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black beauty and the american standards of beauty Essay

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Beauty is generally defined as the quality or combination of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. While this definition supports the commonly-held belief that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, American standards of beauty have not had many variations over the past few decades. Since the beginning of American history, there have been three ideal archetypal symbols of womanhood that have to do with physical beauty: light skin, a slim body, and straight hair.[1] While there has been some dynamicity, it was very slight and has rarely ever encompassed physical characteristics more commonly attributed to women of color, such as a dark complexion, a voluptuous figure, and thick, kinky hair. The prevalence of the Eurocentric American standard of beauty among young African-Americans has led to self-esteem issues and controversy, but despite the detrimental aspects, it has been a unifying force in the African-American community.

The European standard of beauty, which has always been integrated into American culture, was formed long before African-Americans were introduced into the western hemisphere as slaves. It was used in comparison to African-Americans as a method of stripping black women of their femininity and justifying their inferiority. In historical advertisements and visual performances, physical attributes associated with black people—such as bigger lips, darker skin, and, for women, a larger figure—were exaggerated in order to emphasize how different blacks were from white people, and assert control over them in almost every aspect of life, especially how there were perceived by other races and their own self-perception.[2] As slaves, blacks did not have tools for self-adornment and, while black women could wear different hairstyles to express themselves, they often dressed in what was necessary for hard labor, which did not leave much room for femininity.

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The article, “Beauty Culture,” by Tiffany M. Gill, tells of the creation of the black beauty culture industry, post-slavery, as a means of defining beauty in their own lives.[3] This industry, however, was wrought with controversy because of the two categories of products available, those which enhanced the natural physical traits of black women and those that seemingly attempted to conform to white beauty standards. The black beauty culture industry was faced with the task of battling stereotypes that suggested that blacks were innately ugly and that their physical attributes were the reason for their low political, social, and economic status. The importance of the black beauty culture industry is proven by the fact that, during the Great Depression, the industry did not face the same economic downturn as many other black businesses, and women were willing to barter food and other necessities in order to get their hair styled.[4] As the public presentation of black women increased, so did hair chemicals that allowed them to mimic the hairstyles of white women, and a well-groomed African-American woman became synonymous with straightened hair, which contradicted the political identities of black women.

The Black Power Movement boasted the belief that “Black is beautiful!” which was revolutionary in its appraisal of black culture, politics, and even style. This created a strong sense of racial pride in the African-American community and unity, especially as beauty colleges became key institutions in the black community. Hairdressers and salon owners were some of the most politically active people in black communities, and their places of business were a safe haven from the humiliations of Jim Crow.[5] By accepting the physical differences between blacks and other ethnicities, the African-American community was able to assert more control over their own definition of beauty and improve their personal lives. Black women no longer had to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards and could stand together to show that they were just as attractive and feminine. This huge part of leisure culture also offered women alternatives to jobs as domestic servants or agricultural laborers. Yet, despite the Black Power aesthetic being popularized over sixty years ago, the overall American standards of beauty still do not accommodate women with darker skin and textured hair.

The fact that American beauty standards still hold true to the ideal woman being light, thin, and straight-haired, is evidenced by a simple Google image search of “beautiful women.” Of the top 100 results, only two are African-American women. Black women, despite an increase in black pride and acceptance of natural features in their own community, are still being judged according to and oppressed by Eurocentric beauty standards. According to a survey analysis done by Dia Sekayi, 72.8 percent of black women attending various historically black colleges throughout the United States, expressed discomfort with the way beauty for black women is defined by the media and society’s expectations of them.[6] Forty-six percent wish they had smaller bodies and thirty-two percent are displeased with their natural hair texture.[7] The use of chemicals and weaves to make black hair resemble the hair of white women and skin lightening lotions show that many black women are not pleased by their appearance. It’s obvious that beauty has intangible elements, such as confidence and likability, but even these things can be affected by one’s physical appearance. When young girls do not feel as if their beauty is being validated, concern for their appearance impacts their quality of life long-term. Scholarly literature supports the notion that that meeting or not meeting the ideal standard of beauty might impact the quality of girls’ experiences at school, both on a social and an academic level.[8]

This issue is important because without a less stringent view of American beauty, black women will continue to be judged by a standard of beauty, even if they choose not to embrace it, that is nearly impossible for most to meet. Black women are currently resisting the dominant aesthetic standard and embracing their own cultural ideas of beauty but in many instances are pushed to hide their true selves. Women who have chosen to wear their hair unstraightened or braided have encountered discrimination in their workplace, despite kinky hair and braids being key hairstyles in black communities across the globe.[9] While there may be a growing acceptance of natural hairstyles in many places of business, there are some Americans who don’t understand that multiple standards of physical beauty must coexist, and if they do not, people who don’t conform to the standard will suffer. It is important for young black girls to feel comfortable in their own skin and grow up knowing that they can be their own special brand of beautiful and that there are people who look like them in the media, whether they are dark or light, slim or curvaceous.

Battling against aesthetic hegemony is not easy for black women living in the United States, and oftentimes dissonance and frustration is felt because of society’s views on beauty and the impracticalness of American beauty in regards to women of all colors, shapes, and sizes. However, a lessening of assimilation into white culture is being seen and African-Americans are taking Eurocentric beauty trends and turning them into something more. Black women use their African roots and their own sense of artistry to create unique styles that reflect a black culture and the beauty and femininity that they were once disparaged of.

 

Bibliography

Sekayi, Die. “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.” The Journal of Negro Education 72, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 467-477. http://www.jstor.org/ stable/3211197. (Accessed November 2, 2015)

Gill, Tiffany M. “Beauty Culture.” Black Women in America, Second Edition, edited by Ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford African American Studies Center, (2008): 1. http://www.oxfordaasc.com.proxy.library.vanderbilt.edu/article/opr/t0003/e0023 (accessed November 3, 2015).

 

[1] Dia Dekayi. “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.” The Journal of Negro Education 72, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 469.

[2] Tiffany M. Gill. “Beauty Culture.”  Black Women in America, Second Edition, edited by Ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford African American Studies Center. (2008): 1

[3] Tiffany M. Gill. “Beauty Culture.”  Black Women in America, Second Edition, edited by Ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford African American Studies Center. (2008): 1

[4] Tiffany M. Gill. “Beauty Culture.”  Black Women in America, Second Edition, edited by Ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford African American Studies Center. (2008): 1

[5] Tiffany M. Gill. “Beauty Culture.”  Black Women in America, Second Edition, edited by Ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford African American Studies Center. (2008): 1

[6] Dia Dekayi. “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.” The Journal of Negro Education 72, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 474.

[7] Dia Dekayi. “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.” The Journal of Negro Education 72, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 474.

[8] Dia Dekayi. “Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women.” The Journal of Negro Education 72, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 468.

[9] Tiffany M. Gill. “Beauty Culture.”  Black Women in America, Second Edition, edited by Ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford African American Studies Center. (2008): 1

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