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The challenge of inclusivity

Published: 
Friday, December 1, 2017

Every society and culture has its own ideals and standards of beauty for both men and women. These ideals inform our personal choices about our physical appearance and our perceptions of ourselves and others.

We might want to believe that our sense of style is a unique expression of individuality, but more often than not it’s simply a regurgitation of trends we’ve observed from our peers and popular celebrities. We learn what appears appropriate and desirable to others and we fashion ourselves accordingly. However, this can become problematic when the images in popular culture neglect to represent some members of society.

The term “inclusivity” refers to an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised, typically on the grounds of gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, etc. Advertisements try to catch the attention of the public by using faces that the audience can identify with, and loyalty to a product is achieved when the consumer can see themselves in the images being presented. For example, when they can identify with the model wearing the clothing to be sold, or with a musician who appears to be relatable to their audience. Familiarity and similarity leads to trust, and we buy from people we are comfortable with and who seem to have things in common with us. Familiarity sells.

Advertising intends to appeal to the masses by showing us people who look like us, and also by showing us people who have the appearance we idealise. If the type of people we idealise are using this product, we can become like them by using the product too.

The film industry is also affected by this. Large budget Hollywood films are notoriously known for casting white actors in non-white roles, a practice known as “white washing”. The BBC proposed two explanations for this: institutional racism and producers expecting well-known white actors to attract more audiences and increase earnings for the films. In Bollywood, darker skinned Indians are under-represented, as most leading roles show actors of a lighter complexion.

In 2016, a global campaign on social media against colourism, using the hashtag #unfairandlovely, challenged the widespread belief that fairer skin is more attractive. The campaign’s name, “Unfair and Lovely”, was named after the popular Indian skin-lightening cream Fair and Lovely.

Representation and inclusivity help young people feel acknowledged by society, and research has shown that those who do not feel a secure place in society are more likely to develop negative ideas about their identify and worth. According to Dr Nicole Martins of Indiana University, “there’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”

One might argue that portraying ideals to strive towards is not harmful, but this portrayal relies on the assumption that the ideal presented is the most attractive look one can aspire to.

In Trinidad and Tobago we are not exempted from this. Idealisations of attractiveness can be seen on the billboards along our highways, and every year as models are chosen to sell our carnival costumes. It’s even seen in the social media albums of popular fetes where photographers choose particular looks to represent the event. There is an undercurrent of preference and privilege in T&T that we hesitate to acknowledge, and many of us are torn between the choice of speaking out against it or finding a comfortable place within it.

Challenging the status quo is not for everyone. Kudos to those who are strong enough to stand in their own truth.

JONATHAN ST LOUIS-NAHOUS
PRESIDENT, GUILD OF STUDENTS, THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES, ST AUGUSTINE