African American Pin-Up Girls: Did They Ever Exist?
Pin-Up Girls Through the Ages
Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, even Jane Fonda, all are noteworthy pin-up girls from the 50's and 60's. However, a glance through those names and others reveals that other than nationality differences, there are virtually no women of color, specifically, African American women, save Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge, who appear on the list of famous and renowned pin-up girls. Did African American pin-up girls ever exist and if so, who were they and why have their names languished in such obscurity? Was the African-American female form not prized for its worth as highly as the Caucasian female form, or because of racism, forbidden publicly, but enjoyed privately?
A Little History
From the time that Africans began being taken from their land into slavery, there has been a fascination with the black female form, generally from the white males who were the slave owners. Thomas Jefferson himself is widely known for his mistress, Sally Hemings, with whom he purportedly fathered at least one child, genetically linked to him through DNA testing. The history of that fascination is cloaked in secrecy, cloaked because it was not accepted, a dirty little secret that was so common that mulatto children were not the exception among slave owners, but the rule. In particular, black females were fascinating to white slave owners, because of their pronounced features, rounded buttocks and larger lips, which were so different from the European American women of the day. With fascination sometimes comes abuse and one of the saddest cases was that of Sartje Baartman, taken from Africa to England and placed in a freak show, because of her purportedly extremely large buttocks. For four years, Sartje was put on public display before dying, allegedly of syphilis from prostitution. Even after her death, Sartje's brain, skeleton and genitals were put on display at a museum in Paris, a disgusting example of how women of African descent were viewed in even "polite" society.
The Black Female Gains Respect
Josephine Baker, another famed African-American female, became the toast of Parisian society, as a burlesque dancer during the 1920s, a time when it seemed all bets were off as to decency after the tightly-reined Victorian period. Baker's list of admirers included the famed writer, Ernest Hemingway. Although not well-documented in the white history of burlesque, women of color were a part of the burlesque world, although rarely appearing as widely distributed pin-ups, as white women were during the same time period. Black females began showing up as a less exaggerated and more accepted objects of beauty in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the entrance of the stunningly beautiful Dorothy Dandridge on the scene. Too talented to be pegged as merely a pin-up, Dandridge was still well-known as a favorite among black GI's for her beautiful poses and sultry looks. Actresses like Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt, the sexy Cat Woman in the old Batman series, also were favorites.
Civil Rights & The Black Pin-Up
The 1950s saw the advent of the magazine, "Tan N' Terrific", which featured women of color and was considered quite racy pictography for the time, although still exploitive. However, the biggest boon to the African-American pin-up world was the advent of the African-American based magazine, Jet, in 1951. Jet began by featuring an African-American woman in pin-up style in each issue tagged as "Beauty of the Week." Perusal of vintage copies of Jet and Ebony, which began publishing in 1945, show beautiful pictures of African-American women in pin-up pose with one goal in mind, to prove that women of color were beautiful, not sleazy, respectable, not vulgar. Truly, these magazines were setting out to prove that the 60's slogan, "Black Is Beautiful", was not just lip service. Although he was progressive in many respects, it took Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame until 1965 for an African-American woman, Jennifer Jackson, to appear as Playmate of The Month and 37 years of publication for the magazine to finally choose an African-American as Playmate of the Year, Renee Tennison in 1990. It's interesting to note that many of the 1940-1960s pin-ups were still rated by the standards of beauty of Caucasian males, not of African-American males, without pronounced features of any kinds, other than somewhat fuller lips than their white sisters. Even with acceptance, a double standard existed and an invisible yardstick remained.
First African-American Playboy Playmate
Black Pin-Up Today
Still not widely recognized, pin-ups of African American women of talent and great beauty are not common unless one goes searching. The gorgeous and talented Halle Berry is often depicted in pin-up pose, although still possessing a more traditional Caucasian female appearance, but singers like Beyonce, Rhianna, Lauryn Hill, and others have elevated the aspects of the African-American form to an everyday standard of beauty that has grown in acceptance and is embraced by both cultures. Curvaciousness is not seen as excess in the case of poor Sartje Baartman, but as something to be appreciated and admired.
The search for African-American pin-ups is not as simple or straightforward as a search for popular Caucasian pin-ups, but that does not mean they didn't exist. They were certainly there, albeit sometimes hidden from the mainstream, and it is a history to be alternatively reviled and revered. Flickr has an interesting collection posted by a user entitled, "Black History As Seen Through Magazines," which is a huge assortment of photographs, including African-American pin-ups through the years. Many African-American models today are taking an interest in pin-up photography, due to the recent interest in retro and vintage clothing and styles, and are trying to create pin-up looks of the past. Certainly, changes in our culture's perception of beauty have come, although slowly and not without pain, and standards of beauty have thankfully changed as well.
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