self-esteem with your child as they're navigating life. And then you have to put them in environments where it can be curated, where they can continue to build upon the positive opinions of themselves. And then you have to continue to cultivate—allow them to grow, to make changes, to make adjustments, and to do gentle correction when needed."

But, Johnson cautions, it's not enough to only address physical beauty when trying to create, curate, or cultivate a teen's self-esteem.

"When we think about building self-esteem, we want to build the whole person," she says. "We don't just want to build their physical attributes. We want to build their skills or their ability to make good decisions, or be a good friend or their moral compass."

Johnson suggests compliments like: "Your laugh is infectious." "I love how compassionate and patient you are." "I love how much you want to share."

As a practitioner, one of the main things Johnson advised her clients to prioritize, and that helped with her own daughter was openly telling teens how they are valuable "not just to us as a family but to the community and the world."

Counteracting the Effects of Social Media

Given the proliferation of social media and teens and tweens having the ability to have so many opinions and images in the palm of their hand, Johnson sees a lot of younger girls wanting to get surgery to look like whichever influencer is the trendiest at the time. In young people she's worked with, she's seen social media usage lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

Social media is a hot-button issue when it comes to its effects on mental health, even for adults. While there isn't a clear consensus on whether social media usage directly causes depression and anxiety symptoms, there is evidence suggesting "that social media use might, at least to some degree, lead to these symptoms," according to the National Center for Health Research.

Tips to Work With Your Teen on Building Their Social Media Platforms

  1. Know how each social media platform works so you know what you're looking for and how to navigate it.
  2. Talk about best practices for using social media and humanize yourself by talking about your own experiences on the various apps too. "One thing we do not think about is we're constantly seeing these messages, and if we're not talking to our youth about that, they might not understand that [something] could be a lie or might not be reality," says Johnson.
  3. Help them curate their page. Johnson does this with some of her clients as well. "We try to make sure we're removing people who make them feel bad about themselves or question themselves."

Because issues of appearance-based bias and discrimination are so entangled with society, the Self-Esteem Project explains that it will take multiple levels of work— individuals, communities, governments, educators, media, and more—to undo its effects.

Dr. Slaughter-Acey considers phrases like "Black girl magic" and "Black is beautiful" to be tips of the iceberg as we work to undo the work of society's appearance-based discrimination.

"What's really interesting is how resilient Black girls are with respect to these different forms of bias in that their sense of self-esteem or confidence really pushes back against all these different forms of appearance-based discrimination and bias," says Dr. Slaughter-Acey. "But even so, it doesn't mean that there aren't consequences with respect to these different forms of discrimination when encountered."

Though this story addresses Eurocentric, cisgender beauty standards that affect Black girls, Kindred by Parents acknowledges that not all people who are affected identify as girls.

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