Visually categorizing people by race/ethnicity and body shape?
July 14, 2014 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm tagging a collection of photos of people for artistic inspiration as I learn to draw and I need some guidance on selecting tag names that are both useful and inoffensive.

In addition to tagging the individual features I find particularly compelling (e.g., eyes, legs, clavicle, color palette, etc.), I'd also like to tag people by gender (e.g., women, men, genderqueer), age category (e.g., infant, child, young adult, mature adult), race/ethnicity (need advice), and body type (need advice).

I'm doing this because I want to eventually write and draw a comic (as a hobby) and I've taken everything I've learned from MetaFilter about underrepresentation to heart. So I'm collecting and tagging these photos to ensure that I learn to draw a diverse variety of ages, race/ethnicities, and body types.

For race/ethnicity, I'd like to use two tags when possible, one for a specific ethnicity (when known) and one for a broader racial category. So, for example, I'd like to be able to categorize black Americans, Jamaicans, and Ethiopians under those individual tags but also all three under a broader tag reflecting their common physical features. However, I'm uncertain what would be an appropriate tag name for the latter -- "African" to reflect geographic ancestry, "Negroid" from physical anthropology, "Black" from the colloquial description of skin color, or...? Meanwhile, the colloquial "Asian" racial category is pretty useless since physical features vary pretty drastically from one part of Asia to the next. Etc.

My initial searching for scientific racial categorization hasn't been helpful. While there are charts like this, they put (Asian) Indians and Danes into the same broad category (Caucasoid), which may be true for DNA similarities but not for what they look like. (Let's not go into the "race is just a social construct" argument from academia -- while I appreciate that perspective, it's not very helpful for the sort of visual sorting I need to do for this project.)

Body types is a whole other can of worms. I'd like to categorize people by apparent size (i.e., width/height) while also distinguishing differences in apparent fitness because a slender person with muscle tone looks a lot different than a slender person who is "skinny-fat." I have no idea where to begin here since most of the colloquial terms for some body types are pretty insulting.

I don't care which set of terms I adopt as long as they clearly map to specific visually identifiable physical features and aren't demeaning. If there's an existing system in place used by a particular academic field or business industry (modeling or casting, maybe?) that already does this that I could just adopt wholesale, that would be ideal.

Please advise, thanks!

P.S. I know this is a touchy subject and that I don't know the right words to use (hence this question), so if anything in my post or follow-up comments is offensive then I apologize in advance and request that you please let me know what I did wrong and how to do better in the future. Thanks.
posted by Jacqueline to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd like to be able to categorize black Americans, Jamaicans, and Ethiopians under those individual tags but also all three under a broader tag reflecting their common physical features.

In my experience, folks from these three groups may not have much in common in terms of physical features, especially Ethiopians. You might want to be careful about putting people into categories that are too broad.

As regards to body shape, there's hourglass, apple, pear, cello, banana, for women....there's also the broader endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph types.
posted by bearette at 9:25 AM on July 14, 2014

If no one is going to see this but you, then use the tags that are the most useful and convenient for you.

The focus of your energy should be on your art, not dithering over the potential for a hypothetical person to be offended by the terms that you are using to help you create your art.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:32 AM on July 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Celtic_cherokee on livejournal has a great tagging system that they use for their fan-manips and icons. They basically use a bunch of tags identifying the multiple racial identities people claim in their heritage, so actresses like Rosario Dawson and Halle Berry show up in both their black and white tags.
posted by spunweb at 9:33 AM on July 14, 2014

Who will be seeing/using these terms? I understand wanting to set your thoughts with the best ways to mentally tag body types and ethnicities, but if no one else will see them, you can let go of some of that concern.

But if you're using this for some public-facing design blog, where you're actually tagging images with labels for yourself and others to browse, I can see your desire for the best tags. I started looking towards more dry, anthropological terminology, but I see that the field is littered with its own issues of foisting western ideals on other cultures (PDF, broad overview, no particular answers to your question). I'll ask a friend in the field if she has some good short-hand that is culturally-appropriate.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:37 AM on July 14, 2014

I do taxonomizing for money, and the one big general suggestion I have for making a robust and usable system is not to limit your categories too much.

Data storage is cheap, especially when it comes to simple pieces of data like tags. Don't assume you can predict every scenario or use at the beginning of a project. Leave as much specificity and flexibility in your system as you can.

So in your case, I'd say tag just about every notable aspect you can think of.

Maybe start with high level, colloquial visual descriptions like "White," "Black," and "Asian," then drill those down and include specific ethnicities, nationalities, and characteristics such as eyelid type, skintone, hair and eye color, etc. Remember to leave it open so that one picture can be tagged with multiple same-level characteristics, too, because a lot of people are multiethnic.

Take a similar approach with body types. Include every characteristic you might want to sort by. Height, weight, tone, proportions, biological sex, whatever, and maybe include a 1-10 scale or something.

This is the (very general) approach I take with big corporate databases, but it's actually pretty simple to apply even to small scale personal projects. Just decide on a few standard terminologies for qualities you want to sort on, and if you later decide that your wording is problematic, you can change it to something better using search and replace, or just delete tags or add new ones. Poof! Fixed!

Especially if this is a private personal project, I think it's fine if you just try to do your best and then modify your system as you figure out more and encounter more examples, like new genders or physical characteristics you hadn't thought of at first.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:39 AM on July 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, just a data point: when I was a nude model for college art classes I was generally one of the fatter people in the room. However, the professor explicitly discouraged his students from using fat and other types of body policing language because it was like a lazy way of thinking about art. Basically the words you pick reflect the care you take in your work.

In short: YOLO so why not spend it thinking about the shit you care about?
posted by spunweb at 9:40 AM on July 14, 2014

Response by poster: I'm thinking of using Tumblr for this simply because of it's easy tagging and reblogging features (I see a lot of inspiring photos and photosets on Tumblr to begin with).

While I suppose I could just make all the posts private, I don't want to get in the bad habit of using demeaning terms in private because things tend to eventually slip out in public (my brain-to-mouth filter is almost nonexistent).
posted by Jacqueline at 9:42 AM on July 14, 2014

Well, keep in mind that if you are publicly labeling people, no matter how well thought out those labels are, someone is going to be upset by it eventually, either the specific people in the pictures or someone else who identifies with them.

Everyone is different. There is no universally inoffensive way to do this.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:58 AM on July 14, 2014

"Negroid" from physical anthropology

Don't use that one.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:16 AM on July 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Fitzpatrick scale [pdf] categorizes based on skin color and not on race (e.g. a Latina person can have a lighter skin tone than a "white" person). Here's a visual aid with pictures; there are tons more on Google image search. I would think "Type V" is a pretty neutral designation for the colloquial term "black." This also solves your asian problem - South Asians are generally going to be a higher number than East Asians.

You could also use presence/absence of features - epicanthal fold leaps to mind. Hair type - the Naturally Curly site will help you out here.

One of my older posts contains a link to An Artist Guide to Human Types. The link is dead, but people added other links in the comments (and pointed out some problematic aspects).
posted by desjardins at 11:09 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hm, since the Human Types link is dead, you may want to check out the links in this comment about ethnic types, from a thread that deals with drawing the female figure.
posted by desjardins at 11:14 AM on July 14, 2014

As an african-american, I'd feel it odd to use african to classify me, someone from the carribean, an african, etc. I'm not african. Most people I know are pretty comfortable with black - it describes our skin without making assumptions about culture and shared heritage.

And as someone who's overweight, I'd prefer pear-shaped, etc to fat or overweight.
posted by Aranquis at 11:57 AM on July 14, 2014

You might want to look at make up lines for good words to describe skin tones. They've put a lot of thought into it and generally use very neutral names or just codes that indicate cool to warm, red to olive, and dark to light. Especially some companies like MAC, stage makeup or some UK lines that really make an effort to cover the spectrum.
posted by fshgrl at 9:31 PM on July 14, 2014

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