Lately, we as Native people have been bombarded with a constant influx of demeaning imagery in the media and fashion industry. It seems like every other skinny blonde model or pop singer these days is rocking a tacky war bonnet. Yet, change is happening! As quickly as the recent horrid faux pas came onto the scene, they were soon squashed by a swift backlash. Plenty of Native writers, mostly women, have discussed the issue of irresponsible appropriation in numerous excellent articles. Many kudos to those who spoke out in various ways, educating others in the process.
Now that we are beginning to see our efforts being addressed, I’d like to bring the dialogue inward and pose a question: What do Native people think makes for a beautiful Native woman?
Some of you may recall a contest last year on Facebook, “Worlds Hottest Native,” or something to that effect. Sponsored by an entity called Native Entertainment, a plethora of contestants entered pictures of themselves in their sexiest poses. Votes were tallied and although I don’t much recall how “The Hottest Native” male looked; mostly a chiseled faced, lean and long haired male of the standard variety, I distinctly recall the contestant who was selected as the “Hottest Native” female. She was some semblance of a Navajo; brown skinned and big breasted (read: fake) with bleached blonde hair; a rez Pamela Anderson.
That got me thinking. Is “hot” just code speak for white, mainstream beauty? Furthermore, how much of my own beauty aesthetic has been influenced by Eurocentric standards? Has our beauty standard as Native people become so colonized that we only recognize beauty if it looks white and thin?
As for me, I’m not going to front about my own colonized insecurities. One of which I encountered the other day at IHS when forced to stand on a scale. I hate scales and everything they symbolize. I wanted to crush it with a sledgehammer! As soon as I saw those three digital numerals, I felt self conscious in a way I hadn’t moments before. It forced me to ask myself why numbers on a scale bothered me so much. What was I comparing myself to? It irritated me I was so sensitive about it, yet my feelings of inadequacy were so real in that moment, I couldn’t help but ride the emotional tidal wave. I like to think I’m better, stronger than what mainstream media tells me is beautiful, but clearly I too am impressionable.
Recent Facebook observations have also brought my attention to the impact of this ubiquitous Western beauty aesthetic on other Native women.
Interesting Observation I: It all started with a post by a lovely looking, lady lawyer from North Dakota who was suggesting that women shouldn’t go out in public, in this case, a hotel lobby looking all “rugged.” She said she had been raised to always be “put together” by her Indian mother when you go out in public. It reminded me of my own mom who, when I was younger would tell me to put lipstick on so I didn’t look “dead” (Gee thanks for the ego boost!). Some healthy dialogue ensued. A handful of women fiercely challenged her notion, including myself. I am guilty of walking down hotel hallways in early mornings, unwashed, in a zombie like state, on a quest for coffee. I am also guilty of going to the store in sweats and big shades, hair in a sloppy ponytail, just to grab some necessities. I don’t know about you but I have no desire to “look good” all the time.
It got me questioning why we as women are expected to maintain a higher level of appearance than men. Were we always expected to be “well coiffed” back in the day? Seems like a throwback from the boarding school era to me, but what do I know?
Interesting Observation II: A young Native woman I know, a bright college student, was recently lamenting about how she needs, not wants, NEEDS bigger boobs. She stated she was planning on getting some as soon as she could afford them. Now let me tell you, this girl is stunning! The kind of girl other girls envy. The girl I’d probably have hated in high school when I was rocking the serious commod bod. Yet, in spite of her obvious beauty, she still seemed to be fixated on her supposed flaw; a lack of “suitable” breasts.
Whether in traditional regalia or street clothes, I see plenty of Native women of all ages at pow wows and Indian events all “dolled up.”We’re talking full faces of makeup, stylish clothing and flashy accessories. Clearly we have a desire to be “conventionally” attractive. Did we always adorn ourselves in such a way as to lure attentive glances? Undoubtedly our beauty aesthetic has evolved with time and Western influence.
Which leads me back to my initial question: What, traditionally, made an Indian woman “beautiful”? Adding to that question: how did we as women view our own sexuality and attractiveness? Sure, we can talk about sex in terms of the size of a guys parts, and if he was good in bed or not, but do we ever really talk openly to each other about our own needs, wants and desires? From my experience, it’s something Native women, women in general, barely discuss.
Maybe, back in the day beauty was found in a woman’s sexual prowess and feminine energy and looks were merely an added bonus. Or, a maybe it was a woman’s specific area of knowledge or a certain skill she possessed that made her the desire of many. What if it was one wicked sense of humor? Or…maybe I’m just seriously overestimating our depth as Native people and we were just as swayed by a pretty face as everyone else. I have so many questions about what we were like before all this cold, hard colonization stuff set in.
Which brings us back to the present; the fact of the matter is, as long as we continue to hungrily consume mainstream culture in the form of television, internet, Facebook, music, movies, etc. our women will continue internalizing Eurocentric beauty standards, including those that mock and sexualize the very essence of our womanhood.
Although it’s great that we are seeing the fruits of our efforts being addressed in mainstream media, we need to start verbalizing what it is we truly value in our Native women. If we can begin to collectively define our beauty standards and sexuality based on our own authentic indigenous values, then we might have a chance of changing our lenses before it’s too late. Or is it already too late?
Christina M. Castro (Jemez/Taos Pueblo) provides some much-needed female energy to the Thing About Skins fold. She is a writer, educator and community organizer. With degrees in English, Creative Writing and Education, she has worked with predominantly Native American students at schools throughout the Southwest. In 2008, she had the opportunity to work for Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change as a Field Organizer in the eight northern Pueblos of New Mexico. The invaluable experience and training she gained has only strengthened her resolve to continue her work for social change. She currently teaches English at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.