Featurism

VIVICA TURNBULL | FEATURES



My big sister took me to get my face waxed for the first time when I was 11, I remember it hurting a lot. I did not understand why people would go through this pain. I didn’t have a problem with my eyebrows, but my sister sure did. That was no secret. My mind began to spiral, nit-picking every feature on my face. I thought that if my sister thought these things, then what must everyone else think?


At this time of my life, I was getting ready to move to boarding school in Sydney away from my home in remote NSW. My parents gifted me with my first phone and sent me to the convent. Saying this out loud does sound a bit like the plot of Emma Roberts's 2008 film Wild Child, Except I was not a wealthy blonde girl. I was and still am a proud Gunu Barkindji and Ngemba woman. I am blessed with my melanin skin, my brown eyes, and curly hair, but as an impressionable 12-year-old I wanted nothing more than to fit in. Like most private schools in Sydney, you can estimate with the eye that 90% of the students are white. In this sea of students, I struggled to find my features in others which left me feeling isolated.


I felt trapped by the ‘Typical Australian Girl.’ The girls with straight blonde hair, tan skin, and blue eyes. Those faces filled the school halls and my Instagram. I started to conform by manipulating my facial features to match the eurocentric beauty standard. I now know this as featurism which is a prejudice towards certain features in individuals and a preference towards those with features that fit the beauty standard. Featurism differs from colourism as it extends past skin colour and delves into features, often reflecting a race of people. Waxing my eyebrows was just the beginning of the internalised featurism that would only continue manifesting within me.


For my 13th birthday, I was given a hair straightener that would soon become my most prized possession. No one in my year group had hair like mine and I felt embarrassed by my curly hair, As people loved to touch it. I would almost immediately straighten my hair after washing it, I remember the hot iron making my damp hair sizzle. Over time, this made my hair as dry as steel wires on a cattle farm. I even went as far as bleaching my hair to be blonde despite the hairdresser's opinions. I villainized my hair because it never looked like the other girls. I thought I needed to look like them to be beautiful. I would get so frustrated with my hair because I never properly knew how to take care of it. In 2016, there was little diversity on social media and at my new school. Coming from a remote community with a high level of Aboriginal people to Sydney was a huge change for me. I felt like I had to change my features to fit in.


For so many years this was the standard of beauty, but as social media developed it has become more diversified. When I was 16, I remember discovering an Instagram account named @Jaymejo and looking at her curls in amazement. She is a Lebanese Australian and her content focuses around how to take care of curly hair and now I wear my curly crown out proudly. Aboriginal content creator Tallulah Brown from the Gomeroi nation has helped me embrace my ‘wild’ eyebrows as I have let them grow thick. Featurism blinds people of their own beauty and the beauty in others. It is important for the wellbeing of BIPOC children that they see their own features being portrayed in the media as beautiful to avoid deeply rooted featurism.