Student researches beauty standards overseas

Image of Brittney Long leaning against a rock.

UW-L student Brittney Long at the Mediterranean Sea in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo courtesy of Heidi Morrison.

In a culture obsessed with beauty and body image, UW-La Crosse senior Brittney Long is looking for answers.

She’s been researching society’s beauty standards related to skin color all over the world. Societal pressures surrounding a preference for lighter skin continue to appear in America and many countries, she says. In Jamaica a woman rubs white bleaching cream on her skin as doctors in the island country report skin lightening reaching dangerous levels. Some speculate Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri wouldn’t have won a pageant in her home country because she’s not fair-skinned enough for India’s standards. Similarly black female representations are prominent on hair relaxer boxes and skin lightening creams at U.S. pharmacies and drug stores.

Long took questions of beauty perception and skin tone to Egypt with a $3,000 undergraduate research grant in summer 2013 during a study abroad trip led by UW-L History Professor Heidi Morrison. She interviewed women who identified themselves as dark skinned about their perceptions of their skin color and where those ideas started.

Long also wondered how history has played a role in people’s perceptions of beauty and how its contributed to societal norms all over the world. Did ideas about skin color and beauty take root in Egypt as in other countries?

“You need that personal interaction. I didn’t want to just research news articles,” says Long. “It is only from the women in Egypt I felt I could better understand how they define themselves and what they believed to be beautiful, especially since women’s voices have been silenced or their narratives have been told for them.”

She found that ancient Egyptians migrated from areas further south in Africa, so it would make sense that they would be categorized as black or African. Yet, Long encountered mixed information about the race of ancient Egyptians — some sources claiming there was no concept of race at the time. She wondered why the ancient Greeks weren’t similarly challenged on their whiteness. If there was also no concept of race during their time, why do nearly all Western movies depict them as white. Perhaps, she thought, Greek societies developed the concept of race.

The research generated more new questions, but it also delivered answers.

Long found a consensus among the Egyptian women she interviewed that ancient Egyptians were black and Egyptian women had an appreciation for being dark or darker skinned. Yet lighter skin was still on the majority of advertisements and sometimes darker women were expected to not get married, notes Long.

“Overall, I found that women felt like beauty comes from within. All the women I interviewed mentioned that beauty must come from personality and must be expressed by character and actions,” she says. “In particular one interviewee expressed that beauty standards are arbitrary and what it considered different is beautiful.”

Studying in Egypt was “an amazing experience,” says Long.

“I thought I could take the project in other places like England or Jamaica, but Egypt kind of called for me,” she says. “I realized the research I would do would create questions for other students or people in general who shared my same interests.”

Long graduated in December 2013 and aims to continue her education by pursuing a doctoral degree in cultural anthropology.

“I hope to use this experience for graduate school and to deepen the research I started with colorism,” she says.