Is There a Science to Beauty?

Getty Images
Getty Images

"He look-a like a man." Remember Ms. Swan? Mad TV's maybe-Korean, maybe-Icelandic, slightly androgynous nail technician played with adroit cultural ambiguity by Jewish-American actress Alex Borstein? Ms. Swan could never give anyone a straight answer and her subterfuge became her most famous catchphrase, "He look-a like a man." We laughed because the answer was so obvious, yet so cryptic. Because really what does a man look-a like?


In the case of 800m World Champion Caster Semenya, the International Association of Athletics Federations thinks it knows, sorta—having compelled the 18-year-old to undergo "gender testing" in order to prove that she is, in fact, female. Apparently sixth-place finisher Elisa Cusma Piccione is an expert as well. Piccione told Italian journalists, "For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man." And fellow loser Mariya Savinova of Russia, who came in fifth, instructed journalists in Berlin to, "just look at her."

OK, but what are we looking at, or for, exactly? The thick thighs, the muscular arms, the broad shoulders, the wide jaw line, bushy eyebrows and faint mustache? Are these the physical attributes that define Semenya as inherently male, just plain unattractive or a record breaker?

The issue seems to directly question race, beauty and who gets to set the standards. White and western is more female and more beautiful, black and African is less so.

"As a beauty editor, I looked at her face and thought it's a beautiful and very interesting face," said Tai Beauchamp, 31, a beauty and lifestyle expert. "[It's] not a face that is so different from some of the African models that we love." But even that small pinch (definitely not even a handful) of women—Alek Wek, Liya Kebede—are still the exception rather than the norm to our ideas of female beauty, despite two Vogue Italia issues dedicated to black models the most recent being the "Black Barbie" issue.

In keeping with the black and barbie dichotomy, Sola Oyebade, the owner of a London-based modeling agency that features women of color, explained that to be African and beautiful in the Western fashion world, a model is defined as either one or the other.

"To be accepted as an African model you must have very strong African features, similar to the likes of Alex Wek, or you must be of mixed race so that you look as close to being white as possible," said Oyebade, chief executive of Mahogany Models.


Nigerian-American blogger Chi Chi Iwu agreed that Western beauty has "translated to the world what male and female attributes are from the days of playing with Barbie and G.I. Joe." Still, 25–year-old Iwu, who writes about African pop culture from New York City, said she immediately recognized Semenya as female despite her being "dressed down, with a low-cut hairstyle or a 'deep male-like' voice."

But clearly there's something about the rest of Semenya's features—the "fashionably" high cheekbones, the "primitive" nose, the "manly" jaw—that simply don't fit the mold of mass-marketed beauty that the Young Communist League of South Africa says, "feeds into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty.”


"It is this culture which has forced many African women to starve themselves with the objective of reaching the model ramps of Paris and Milan to become the face of this or that product or magazine."

Going all the way back to the Hottentot Venus, African women have historically been marginalized from the definition of Western beauty. "The definition of beauty has been what is not African or black," explained Dr. M. Bahati Kuumba, an associate professor of women studies at Spelman College. "The African woman has through Western eyes always been demonized."


Several supporters of Semenya and critics of the westernization of beauty looked, almost paradoxically, to the runway as proof that the runner from South Africa was being singled out because of her race not, in fact, her appearance. Oyebade pointed to the new "androgynous" East European look that is popular on the catwalk. South African resident Serge Kalu, a 31-year-old entrepreneur and sports fan, agreed that "the way a woman should look is not the same in different cultures. And to be honest, if Caster is to be tested on those grounds, then half of the German female athletes must also be tested as to me they also look like men. Where do we draw the line?"

If that's true, then through which lens are we judging Semenya, "the German female athletes" or "androgynous" East European models? If one group can be defined as beautiful, then can't they all?


According to Iwu, the battle line between what is beautiful and what isn't is most likely as blurred in South Africa as it is in other countries. "In South Africa, one can possibly assume that Caster's physical attributes are widely attractive," she said, explaining that there obviously exists different manifestations of beauty. From the natural look sported by Jill Scott in HBO's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and jazz singer Simphiwe Dana to the "fashionable" looks of South African model Tammy-Anne Fortuin and celebrity blogger Lelo Boyana.

So then why not just Susan Boyle her? Semenya is from a small rural village called Fairlie. It's 40 miles to the nearest town and probably light-years away from L'Oreal. "She probably hasn't been exposed to Western standards of beauty to have adopted any of those practices and why would she," said beauty expert Beauchamp. Somebody just pluck her eyebrows, press her hair, give her some Jackie Joyner-Kersee night cream and voila, instant girl! Unfortunately, prejudice has a longer shelf life than pimples. The beauty aisle can't fix what Semenya's case has stirred up.


"Most girls her age are worrying about their body image," said model Owolabi, "and I can only imagine what kind of impact this situation is having on her." Maybe the rest of world should worry about the impact it's having on us.

Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.