When you read the term white, what do you think about? Most probably purity, virginity, innocence, light, or spirituality. Though for a queer individual, the presence of white on the progress pride flag symbolises those who are transitioning or those who do not identify with any gender (whether neutral gender or no gender at all). Although its meaning may be forever evolving, let’s not pretend that black is white, the term white is gendered and here is why.
In many parts of the world, white(r) skin represents an ideal to achieve, whether because it marks your wealthiness since you do not need to work in the fields under the sun or because you are trying to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards, which thanks to imperialism have become global. Ever wondered why the colour nude (universally) reflects Eurocentric skin tones? Women across the world remain bombarded by this image of the thin, young, able-bodied, and white (or sun-kissed) women as the epitome of beauty. Now, one may wonder what it may impact one’s life to not fully ascribe to mainstream beauty narratives?
Well, aside from representation, it also demarcates two groups of individuals, the ones we perceive as matching these standards and thus beautiful, and the other, thereby invisibilising them. Matching these ideals quickly became the silent second job of most individuals, which makes these standards classist as well. Not everyone has the time or the financial means to alter his/her/their body – neither should they have to alter their appearance. Your (alleged) beauty also defines what opportunities you get, how people treat you, and which spaces you can access. Aside from these, non-conforming to certain beauty ideals can also lead to anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, eating disorders, low self-esteem, or self-harm.
Let’s jump industries slightly to enter the fashion one. Of course, if I scream white garment, many people will think of a beautiful white wedding gown (or suit?) walking down an aisle. Although those meanings are gone for many nowadays, the princess-like white wedding dress also represents, thanks to patriarchy, prosperity, virginity, and a lifetime commitment to one person. As the Godey's Lady's BookThe Godey’s Lady’s Book is an American women's magazine published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878.close wrote, “white is the most fitting hue… It is the emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”
Wearing a white uniform may also come with its share of stress as tennis women athletes and the English women’s football team have recently highlighted. Players talk about mental stress and anxiety about having to wear white while menstruating. The controversy arose primarily over Wimbledon’s, one of the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournaments, strict all-white dress code (including underwear). This dress code was originally introduced because witnessing any form of perspiration was deemed improper and rude, and wearing whites minimised the visibility of sweat as well as cooled players. Maybe it is time to cut some slack in the rules?
As you can see, the reality is far from black and white, and something as innocent as the colour white may be gendered in a myriad of ways.