Culture Opinion

Stories of Second Generations: The ‘Ugly Betty’ effect

Illustration by Rosa Bonnin

“Hi. Are you the before?” Asked the blonde, slender Amanda Thaten to the approaching ‘Ugly’ Betty Suarez, as she entered the Manhattan fashion magazine headquarters. “Before and after? The photoshoot?”

One of my earliest memories was watching ‘Ugly Betty’ on E4. It starred a Latina woman (played by America Ferrera) with a wide nose, big lips and wide hips, who was at best tokenized with her pitiful and somewhat humorous ‘bad looks’ and at worst, tormented for such features by her slender white peers. The one black woman in the show, appraised for her unapproachability (unsurprising when we consider the ‘angry black woman caricature’) and model-like features had large, striking blue eyes and largely Eurocentric features; like her white peers, also ostracized Betty for her ‘unconventional’ and largely ethnic features throughout her time on the series. My one takeaway from the show, as a primary school child, was ‘God forbid I ever look like Betty!”. It was when I got to year 6 and looked around at my blonde (and straight) haired, blue eyed peers, and realised that I, myself, was ‘Ugly Betty’, and that my worst nightmare had come true. I was the token, with unconventional and ‘large’ features. Unless my idea of what made a person beautiful changed – which for a long time it didn’t – ‘Ugly Betty’ would remain who I was and who I would always be.

This toxic and Eurocentric understanding of beauty remained and was amplified when I first watched the ‘Princess Diaries’, starring Anne Hathaway, in which Mia Thermopolis, the previously overlooked and perceivably unattractive schoolgirl became the fitting image of the ‘Princess of Genovia’ when she lost her thick and frizzy curls during her makeover. I remember watching this movie in my household with my sisters, sporting identical thick and frizzy curls, and fawning over the day I would one day receive a similar makeover.

From the exaggerated features of Disney villains such as ‘The Little Mermaid’s’ Ursula who  large lips and wide smiles, and ‘Peter Pan’s’ Captain Hook with his long, wide, hooked nose, to Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows – perceived as the ‘pinnacle of beauty’ –  showcasing largely slim, white, blonde women, growing up in the 2000s has conditioned into young women like myself that unless you have anglicised features, you will always be some variation of an ‘Ugly Betty’.

Eurocentric standards of beauty have a global reach. Whilst skin-bleaching companies such as ‘Fair and Lovely’ profit from nationals of various countries and regions around the world, countries in East Asia in particular have noticeably high rates of surgery to achieve a more Eurocentric look. This ‘Ugly Betty’ effect seems to be a uniquely second-generation experience in the UK; many of our immigrant parents grew up in countries where people that looked like themselves were the majority. Going to an institution or living in area where both normalcy and beauty are concepts that are conflated with whiteness is something that many of us have accepted, as we were exposed from a young age to a culture that our parents were not. Thus, reassurance from your parents becomes almost completely void. Instead, society has conditioned us into requiring validation from our white peers.  This begs the crucial question, in an age where beauty companies and the media are trying to diversify their image and cast more ethnic models, can we decolonize our standards of beauty?

On the one hand, seeing the models representing Rihanna’s popular Fenty Beauty brand gives me hope for the next generation of young girls; cover girl Slick Woods, with her wider nose and bigger lips, and dark-skinned women such as Nyadak “Duckie” Thot being showcased in fashion shows and billboards is representation that was not readily available back in the early 2000s (and especially not before then). Perhaps if I had seen a movie in which a shy schoolgirl finds out she is a princess and keeps her curly hair, or an animated princess film in which the princess had a large nose and large lips, my idea of beauty, growing up, would not have been so racialised.

However, having grown up in an era where this was not the case, and the media imprinted in me the idea that your proximity to whiteness determines your attractiveness, has caused me to consider and question why such ideas existed and were perpetuated in the media in the first place. If such principles are rooted themselves in white supremacy, colonialism and general eurocentrism, historical and long-lasting concepts that underlie  our current global community, then surely focusing our attention on fixing the product instead of the root would be futile? If the media’s idealisation of white bodies is the tip of our historical racialised iceberg, will campaigns with black models by a few brands truly decolonize our perceptions of beauty, normalcy and race?

Perhaps my scepticism is counteractive and perhaps I should let the gradual revolutionization of our media take its course; it may be that one day, the ‘Ugly Betty’ effect will be considered among our second-generation community as a phenomenon unique to us and not to our children and grand-children. However, given that I am in one of the youngest age groups in our society, and still grew up being exposed to racialised standards of beauty, we still have a long way to go.