Black Women Vs. ... Beauty
The following quote, taken from the book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D., is as painful as it is revealing:
"...the reality [is] that no matter how intelligent, competent, and dazzling she may be, a Black woman in our country today still cannot count on being understood and embraced by mainstream white America." (p. 2)
The quote is revealing because, at this time in America, it appears that black women are everywhere. One would think that Black women have finally made it and are being celebrated. Kerry Washington is receiving critical acclaim and award nominations for her work on Scandal. the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama is lauded for her style and grace, as well as the actions she has taken to fight childhood obesity. Oprah Winfrey has a network and Tulane University professor, Melissa Harris Perry hosts a self-titled weekend morning show on MSNBC. the authors of Shifting look like they are being less than honest because it appears that Black women are finally receiving praise equal to that of their white counterparts.
Then I glance at the quote again and reflect on all of the strife that comes with Black women succeeding. The pain floods my heart and it hurts. I will never forget how Michelle Obama was reduced to a "baby mama" and another "angry Black woman" during her husband's 2008 campaign for the presidency. Kerry Washington is an accomplished actress, but I fear that she may be seen as just another Jezebel. Both Winfrey and Harris-Perry have been attacked for sharing their opinions on race, community, and poverty. It never fails; whenever a Black woman takes a dozen steps forward, there is always someone to yank her two dozen steps backward.
No matter what Black women achieve, there is always the danger that we will be reduced to crass and grotesque stereotypes; rendered invisible; or ruled inferior. When the subject of beauty is raised, Black women are automatically ruled inferior to white women and are rarely, if ever, celebrated.
Rarely Seen: Black Beauty and Media Influence
First of all, let me just confirm this: Black women are not immune to the pressures of Eurocentric beauty standards. This quote from Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D., and Charisse Jones' work, Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America explains why:
"Black girls... Many are the very opposite of the rail thin, blonde actresses and models who peer out from movie screens and magazine covers. In a society where the standard of beauty remains European, where beauty still too often defines a woman's worth, many Black women struggle to feel attractive and thus secure and valued. The pressure to look more European and less African is enormous. And many Black women are pushed to obsession over their hair, their skin tone, and, increasingly, their body size and shape. This is what we call the "lily complex", the belief that the only way to be beautiful is to look as close to "white" as possible." (p. 177)
Black women are the exact opposite of the standard that is presented in various forms of media. As a result, feeling beautiful and attractive is that much harder for Black women. Rarely are we presented alongside, or independent of, our white counterparts, so we are never affirmed as beautiful by the mainstream. It was once believed (and, to a certain extent, still believed) that Black women weren't as impacted by society's beauty standards as white women. The quote shows that Black women are under pressure to cross a color line and look more white to feel beautiful. Black women suffer under beauty standards just like any other woman living in America.
Challenging Beauty Standards
Though it may seem as though beauty standards have never been challenged or questioned, that has not always been the case. bell hooks, in the essay "Black Beauty and Black Power: Internalized Racism" from the collection, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, details a time during the civil rights movement when beauty standards were opposed in the name of ending internalized racism:
"...militant leaders of black liberation struggle demanded that black folks see ourselves differently -- see self-love as a radical political agenda. That mean establishing a politics of representation which would both critique and integrate ideals of personal beauty and desirability informed by racist standards and put in place progressive standards, a system of valuation that would embrace a diversity of black looks." (p. 119)
During the most militant chapter of the civil rights movement, called "black liberation movement" by hooks, the very concept of what it meant to be beautiful was questioned. Until this point, Eurocentric beauty standards still dominated notions of beauty within the Black community. Black militant leaders demanded that Black people love themselves in defiance of the standards before them.
This was a powerful and unheard of demand. After centuries of being dehumanized, discouraged, and though disgusting by white America, Black people had internalized these judgments along with the belief that they ware somehow inferior. Sure, privately, Black people may have tried to disprove these feelings, but never was it demanded that Black people assure themselves in public of their humanity and beauty.
This action also spread to what is considered beautiful and desirable to Black folks. It also meant recognizing that not all Black folks found the same thing attractive, nor was there one form of Black beauty. In other words, it meant that the idea of a monolithic Black community was being dismantled, and room was being made to show a diversity of Black looks.
However, it wasn't long before all of the work that was being done in this area to be rolled back. Again, from hooks' essay, "Black Beauty and Black Power" :
"Even when contemporary collective militant black struggle for self-determination began to wane, alternative ways of seeing blackness and defining beauty continued to flourish. These changes diminished as assimilation became the process by which black folks could successfully enter the mainstream. Once again, the fate of black folks rested with white power. If a black person wanted a job and found it easier to get it if he or she did not wear a natural hairstyle etc. this was perceived by many to be a legitimate reason to change. And of course many black and white folks felt that the gains in civil rights, racial integration, and the lifting of many long-standing racial taboos (for example, interracial relationships and the resistance to segregate housing) meant that militant struggle was no longer needed. Since freedom for black folks had been defined as gaining the rights to enter mainstream society, to assume the values and/or economic standing of the white privileged classes, it logically follows that it did not take long for interracial interaction in the areas of education and jobs to reinstitutionalize, in less overt ways, a system wherein individual black folks who were most like white folks in the way they looked, talked, dressed, etc., would find it easier to be socially mobile. To some extent, the dangers of assimilation to white standards were obscured by the assumption that our ways of seeing blackness had been fundamentally changed." (p. 122-123)
According to hooks, with the coming of assimilation, Black folks began to abandon the myriad ways of seeing ourselves and each other. White power and white supremacy once again the way that Black people, especially Black women, saw themselves. By waving the treat of advancement within the mainstream, white power and white supremacy managed to subvert Black efforts.
Black people were tricked into believing that change had been made, so choosing to perm (to put a chemical straightener in one's hair) was no longer seen as controversial, and was instead seen as necessary to make it to the top. We gave up the struggle because we thought we'd won. Now, in 2013, I hear the argument of which is better: natural hair or processed hair? Oh, how far back we've gone. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I have not been immune to such judgments in my own life and the emphasis on Eurocentric beauty standards has been like acid to my self esteem. I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE, and the effects of these standards is a dangerous one, not just for me, but for a lot of Black women.]
Gradually, whatever gains had been made regarding Black representation began to be rolled back. It became okay -- was actually encouraged -- to look, dress, and talk more like White counterparts. If it got one ahead, one step closer to achieving their goals, people were pushed to assume a more mainstream, more White aesthetic. Black women felt this most keenly. One minute, our natural hair, skin tone, curves, and speech were celebrated; as soon as it appeared that the fight was won, Black women's beauty began to be denigrated for not looking and being more White.
Suddenly, the definitions began to change. Whatever we had thought was beautiful, whatever we had established as our Black beauty standards, along with whatever we thought freedom meant became corrupted by the mainstream. Black women suffered under this change. One last time, I turn back to hooks' essay from Killing Rage: Ending Racism titled, "Black Beauty and Black Power: Internalized Racism":
"Being free was seen as having the right to satisfy individual desire without accountability to a collective body. Consequently, black folks could now feel that the way they wore their hair was not political but simply a matter of choice. Seeking to improve class mobility, to make it in the white world, black folks began to backtrack and assume once again the attitudes and values of internalized racism." (p. 123-124)
After having fought so diligently to define ourselves away from white standards; after fighting to define ourselves apart from white supremacy; and, constantly attempting to interrogate our own internalized racist notions, we have fallen prey to white power via the push toward individuality courtesy of the mainstream. White power and white supremacy win again.
The desire to win in the white world has come with antiquated ideas and a vehement return of internalized racism. instead of community accountability to one another, Black folks pursue their own interests. We don't affirm one another anymore, because to do so would mean losing out on the rewards afforded to those who conform and appropriate White standards.
Once again, Black women are hit by this change the hardest. [SEE: The clip from The Wendy Williams Show at the end of this capsule, as she is my example of what internalized racism does to a Black woman's psyche.] For example, instead of affirming that a Black woman is beautiful just the way she is, she is encouraged to get all the plastic surgery required and all of the hair treatments necessary to look more European. The radical self-love encouraged and demanded of Black folks by Black leaders has been replaced with a go-along-to-get-along attitude. It's sad, frightening, and unlikely to change in the near future.
Though challenged by some, with the emphasis on assimilation and the desire to attain the same status as White counterparts, Eurocentric beauty standards have returned with a vengeance. Black standards of beauty and desirability, though introduced, never maintained a lasting foothold within the Black community, and Black women have received the brunt of this impact.
Wendy Williams on Viola Davis' natural hair at 2012 Oscars
A Response to Williams' Reaction
Black women have been lambasted on the basis of looks for centuries. If it is not one thing, it is something else. If a black woman is too big, then she needs to lose weight. If she is too thin, then she needs to eat, and it continues. Black women are rarely represented in mainstream media, on magazine covers and on television screens, and many Black women don't come close to the images that are presented.
At one point, it was demanded that Black folks love themselves and establish a foundation for what we considered beautiful and desirable. However, this work was quickly undermined by the need to assimilate and the restructuring of priorities within the community, the first of which being to achieve the same status and have the same values and the (majority) White mainstream. Black women felt all of these changes acutely, elevated one minute only to be diminished the next.
As it stands now, Black women have an uphill battle in order to affirm ourselves and each other as truly beautiful.
--hooks, bell. "Black Beauty and Black Power: Internalized Racism." Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. pp. 119, 122-23, 123-24.
--Jones, Charisse and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, PhD. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: Perennial, 2003. pp. 2, 177.
© 2013 realmedusa