In 2015, the Dogwood Ball, one of the debutante balls in Knoxville, Tennessee, required that women fulfill three different criteria in order to receive an invitation: they had to be a sophomore in college, unmarried, and White. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Anne Trent, the chairperson of the Board of Governors of the East Tennessee Presentation Society, said that she did not see an issue with the 53-year-old event being segregated. Even though Trent later denied that Whiteness was a requirement for participation in the event, according to the International Business Times, all 44 debutantes presented were White. In White-dominated populations in the South, there exists a White-centric culture that places supreme value on the image of the Southern Belle: a White woman with powdered makeup, a skinny body, straight hair, (most likely blonde), and a tauntingly picture-perfect smile.
But the image of the Southern Belle is nothing new. Tufts History professor Kerri Greenidge explains, “One of the most important things to look at historically is [that] the image of White women particularly in the South has always been predicated on the image of either enslaved women or Native American women…The whole construct of what it means to be a White woman, not just in the South but in general…that identity has always been seen in opposition to women of color.”
The Southern Belle—who was often married to a slave owner—was elevated as a symbol of virtue and superiority in order to gloss over the immorality of owning slaves. Greenridge said, “[The Southern Belles] were supposed to be moral…They were supposed to be teaching the new generation how to react, how to grow up in a moral republic of the 19th century. The flipside of that was that given that fact, and [with the] definition of White womanhood, Black women were, by default, prevented from being in the cult of domesticity because Black women were enslaved in the South.” In part due to this history, popular southern culture still idealizes White women as the golden standard for beauty, femininity, and morality.
Amanda Borquaye, a Black senior at Tufts who was raised in Savannah, Georgia, experienced the painful realities of these standards when she won the “Southern Belle” superlative at her high school. “When I found this out, I thought in [the pre-Civil War period] I would be a slave, or—if I were old enough—I would be a nanny caretaker whose job would be to bring up a beautiful Southern White Belle. So how dare I somehow get implicated in this terminology…[It] was one of the really cherished senior superlatives.”
So would a Southern Belle be a White woman whose family didn’t own slaves, like in Mississippi—would that woman be considered a Southern Belle? No. It’s constructed to be against Black women, but also against any White woman who isn’t of a certain class.” they would still be considered socially and racially on a higher plane than Black women.” Today, socioeconomic status limits who is eligible to be a true Southern Belle. “You’re a young White girl who’s living in, say, Memphis, Tennessee and your family makes less than $20,000 a year, how much are you seen as a Southern Belle in the context of young girls whose families make $70,000 a year?” Greenidge explains.
Since its inception, the Southern Belle has permeated pop culture. Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone with the Wind immortalizes the vision of the Southern Belle in the Antebellum South. Country singer Tim McGraw describes his dream girl as “Southern girl rock my world/hazel eyes and golden curls/put on a country song/we will dance all night long” in his country single, “Southern Girl.” The past five winners of the Miss Alabama Pageant have been White, a state that had a 65.8 percent White population in 2016.Greenidge connects the Southern Belle to the national idea of womanhood. “White womanhood, particularly young White womanhood, is still seen in opposition to whatever it is people construe as being Black womanhood and Blackness.”
But areas in the South contain rich diversity in race and beauty standards. Pawan Dhingra, a professor in the Sociology Department, says, “Even in the South, there is an understanding of multiculturalism. There are obviously such strong pockets, communities of African Americans and other non-Whites who create their own standards of beauty.“ The Southern Belle archetype does not reign supreme in all parts of the South. Still, as Dhingra points out, “Whiteness still dominates what is considered most beautiful across the South and across the country. These are more tokenized appreciations in difference, but they don’t necessarily change what is dominant.” This especially applies to areas in the White-dominated areas of the South, where Black women are in the minority
Borquaye recalls beauty standards at her predominantly White school. “There is that pressure because you’re not even considered remotely attractive [unless you’re White] and if you are, people feel the need to tell you, ‘Hey you’re really cool and attractive and beautiful and I like you, but your race and the color of your skin make me feel confused about those feelings and make me feel ashamed of that; therefore, I’m just going to distance myself from you.’” She continues, “I think that’s just something completely rooted in the idea that beauty is reserved for White people and White women.”
Eve Abraha, an Eritrean first-year, talks about how women of color at her high school in Tennessee tried to conform to this White southern femininity. “I know there would be some people who would try to copy their look and try to be a part of their clique but they would go through huge processes and they really lost sight of their own culture.”
White culture tends to place the Southern Belle on a dangerously high pedestal. Greenidge expands on the dangers of the Southern Belle. “This version of womanhood is linked to the south, to a very specific moment in the south which is Antebellum slavery and this idea of pro-slavery thought. So, it can’t be separated from the fact that it is a very racialized image and a gendered image of what womanhood is supposed to be.” In other words, the Southern Belle is inextricably tied to its history of White supremacy.
But the White beauty standard of the Southern Belle is not impossible to overcome. When asked if she feels beautiful now, Abraha said, “Yes. I came to love my own culture and through that, loving myself. And loving that I’m an Eritrean Woman.”