Here's What Pretty Looks Like Around The World

Photo: Courtesy of Antonia Opiah.
What people think of as "pretty" differs wildly around the world. A new documentary video series is examining one aspect of this by exploring how Black women in various countries view beauty. Through first-person interviews with ladies from different backgrounds, Pretty aims to give an in-depth look into just how nuanced the idea of beauty can be. The series touched down in Paris most recently, and hopes to make its way across the globe, moving next to Milan, then to Morocco, and eventually the U.S.

Ahead, Antonia Opiah, creator of the Pretty series and the Un-ruly website — which celebrates the beauty of Black hair — dishes on the inspiration behind the videos, her thoughts on global beauty standards, and what she wants viewers to take away from the series. 
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Photo: Courtesy of Antonia Opiah.
What made you want to start the Pretty series? Why did you choose to do so now?
"Right now, discussions about beauty standards are becoming a bigger part of the zeitgeist. It seems like every other month there's a Photoshop scandal (Ed. note: Case in point: Kerry Washington on the cover of InStyle) or a super-interesting body image think piece being written. We're beginning to hold beauty standards under more scrutiny, so I wanted to contribute to that dialogue. Also, I've been living in Europe for the past two years and realized that I need to take the time to learn what women here are feeling about the topic."

Why did you choose to name the series Pretty?
"Good question! I don't really know; the name just fit. But, now that I think about it, I feel like we use the word 'pretty' more to describe a person's physical attractiveness. Beauty more connotes being beautiful as a person (inside and out). And, I really want part of this series to look directly at the surface elements of attractiveness, as well as what's underneath. Sometimes, physical attractiveness is skirted around in discussions like this because it can be a sensitive topic."

How have the reactions been so far?
"So far, the first (which you can view below) and second episodes, even the trailer, have been well-received. We're already getting emails from people about how much they like the videos and find them inspiring."

Why did you decide to give this a global perspective, instead of focusing on one part of the world?
"I'm really curious if beauty really does vary from country to country nowadays. With the Internet, we're all seeing the same types of images. Pictures of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift get repinned, retweeted, and so on...so, globalization of media might be having an impact on global beauty standards, and things may be more homogenous than we think. Or, they may be even more heterogenous than we think. Right now, when people discuss global beauty standards, the same examples show up: We see women with scarification, elongated necks, etc. These are great examples of obvious differences; I'm curious about the more subtle differences. For example, the Parisian women we've spoken to all describe beauty as effortless and understated, whereas some women that I've spoken to in France regard American beauty as more 'look at me' and flashy. So, it’s important to factor in geography when discussing beauty."

Why do you think it's important to explore what Black women, in particular, consider pretty?
"Race, even though it’s a social construct, influences perceptions of beauty just as much as geography. (That OkCupid trends report is a rough indication of that). Right now, the overall conversation about beauty, like feminism, is being discussed generally. To truly understand an issue or topic, we have to look at how it intersects with other factors, like race and class. So, I’ve chosen to look at how being Black intersects with beauty. I think, however, you’ll see that the color of the women speaking doesn’t make their stories any less relatable or informative to women who aren’t Black. I think women everywhere will be able to see themselves in the women interviewed, and in the moments when they can’t see themselves or they can’t relate, they’ll be learning something new."

Why do you think it's important to have this conversation about beauty around the world?
"It's easy to get lost in the world around you and forget that there's a bigger world out there, with people who have perspectives that might help your own perspective evolve. Having this conversation on a global level can really enrich the dialogue. We’re all very much products of our environments, so putting a spotlight on how different environments perceive beauty can help us understand which of our individual perceptions are learned...and which are our own."

How do you pick the women who are featured in the series?

"Oh boy, we do a lot of Instagram stalking. (laughs) [We also] ask friends and family to recommend potential candidates. For each city, we look for women with different backgrounds and different senses of style."

What would you like people to take away from the series? What are you hoping to accomplish?
"I personally have a constant dialogue going on in my head about beauty. We live in a world where beauty is social currency, and we're valued by it in a lot of cases. I’m constantly looking for ways to downplay the value that the world around me places on beauty, but at the same time I want to appreciate it. So, I'm using this series to learn how other individuals place beauty — how they view it and what role they let it play in their lives — with the hope of figuring out where I want to place it.

"I hope other women will be able to take that away from it, too. My aim is that the series will be a kind of tool for women to learn from other women. We’re...asking the interviewees to leave a message about beauty in what I call a 'traveling notebook.'  It’s a way to connect the women we interview, as well as to have something physical to take away from the piece. As we meet more and more women through the series, viewers will be able to see how they're different and similar to women who may live thousands of miles away from them. And, that can be comforting; feeling a sense of connection or shared experience."

How do you see the series evolving?
"I see the series evolving as the dialogue about beauty and image evolves, and as we learn more from the women we meet. The types of questions we’re asking are already evolving after interviewing women in Paris and Milan, and I suspect they’ll evolve even more once we head down to Africa. Right now, the series is in Paris. By late February, we’ll begin the Milan episodes, followed by London. And then, we’ll kick off Africa...by touching down in Morocco." 


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Photo: Courtesy of Antonia Opiah.
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