A growing body of research studies the ways in which low self-esteem and negative views of body image and appearance disproportionately affect young women. This field of study is largely informed by the reality that, in many parts of the Western world, women are expected to maintain unrealistic beauty standards, and their worth is often heavily predicated on their adherence to these standards. In the context of this troubling dynamic, it is necessary to consider the cultural factors influencing one’s sense of self and their appearance, especially as it relates to race and ethnicity.
As a young woman, I often struggled with issues regarding my appearance and self-worth. However, it was not until my later adolescence that I realized one of the main reasons I did not perceive myself to be attractive was likely the result of having seldom seen faces similar to mine represented or deemed beautiful in popular culture in the United States.
Various industries and brands have begun to catch onto the increasingly clear message that representation matters. A 2019 article published by PBS reported that media portrayals affect not only how others perceive those in marginalized groups, but also how people in these groups in turn view themselves.
In the same article, PBS cited a report they conducted from their Student Reporting Labs, where they interviewed 144 high school students who agreed that the way they are represented (or not represented) in popular media can affect their mental health.
For many, a lack of familiar faces in the media may indicate that society does not perceive a person like them to be attractive and arguably valued as well. This, in turn, can have deleterious effects on the wellbeing of young people, making them question their own sense of self-worth.
However, this issue of diversity and representation across ethnic and racial groups within popular culture is a byproduct of an otherwise colonialist Western system that only deems Eurocentric features worthy of idealization. With this in mind, it’s important to consider how such ideals affect not only people within the U.S., but also those in countries that were colonized by the Western world.
This past winter, I had the opportunity to travel to the Philippines and experience the life my father and his family had left when they immigrated to the U.S. While there, I soon came to realize that these same issues of beauty that I felt in the U.S. — where having darker skin and non-white features were seen as less conventionally attractive — are also present there.
Skin whitening lotions, soaps, deodorants, clinics and pills flood department stores across the country. While the Philippines is not the only place in the world with a booming market for skin whitening products, it is estimated that one in every two Pilipinos have used skin whitening treatments.
My family explained to me that the preference for all things “American,” such as fairer features and smaller noses, were the product of a colonial mentality — an internalized oppression experienced as the result of living in a post-colonial society.
Scholars interested in the intersections of post-colonial studies and cultural psychology have often looked to Pilipino Americans as a group particularly affected by internalized oppression. According to E.J.R. David, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, colonial mentality has been decisively linked to poorer mental health outcomes, including lower levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction paired with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety.
It’s also suggested that colonial mentality affects Pilipino Americans’ propensity to seek out mental health services. According to previous research David had published in 2010 in the Asian American Journal of Psychology, Pilipino Americans seek mental health services at a much lower rate compared to other Asian Americans and that a lower likelihood to seek professional help is related to cultural mistrust.
The case study of Pilipino Americans only scratches the surface of the myriad ways in which racism and historical oppression have had destructive effects on the well-being of non-white ethnic groups. However, it is through this case study that we can begin to raise awareness of the ways in which social and racial justice cannot be separated from our efforts to understand and improve mental health.
This research builds upon the growing demands to address and improve diversity and inclusion in media representation. Many advocates argue that increasing the number of Black and Indigenous people and people of color, LGBTQ+, disabled folks and other marginalized groups in the media helps reduce stereotypes and implicit biases deeply embedded in our society.
I would argue, moreover, that addressing these systemic shortcomings also serves to begin rectifying the internalized maltreatment so many have suffered from not having been traditionally viewed as desirable and worthy. It is long overdue that the dire implications of colonial mentality as it relates to self-image and mental health are discussed.
Sophia Ceniza is a junior writing about the intersections of wellness and social issues. She is also the wellness & outreach director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Green Juice Skeptic,” runs every other Tuesday.