Beauty Ambiguity

In our society, cultural appreciation can often turn into cultural appropriation. Hanna El-Mohandess talks racial ambiguity and blackfishing in the beauty community and beyond, and what it means for women of colour.


As I learned at a very young age that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”–or at least that’s what my parents told me every time my annoying little monster cousins would say and do everything I did for days at a time. Now, that barely worked when I was five (I like to give myself credit and think I was never truly convinced), so what happens when adults apply that to other things in life? In movies? Music? What’s the line between paying homage to your interests and influences, and taking something that is not yours?

Now if you thought that was a complicated question, I’d suggest you’d strap in for this next bit.  What’s the line when it comes to style? Tanning? Cultural appreciation? We, as in the general population of those who are on Twitter, have been quick to recognise and ‘call out’ more extreme forms of cultural abuse like cultural appropriation and blackface, but recently I’ve seen people struggle to draw the lines when it comes to racial ambiguity. Does it remain the sincerest form of flattery, or does it translate more as someone profiting off of what is not theirs?

According to the Urban Dictionary–where, by the way, I recommend you exclusively get your definitions –someone is racially ambiguous when others are “unable to pinpoint [their] racial background just by looking at them.” This is, I guess, a natural phenomena in that it is often used to describe people who are mixed race, very tanned, or those who don’t fit into any specific racial stereotypes. Being described as ‘racially ambiguous’ is not in and of itself a bad thing; It only becomes tricky when you lean into it and consciously profit off of it.

Lets take my favourite case study for example: Ariana Grande. Regardless of your personal music tastes, she is undeniably one of today’s biggest pop stars. She’s also one of the biggest offenders. Her style, her cadence, and her tanning regime have pushed her closer and closer to that itty-bitty line between style and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a heavy accusation that shouldn’t be used lightly, but it is true that many people have mistaken her for belonging to a variety of different races; If you type in the phrase, “is Ariana Grande” into your Google search bar, at least 3 of the most common searches that pop up include, “Is Ariana Grande Hispanic,” “Is Ariana Grande Latina,” and, “Is Ariana Grande Japanese.”

Now Ariana Grande isn’t the lone offender in any way The term “blackfishing” is used to describe those who use makeup or beauty tactics to appear as though they have Black or African ancestry, although it has been used to include Hispanic or Arab ancestries as well. It was coined in November of 2018 when a Twitter post that highlighted white women “cosplaying as black women on Instagram” blew up with more than 23,000 retweets and a large thread of people started tracking various influencers’ skin tone discrepancies.  

Now you might be thinking, “Hanna, isn’t that a great thing? People love diversity so much, they’re all trying to be more diverse themselves!”

Okay, now stop thinking that.

This is the beauty section, so I’ll make my argument with regards to conventional western beauty standards. Hopefully you’re no stranger to the idea that self confidence is important. I know from personal experience how fragile self confidence can be, and that stands as a fact regardless of who you are or which racial category you belong to. I do, however, believe that it’s even harder for women of colour to achieve self confidence because they are rarely regarded as the beauty ideal.

Western beauty ideals traditionally do not include women of color, and are mainly limited to Eurocentric features.

Western beauty ideals traditionally do not include women of color, and are mainly limited to Eurocentric features.

Growing up, you emulate what you see in the world. If you see mostly skinny white women while growing up, even if they have varying hair colour shades, that’s what you’ll yearn to emulate, even if physically impossible. Now, this is a very real scenario as beauty standards have long favoured white women or women with generally paler complexions. Even today, when we see people of colour as a symbol of beauty in the media, it’s not uncommon for them to be praised for how European their features appear, or how light their brown skin is (see colorism).

Social media platforms allow women of colour to advocate for their right to diversity and inclusivity in the media. As a result, influencers, celebrities, and models are slowly becoming more diverse, leading to more easily accessible diverse role models. Don’t get me wrong though, we still have a long ways to go.

When women who do not belong to a certain race, minority, or culture adopts that as a trend that they can capitalise on, it becomes an active attack on the push for inclusivity in the beauty industry is making. When someone like Ariana Grande, an Italian-American with distinctly European features, becomes the Black/Latina beauty standard, everything we have worked towards is instantly negated. It maintains the original limited beauty standard and continues to harm young people of colour by implying their inferiority.

You can’t control being defined as “racially ambiguous.” You can’t control what physical features people assign to certain races. Allowing people to create a sense of racial ambiguity and to profit off of it to a point where they become beacons of a culture, race, or ethnicity that they do not belong to can’t continue to happen. All of the women mentioned in this article are hardworking and beautiful; That should not be invalidated. But in the end, they are all hardworking, beautiful, white women too.

Women of colour already spend their whole lives trying to find their place in a world built only for whites. Don’t let white women usurp what little they have to call their own.