I was insecure about how I looked when I was younger. My hair was frizzy and embarrassingly enormous. My bum stuck out too much. My lips were too big. My thighs were too big.
Everything about me – specifically my racialised features as a Black mixed woman – felt “too much”. I remember the distinct feeling of wanting to shrink myself, melt myself down into something neater, smaller, sleeker – which is how I saw my white friends, and the beautiful white people on TV.
Then, in my early 20s, soon after moving to London from my home in Manchester, I began to notice a shift in how beauty was being represented. Suddenly, faces, hair and bodies that looked like mine were plastered on shop windows, grinning down from billboards, smizing (smiling with their eyes) from the pages of magazines. Every other TV ad featured mixed models or an interracial family.
White influencers began plumping their lips, baking their skin, braiding their hair, even undergoing invasive surgical procedures to create curves where none existed. The things about myself I had wanted to disguise or alter in my youth were now in vogue – and I struggled to get my head around that. How did it become “trendy” to look like me? And should I feel pleased about it?
This growth of racial ambiguity as an aesthetic trend was, at least in part, accelerated by celebrity culture and the likes of the Kardashians. The accusations of “Blackfishing” levelled against the family are well documented, with criticisms about their adoption of Black hairstyles, body types and facial features. The reality TV stars, along with thousands of imitators who came in their wake, have been cherrypicking the elements of Blackness that suit their brand without any of the uncomfortable or disadvantageous implications of actually living as Black.
This “trend” had an impact on mixed women – at least those of us with Black and white heritage – as we found that our features became covetable and desirable, just as long as they were wrapped in the palatable package that comes with proximity to whiteness.
And that is why it’s impossible to see the rise of mixed beauty ideals as a positive thing, because at its heart sits an unsettling insistence on white superiority.
It’s often hard to articulate why something that sounds like a compliment can be so harmful. On the racism scale, being told that you’re beautiful is hardly the worst thing that can happen. But just because something presents as a positive on the surface, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dig deeper into the wider implications of this phenomenon.
In the research for my book, Mixed/Other, I interviewed more than 50 mixed Britons of all ages, with different ethnic makeups, from all over the country. They told me that being perceived in this way – this hyper-focus on how we look – makes them feel like a collection of commodified parts, rather than real people.
Alexander, who has Sri Lankan and white British heritage, told me he was fetishised by men he dates. They called him exotic, and one guy even rejected him when he found out he wasn’t Māori – his favourite “type”. Becky, who has Black Caribbean and white British heritage, said she was frequently hypersexualised – that men reduced her to a litany of racialised parts and make assumptions about what she will be like in bed.
People I spoke to who are not mixed with white – those with multiple minority heritage – say this narrative erases them from the conversation altogether. For people like Jeanette, with Cameroonian and Filipino heritage, these assumptions of “inherent mixed beauty” don’t apply. She doesn’t fit the blueprint.
It is not “mixedness” that is being glorified, then, but simply the aesthetics of ambiguity and, crucially, being close enough to whiteness.
We are right to be wary of compliments that are not compliments, to push back against this disproportionate interest in how we look. It wasn’t so long ago that the mixed population was being scrutinised with a similar energy but with an entirely different outcome. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were groups warning about the dangers of “race crossing”; there were calls for mixed people to be sterilised; we were denigrated as deviant, stupid, contaminated, undesirable. Isn’t the contemporary idealisation of mixedness – the suggestion that we are more beautiful or have “the best of both” – simply the other side of the same coin?
This trend continues. Hashtags such as #MixedBeauty and #MixedBabies have millions of posts on Instagram. Hit shows such as Bridgerton spotlight mixed stars at the expense of monoracial Black actors. This kind of fetishisation is pervasive and enduring, yet often goes unremarked because many think it is positive, or represents progress. But being a trend, or being commercially popular because of your racialised appearance, is never going to be a good thing.
Meghan Markle is the most recent example of this. Celebrated as a beautiful emblem of a progressive future in the lead-up to the royal wedding, the tide quickly turned on her when she was deemed not to be sticking to the script, and was instead proud and outspoken about her Black heritage. No matter how much mixed people may be celebrated or glorified for their appearance, her treatment shows that there is ultimately so little power in that, and that any privilege which comes with being perceived as beautiful is precarious.
Celebrating mixed beauty risks doing little more than bolster a pre-existing racial hierarchy, ensuring that whiteness remains fixed at the top. It’s important to acknowledge the problematic and damaging nature of these attitudes – even when they sound complimentary.