How Jesse Williams’ divorce highlights the way white-supremacist beauty standards affect relationships
By Catherine Imani
By now, you’re probably aware of the fact that Jesse Williams and his wife Aryn Drake-Lee are divorcing after 5 years of marriage and 15 total together. This is not an article about their divorce, because no one knows what is going on inside of their home but them. This is about the ways beauty politics affect relationships–especially relationships in which one person is more attractive by the general society’s standards than the other.
It’s no secret that Jesse fits many stereotypes for attractiveness. He has light skin, light eyes, he’s physically able and slim-thick with a cute ass. In short, he’s “Hollywood pretty,” and that on top of his acting and social justice politics made him very popular among black women specifically.
Jesse was able to leverage that popularity into speaking engagements, interviews and job opportunities. His wife, on the other hand, while gorgeous and intelligent, is not the kind of woman usually seen in Hollywood. And Hollywood is a microcosm, where the ideals and standards of white supremacy, cis heteropatiarchy, fatphobia, colorism and ableism are magnified.
If the rumors are true, it would be no surprise that a fellow “Hollywood pretty” white woman led to the demise of Williams’ marriage.
Again, this isn’t about the couple’s divorce. But any conversation about love, relationships and community is not complete without talking about who is good enough to love, and how that is often directly tied to what is defined as beautiful in our white supremacist society.
Those of us who are not beautiful enough to love are often left with the opposite: violence and abuse. The fact is, although Jesse leaving his black wife for a white woman might be surprising given his seeming embrace of black feminism, it still fits the trend of “when (a black man) get on, he leave (a black woman’s) ass for a white girl,” which is compounded by the larger trend of “attractive person benefits from the love and labor and resources of their less attractive partner only to discard them when they don’t need those things anymore.” There are so many songs, movies and books normalizing this concept, that its effects on the larger society cannot be ignored.
Studies have shown that black women are viewed as being the least desirable across racial categories. Even within the black community, what is defined as desirable mirrors white supremacists standards. Beauty is often talked about in opposition to blackness, and is instead aligned with whiteness and everything whiteness represents.
Because of this, the pressures around beauty for black women are more pronounced. It makes sense that our community exalts the light-skinned, “mixed”/non-black/exotic, cis, abled, and/or slim women, but what goes ignored are all of the ways that beauty is more than skin deep. Beauty–read: how much a black woman aligns with the white supremacist standard–can be a deciding factor in getting a raise, and changes how that woman is perceived by her coworkers or even the judicial system.
In my community, it was very common for young men who were down on their luck to date women who did not meet social beauty standards but had an apartment or a car. They would dog them out the entire time or spread malicious rumors about them, and then when they were financially stable they would leave them. The women are usually much worse off financially than they were when they first met these men.
When I was more gender nonconforming in my presentation, men would threaten to “beat me like the man I thought I was.” I know many women who did not meet society’s attractiveness standard and have had to physically fight men who would never dream of hitting a non-black woman or black woman they deemed attractive. (And that is not to say that only women who are not stereotypically beautiful are abused, but that their abuse is treated differently than that of other women).
This dynamic is especially evident in the responses to the recent Cleveland Shooting regarding the woman the shooter abused. Once people found out who she was and, more specifically, what she looked like, some noted how weird the shooter was for being homicidal over a woman as unattractive as her. Still others blamed her for his violence and tried to threaten her into contacting him.
Her deviance from the standard of beauty made her someone that a lot of people were unable and unwilling to empathize with. It made her someone that a majority of people did not see as deserving of love, safety or affection. It made people think of her as less worthy of life than the people he could have potentially killed (because I do not believe that she would have survived another 3 years if the shooter hadn’t killed himself).
When a black woman who doesn’t meet the standard of beauty is in a relationship, she is blamed for any failings in that relationship. He cheated? Her fault. He abuses her? Her fault. He leaves her after 15 years of commitment? Her fault, because what should she expect?
When news broke that Jesse was leaving his wife, many people commented that they could see why. One’s alignment to these white supremacist beauty standards has very real consequences on how black women are viewed and treated.
Movement’s like #BlackOut and #DisabledAndCute, and the efforts of black women on social media challenge beauty being about one’s alignment to whiteness and redefine it in a way that is more inclusive. Although this is an issue that can never be resolved quickly, conversations like this help. As Jesse Williams said himself, “Now, this is also in particular for the black women … who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you”.
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Catherine Imani is a queer disabled black femme based in Atlanta, Ga. They love art and science and are passionate about social justice and equality. Tip them at paypal.me/catherineimani .