The underlying power of beauty: An interview with Jordan Santos
[March, 2022— by Suzanne Shade] With a world view shaped from the clarity of injury, Jordan-Risa Santos is a lifelong learner, expansive thinker, and avid curator of the world that she inhabits. Last month I had a conversation with Jordan about the origins of her activism and the true voice she shares with her online community.
In your own words, who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
My name is Jordan-Risa Santos and I’m a Filipina-American from Los Angeles, CA. I am someone who loves reading, traveling, and spending quality time with friends and family. For work, I consult with brands and support them with social media management, curation, and creator outreach. I also create content for various brands and businesses on behalf of my personal Instagram.
How did your personal history affect how you became interested in social justice over the many years you’ve been on social media?
It’s embarrassing to say, but it took me a long time to care about anything other than what I thought directly affected me. For most of my life, I approached life focusing on the bubble I lived in and didn’t consider much outside of that. My perspective began to shift when I completed a couple classes at the university I attended. One was called Storytelling and Life, by director Tom Shadyac, which focused on community and learning how to prioritize the simple pleasures in life rather than money and society’s definition of success. The other was a class called Race and Ethnic Relations, which focused on the struggles and conflicts of racial and ethnic groups in the US and around the world. It was only then that I really realized I had such a narrow perspective of the world around me.
My interest in important causes really started when I was 21. I was severely injured after getting into a car with a friend who was drinking and driving. I had broken my neck in two places and while in recovery, I had shared my story and the dangers of drunk driving to a few hundred friends on Facebook. I began getting messages from people who were moved by my experience and I realized how impactful it can be to share my story. When I began gaining a following on Instagram in 2013-2014, I saw the opportunity to talk about a cause I cared deeply about and then realized that there were so many other causes out there that needed attention. Early on, I realized that I wanted to use social media beyond monetary or social gain; to use it for good in the ways that I can.
“I think that it’s worth speaking
on something if it means 1 or 100
people benefit from it."
While I have a complicated relationship with social media, I will say that I love it for the ways it’s helped me become exposed to perspectives and topics I would not have learned otherwise and for the way I’ve been able to support organizations and causes I believe in with the community I have been able to create.
Body image has been a strong thread in your stories recently. How did you decide to take on the obvious challenges of being open about this in a space (Instagram) that primarily celebrates beauty?
It’s not only body image, but the physical idea of beauty in general, that I’ve become more and more interested in recent months. I listened to a podcast featuring the author of Beauty Sick, who breaks down society’s fixation with being beautiful - the cultural obsession with our appearance and how that may hurt us in our daily lives, and it resonated with me so much that I immediately purchased her book and began reading more on the topic.
I was a bit nervous sharing my thoughts on the harms of our obsession with beauty. To put it bluntly, I am someone who makes money off of how I look and am surrounded by many who do, too. I get paid by beauty brands to sell products that promise to make people more beautiful. I understand the hypocrisy. But I also realize that if I was moved so much by the topic, as someone who from a young age has always been aware of how much importance our society places on beauty and who still feels those pressures of looking a certain way today, that maybe someone following me might, too.
While it’s unrealistic to completely remove myself from these societal pressures of beauty, I still think I can question it and try to push back on its control of me, even if it’s little by little. I hope sharing some of the things I learn can help others who struggle with the pressures of physical perfection to question what’s causing that, too.
Were you surprised at how many of your followers either connected with this or chose to stay silent?
I hoped people would connect with it and learn something from the book and podcast I shared, but I also try not to quantify how well a topic does. I didn’t notice which of my peers didn’t respond to that particular post because that wasn’t the point – I simply wanted to share what I learned in hopes that others find it helpful, too. I want to share what I feel strongly about, whether or not it does well from a numbers perspective. Just like when I first talked about drunk driving almost 10 years ago to a few hundred Facebook friends, I think that it’s worth speaking on something if it means 1 or 100 people benefit from it.
A question that has been discussed in a feminist context is that of choice— a woman’s choice to express her power by performing beauty. Can you talk about how you see that point of view affecting certain makeup/skincare/fashion trends?
I’m not an expert on this in the slightest, but I think we have to dig a little deeper when we simply say our choice to partake in beauty, skincare, fashion, etc. is ours. Who is telling us to care about makeup and skincare and clothes? Who is telling us we need more? Who is benefitting from our need to buy, our need to “improve?” While there is no question that some enjoy the self-expression that comes with beauty and fashion, we can’t ignore how the industry also has a negative effect on many, making them feel unworthy or less than if they can’t keep up.
One critical stab at Choice Feminism is that it's crafted by well-resourced white women who have the luxury to decide at what level they participate in beauty standards. As a POC, how would you shed some light onto the drawbacks of this point of view?
I recently read a good article on choice feminism from the perspective of an Asian American woman that resonated with me a lot. Basically, what it says, is that choice feminism is the belief that the individual choices of a woman are inherently feminist, when in reality, not every woman has the privilege of choice.
"In an ideal world, maybe we could all be
able to care about beauty less, but for now, many
of us still have to play the game."
There are many privileges for a woman who is white, thin, young, cis-gendered, able-bodied, etc. For all my life, I have seen this type of woman be the standard of beauty and image of success in the media. Only now are we seeing more inclusivity beyond this very specific archetype, and even so, there are limits within diversity itself. For example, brands may now (finally) be including models of color, but oftentimes we still see the limitations – they likely have eurocentric facial features, are thin, are wrinkle-free, etc.
With that said, in an ideal world, maybe we could all be able to care about beauty less, but for now, many of us still have to play the game. When beauty is currency in an image-obsessed society, it’s sadly not really an option for some women to forego makeup or dieting or anti-aging cream, even if they wanted to. While there are so many negatives in the ways we are pressured to look a certain way, our current society awards those adhering to these expectations.
The dialog you have with your followers seems to be a very accepting space for you. How do you keep balanced about what you’re expressing at any given moment?
It is very accepting, most of the time, but it also hasn’t come without its drawbacks. I would say in the past couple years, my following has shifted, just as what I’ve shared had shifted from mostly fashion and beauty to books and articles and causes I care about. Some who have followed me for years who have been open to this shift have stayed and I’ve also gained some new followers along the way, but I’ve also seen a decrease in my following and engagement. When I first began speaking out on things, I was receiving a lot of angry messages from those who didn’t agree with me- mostly from white women who didn’t like that I was talking about racism and white supremacy. But that’s dropped off immensely mostly because those who are left are those who, at the most, love what I share and at the least, are able to tolerate it.
I used to be so reactive to the responses I would receive when sharing a topic some would deem controversial - I used to have lengthy conversations with people to try to get them to understand my point of view or even fire off snarky messages back. Those types of negative messages would suck so much energy from me, whether I realized it at the time or not, and I found myself fixated on them, even when I would receive 10x the positive messages.
More recently, I’ve tried to be more intentional with what and how I’m sharing. I am less interested in proving a point and more interested in protecting my peace. And lately that means sharing excerpts from books or articles that I find interesting, without feeling the need to add passionate, lengthy commentary on my personal opinions. I’m learning more and more that I am more at peace (and more effective) when I provide information and let people form their own opinions, rather than trying to persuade them to believe what I believe. I also am more mindful of limiting who has access to me - instead of replying to every negative message and letting them get to me, I have found the joys in the block button. It’s not that I don’t want to partake in challenging conversations, I just don’t want to let trolls who have never once engaged with me think that they can talk down to me behind a screen and anonymous username.
It has felt more liberating to approach what I’m sharing with the mindset that if someone resonates with it, great. And if not, then it wasn’t meant for them. It allows me to share what I care about without seeking external validation or response. I know it may sound super detached and unemotional, but I’ve learned I can’t convince anyone of anything if they aren’t open to it.
What would you say are the top 3 topics you are musing on right now? Which one have you done the deepest dive?
The top three topics I’m musing on right now… I would say in the past 8 years or so, I’ve been drawn to discussions on race and lately, its intersections with feminism. More recently, I’ve been reading a lot more on beauty standards and its harm on women, as well as consumerism and modern-day capitalism, which as you can imagine, has made me a bit disillusioned with the industry I work in… I would say I’ve done the deepest dive on race, with the majority of what I’m reading and learning about has been focused on that, but I’m also seeing how it plays into a lot of the other topics I’ve been interested in.
To allow everyone a closer look into some of these subjects, Jordan has shared a selection of books she recommends that have shaped her point of view. You can join her on Instagram or Goodreads.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
White Tears, Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Severance by Ling Ma
Consumed by Aja Barber
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf