What Meghan Markle's Personal Essay About Beauty Standards Means for Women Everywhere
It didn’t take long for the tabloid headlines to go from breathless to belligerent once rumors began swirling that Meghan Markle was to marry Prince Harry in the spring. The news brimmed with racial and misogynistic undertones: “Meghan Markle Resume [sic] Reveals Many Skills . . . Like Stripping and Juggling!!!” or, perhaps even more lethal, “Now That’s Upwardly Mobile! How in 150 years, Meghan Markle’s family went from cotton slaves to royalty via freedom in the U.S. Civil War.” Amid the noise, a personal essay penned by Meghan Markle herself has quietly resurfaced. Called “It’s All Enough,” and written for the independent magazine Darling in the spring of 2015, Markle revisits her not-too-distant past as a struggling actress who wore too much bronzer and self-tanner and drove a beat-up Ford Explorer Sport from audition to audition in order to try and make it in an industry that “judges you on everything that you’re not versus everything that you are,” she writes. “Not thin enough, not pretty enough, not ethnic enough, while also being too thin, too ethnic, too pretty the very next day.”
It’s not the first time Markle, who is biracial, has spoken about the challenges of not fitting in at school or being able to land a role, due to her curly hair, freckles and “ethnically nondescript skin,” which didn’t fit neatly into any one easy-to-categorize box in Hollywood, where typecasting is common and character descriptions often read as stereotypes: “‘Beautiful, sassy, Latina, 20s’; ‘African American, urban, pretty, early 30s’; ‘Caucasian, blonde, modern girl next door,'” she has said. “I wasn’t black enough for the black roles and I wasn’t white enough for the white ones, leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn’t book a job.”
It’s not news that actresses of differing backgrounds experience criticism for their indiscernible skin color and beauty features. Zendaya has called being biracial the “best and the worst of both worlds,” referring to it as “the gray area” during one interview, and prompting fans to flood her social media with comments such as, “She is mixed so it makes sense,” to “Bitch, you black and that’s it.” She was 19 at the time, though surely it wasn’t the first instance someone told her she couldn’t be more than one thing.
Zoe Saldana has described her experience working in a white, male-dominated field as an Afro-Dominican and Puerto Rican woman with the three-word phrase many in her shoes know too well: “What are you?” That, coupled with the backlash in the media of her being too “light-skinned” and “attractive” to portray jazz icon Nina Simone in last year’s biopic Nina, prompted Saldana to stand up. “There’s no one way to be black . . . . I’m black the way I know how to be,” said the mother of three young boys. “I never saw her as unattractive. Nina looks like half my family! But if you think the [prosthetic] nose I wore was unattractive, than maybe you need to ask yourself, ‘What do you consider beautiful?’ ”
And yet, even the persistent refrain of, “No, seriously, though, what are you?” may be a better greeting than this: At the 2015 SAG Awards, Rashida Jones, an accomplished filmmaker, Harvard graduate, and daughter of black music legend Quincy Jones and Jewish actress Peggy Lipton, was met on the red carpet with “You look like you’ve just come off an island or something, you’re very tan, very tropical!” Jones responded with a laugh, “I mean, you know, I’m ethnic.” Off camera, she expanded on the all-too-frequent moment in a magazine interview. “It’s more of a challenge for other people than it is for me . . . . Other people think I should be settling into one thing or another but I don’t want to be limited. I spent so much time when I was young being limited. I wasn’t dark enough for some parts, or I was too light, or I wasn’t quirky enough.”
Ask other prominent actresses such as Ruth Negga, Lucy Liu, or Thandie Newton, and they’ll likely agree: Red carpets can feel like cultural land mines for biracial women, primed to go off with every body-conscious dress and change of a hairstyle—from blowouts (“too white”) to braids (“too street”) to dreadlocks. The latter famously became the subject of a social media firestorm at the Oscars in 2015, when E! News anchor Giuliana Rancic remarked that Zendaya’s chosen hairstyle must “smell like patchouli oil—or weed.” The actress responded with a personal statement on Instagram, calling the comments “outrageously offensive” and “disrespectful”; Rancic later apologized.
Few Americans, of course, will ever walk the red carpet, and yet it often acts as a catalyst for just such conversations—beaming a culture’s prejudices, misperceptions, and subconscious assumptions about what is “beautiful” or “good” through the television screen and into the home, where it sparks a dialogue that will continue in classrooms, workplaces, and chat rooms. The results can be messy, awkward, and without immediate resolution, but difficult discussions have always been a necessary step toward progress.
Now it’s Markle, a U.N. Women advocate and an ambassador for World Vision and One Young World, who is leaving her career in the “unapologetically impossible” industry that is Hollywood, for a stage that is exponentially bigger than any television show or red carpet. Come spring, when she officially joins the royal family, she will become one of the most visible women in the world. With her new role comes the ability to transform minds and hearts. Smart, engaging, and articulate, with a knack for leadership surpassed only by her track record of social service and compassion, Markle is more than up to the job.