Big, beautiful and not white

Are curvy women of color exempt from Hollywood's traditional beauty standards?

Published February 16, 2007 11:15PM (EST)

I almost skipped Robin Givhan's article on the current prominence of rounder, fuller-figured women like Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles and Tyra Banks -- I've read countless takes on the topic in the past few months. But, skimming the piece, I was caught off-guard when halfway through Givhan makes a point that I haven't yet heard anyone else articulate: "The one thing that connects these three curvaceous women, other than their celebrity, is that they are women of color. On them, curves are acceptable."

While many white starlets seem to be starving themselves (go here for a bizarre animated visual of such), the most successful actresses of color are curvaceous rather than cadaverous. Givhan runs down the list: "Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, 'Ugly Betty's' America Ferrera and 'Grey's Anatomy's' Chandra Wilson and Sara Ramirez." But, that's the thing, their race is almost always a "modifier in their professional lives," writes Givhan. "They stand just a little apart, so they are exempt from adhering to mainstream definitions of beauty," she continues. "They set their own standards."

Givhan argues that part of the reason for these disparate beauty standards is "the stereotype of the large black woman as the diva-like sexpot: strong, aggressive and entitled." As limiting and dangerous as that stereotype may be, it's that pervasive caricature that's paved the way for the idea "that big can be beautiful and desirable -- at least when it comes to women of color," she argues. I suppose on the flip side of that is the stereotype of white women as fragile flowers: passive, agreeable and unthreatening. Hence, the wilted look adopted by so many white actresses in Hollywood.

The nasty thing about stereotypes, though, is as much as they can create odd (and fleeting) chances at empowerment, they're, of course, deeply limiting. As much as the "diva-like sexpot" stereotype has opened doors for women of color in Hollywood, it also keeps that racial modifier constantly at arm's reach.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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