Beauty and Identity in African American Women
Racism also is evident in beauty ideals and body politics; beauty standards tend to demand “whiteness” (Trepagnier, 1994). Ethnic women have had difficulty approximating the Caucasian ideal with differences in skin color, eye color, hair, facial features, and body shape (Lakoff &. Scherr, 1984). Although these beauty imperatives punish all women, they especially hurt marginalized women: women of color, older women, women with disabilities, and poor women. Examining cultural reaction to these groups underscores the general lack of tolerance for any variation in beauty standards, body image, sexuality, or, ultimately, identity. Although we focus here on beauty constraints of African American women, the issue is relevant to all women of minority status.
At the turn of the century, images of the ideal beauty were accessible only to Caucasian women. Beauty was equated with white skin, straight hair, and Caucasian features. It is no surprise that the cosmetics industry equated social success and refinement with whiteness (Peiss, 1990). As a result, African American entrepreneurs developed their own section of the beauty industry by marketing products such as hair-straightening oils and skin-bleaching creams that served as a symbol of “personal success and racial progress” (Peiss, 1990, p. 156). During this time, the process of straightening hair was not only costly, but also painful and physically dangerous.
By the 1960s, awareness and appreciation of diversity had increased. African American women gained acceptance in modeling and fashion, and the saying “Black is beautiful” gained popularity. The acceptance of nonAnglo models of beauty, however, may not have been as widespread as some have portrayed. Lakoff and Scherr (1984) suggest that Black was not considered beautiful during this time, as evidenced by widespread use of skin lighteners, hair relaxers, hair extensions, and cosmetic surgery for the nose.
In contemporary times, women of color continue to be evaluated by the dominant White culture’s myth of what it means to be beautiful (Lakoff & Scherr, 1984). As a result, many of these messages have been internalized. African American communities continue to consider lighter skin preferable to darker skin; “To many black men, lighter sisters are still seen as the most desirable, most worthy, and most feminine, and thus, the most in need of (male) protection” (Okazawa-Rey, Robinson, &. Ward, 1987, p. 98). Marrying women of color with lighter skin is considered to be marrying “up” (Lakoff & Scherr, 1984). Indeed, Mullins and Sites (1984) found that there are significant social and economic benefits of marrying the lighter members of one’s race as the inheritance of light skin color serves to increase a family’s social position over time. Thus, African American women with dark skin have been considered not only less beautiful, but also less of an asset in marriage.
With regard to body shape, African American women are expected to pursue thinness. The diet and exercise industries do not discriminate. Some research has suggested that Black women of low socioeconomic status (SES) have a wider range of normal and attractive body sizes than high SES Black women or White women (Allan, Mayo, & Michel, 1993). However, in order for African-American women to reap the cultural rewards of acceptance and access to power, they must also attempt to emulate the ideal.
Ethnic images of beauty have been modestly incorporated within the past few decades (Banner, 1983). One factor influencing this change has been the marketing of the cultural conceptualization that Black women’s beauty is based on a “primitive” sexuality (Carby, 1986). Constructions of African American women’s sexuality as brazen and unpredictable have existed for decades. For example, during the Civil War, Caucasian southern women were believed to adhere to a strict code of chastity, while African American southern women were considered sensual and lacking in inhibitions (Good, 1989; Okazawa-Rey, Robinson, & Ward, 1987).
Josephine Baker (1906—1975) was one of the first African American
women to become noted for her glamour and beauty (Haney, 1981). Her provocative bare-breasted dancing during the late 1920s and 1930s in Paris established her as a nightclub headliner. Although she eventually expanded her style to include more sultry and sensuous eroticism, she first gained status in a high-energy dance number where she appeared wearing only a skirt of bananas. Part of Baker’s appeal was the presentation of her sexuality as “untamed” and “savage,” and as something to be consumed by others, a presentation that did not threaten those in power.
Since that time, African American women have consistently been portrayed in magazines and on fashion runways as wild, savage beasts with overflowing sexual appetites. Black women models have been more likely than White women models to be shown in animal prints (Pious & Neptune, 1997) and are generally presented as exotic. Unfortunately, one study of over a thousand magazine advertisements concluded that racial bias not only persists in magazine advertising, but also may have increased in contemporary times (Pious & Neptune, 1997). African American women’s identities are accepted into the mainstream only as they approximate the White ideal. Consequently, African American women are entitled to social and economic rewards to the extent that they accept notions of beauty and sexuality that do not threaten those in power.
This narrow range of tolerance has been costly to African American women. By looking specifically at the function of beauty ideals for women of color, the political function of these ideals for all women is made evident. In many instances, approximating the White version of beauty has increased African American women’s chances for both economic and social success in an environment that valued only limited standards of beauty (Peiss, 1990; Okazawa-Rey, Robinson, & Ward, 1987). Unfortunately, meeting these beauty ideals does not provide sufficient alternatives (i. e., economic, political) for obtaining success. Approximating ideals of beauty provides access to an indirect status by virtue of being affiliated with those in positions of power and social influence.
Eventually, it becomes apparent that styles and trends do not reflect individual taste or preference but are controlled by larger forces. This dynamic suggests that the interests that are served are not primarily those of women. For example, although color-consciousness is promoted within the African American community, it is ultimately fostered and sustained by the larger society that discriminates and oppresses on the basis of color. African American women who agree to pursue the ideal as it has been defined by the majority culture are rewarded (temporarily) with status; those who are unwilling or unable to pursue the ideal are further marginalized. Ultimately, the oppression of African American women—as well as majority women—is maintained through expectations and standards of beauty, sexuality, and identity.
EFFECTS OF BEING AN OBJECT RATHER THAN AN AGENT
Whether women embody the ideal or reject it, they face detrimental consequences. The equation of beauty and sexuality creates profound effects in many areas. Here we concentrate on three: body manipulations, health effects, and implications for selfhood and identity.