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Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?:
African American Women and Their Struggles
with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair
Tracey wens !atton
A"stract
Using Afrocentric theory and standpoint theory, this article examines the effect of the White
standard of beauty upon African American women !y shedding light on the salience of the
effects of beauty, body image, and hair, this article "uestions societal definitions of beauty
Adherence to the #uro American beauty standard has had, and continues to ha$e, de$astating
effects upon African American women %n addition, this standard pits African American women
against the dominant cultural standard of beauty A call to challenge the hegemonic White
standard of beauty through !lac& beauty liberation is offered
#eywords
Afrocentric theory ' !lac& beauty ' !lac& beauty liberation ' body image ' hair ' racism ' standpoint
theory ' White beauty
(hroughout history and to present day, African American women ha$e challenged White
definitions of beauty What or who is considered beautiful $aries among cultures What remains
consistent is that many notions of beauty are rooted in hegemonically defined expectations While
definitions of beauty affect the identities of e$eryone, this article focuses on African American
women and the intersection between beauty, body image, and hair )pecifically, this article loo&s
historically at how differences in body image, s&in color, and hair haunt the existence and
psychology of !lac& women, especially since one common U) societal stereotype is the belief
that !lac& women fail to measure up to the normati$e standard (wo theoretical framewor&s
guide my analysis of beauty standards* Afrocentric theory and standpoint theory % argue that the
continuance of hegemonically defined standards of beauty not only reify White #uropean
standards of beauty in the United )tates, but also that the marginali+ation of certain types of
beauty that de$iate from the ,norm, are de$astating to all women Further, the unrealistic
expectations of beauty and hairstyle reify the di$isions that exist between African American and
#uro American women
First, in order to understand African American women and the intersection between beauty, body
image, and hair, this article -uxtaposes beauty standards of African American and #uro American
women, re$iewing them through historical and current lenses )econd, % consider the theoretical
framewor&s of standpoint theory and Afrocentric theory as a means to elucidate beauty issues
(hird, aspects of body, image, and race $%nd !age &'( are discussed Finally, % explore the
possibility of redefining standards of beauty and ,normality, through !lac& beauty liberation
An Historical )e*iew of Beauty: Blac+ Beauty *s, White Beauty
1
,% want to &now my hair again, the way % &new it before % &new that my hair is me, before % lost the
right to me, before % &new that the burden of beauty.or lac& of it.for an entire race of people
could be tied up with my hair and me,
.Paulette /aldwell, ,A 0air Piece, 12333, 2456
!eauty is sub-ect to the hegemonic standards of the ruling class !ecause of this, ,beauty is an
elusi$e commodity, 1)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 7956 and definitions of beauty $ary among
cultures and historical periods !eauty issues and sub-ection to dominant standards are not the
sole domain of !lac& and White women For example, while all cultures ha$e had, and continue
to ha$e, $arious standards of beauty and body decoration, the /hinese practice of foot binding
was one that forced women to conform to beauty ideals that reified patriarchal pri$ilege and
domination ,(he /hinese may ha$e been the first to de$elop the concept that the female body
can and should be altered from its natural state (he practice of foot binding clearly illustrates the
ob-ectification of parts of the female body as well as the demands placed on women to conform to
beauty ideals, 1)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 7956
An example of other types of beauty being rendered ,$oiceless, is found in Fi-i After the export of
American tele$ision shows to Fi-i, the rates of anorexia and bulimia increased exponentially
Further, the women of Fi-i, who tend to ha$e larger, rounder body shapes and are brown:s&inned,
not only became $ery conscious of the fact that their body shape did not meet #uro American
standards, but their s&in did not as well 1;a+arus and Wunderlich 23336 While this article focuses
on beauty standards between !lac& and White American women, this Fi-ian incident shows that
adherence to White standards of beauty, as well as to American standards of beauty, can be
exported to other countries with, in this case, de$astating conse"uences (he following literature
re$iew historically chronicles some of the effects two co:cultures, !lac& women and White
women, ha$e faced in relation to beauty issues and body image
Blac+ Beauty
Women of color loo&ing for answers through an introspecti$e ga+e or through their communities
in order to counter White hegemonically defined standards of beauty is not a new occurrence
0istorically and into $%nd !age &-( modern times African American beauty has been disparaged
As much of the literature on African American women and beauty has pointed out, African
American women ha$e either been the sub-ect of erasure in the $arious mediated forms or their
beauty has been wrought with racist stereotypes According to <ichele Wallace
(he blac& woman had not failed to be aware of America=s standard of beauty nor the fact that she
was not included in it> tele$ision and motion pictures had made this information $ery a$ailable to
her )he watched as America expanded its ideal to include %rish, %talian, ?ewish, e$en @riental
[sic] and %ndian women America had room among its beauty contestants for buxom <ae West,
the bug eyes of !ette Da$is, the masculinity of ?oan /rawford, but the blac& woman was only
allowed entry if her hair was straight, her s&in light, and her features #uropean> in other words, if
she was as nearly indistinguishable from a white woman as possible
17848, 754AB6
While mediated images of beauty ha$e become more di$erse 1eg, (yra !an&s, Caomi
/ampbell, (omi&o, Alex We&, and @prah Winfrey6, ,biases against !lac& women based on their
physical appearance persist, 1?ones and )horter:Dooden 2339, 74B6 and many !lac& women do
not feel ,free, from mediated beauty standards )ome historically popular yet recurring negati$e
manifestations of African American beauty include the o$ersexed -e+ebel, the tragic mulatto, and
the mammy figure
7
(herefore, it is clear that the notions of !lac& beauty and !lac& inferiority are
inextricably bound
2
Di$en the racist past and present of the United )tates, there are se$eral identity and beauty
issues that African American women face )ince 7E78, African American women and their beauty
ha$e been -uxtaposed against White beauty standards, particularly pertaining to their s&in color
and hair During sla$ery, !lac& women who were lighter:s&inned and had features that were
associated with mixed progeny 1eg, wa$y or straight hair, White'#uropean facial features6
tended to be house sla$es and those !lac& women with dar&er:s&in hues, &in&y hair, and broader
facial features tended to be field sla$es (his racist legacy and African American internali+ation of
this White supremacist racial classification brought about what ?ones and )horter:Dooden ha$e
termed ,(he ;ily /omplex, (his complex is defined as ,altering, disguising, and co$ering up your
physical self in order to assimilate, to be accepted as attracti$e As !lac& women deal with
the constant pressure to meet a beauty standard that is inauthentic and often unattainable, the lily
complex can set in, 12339, 7446 (he desire to change her outer appearance to meet a
#urocentric ideal may lead her to loathe her own physical appearance and belie$e that ,!lac& is
not beautiful that she can only be lo$ely by impersonating someone else, 17446
According to Dreene, ,the United )tates ideali+es the physical characteristics of White women
and measures women of color against this $%nd !age &.( arbitrary standard, 1788F, 7B6 (o
challenge White beauty as the stereotypical defacto standard against which all women are
measured, middle:class and lower middle:class !lac& women formed !lac& ;adies societies to
uplift the race to a le$el e"ual to or exceeding that of a White woman
(o achie$e this, it seemed necessary to ma&e her more of a lady, more clean, more proper than
any white woman could hope to be As if to blot out the humiliation of wor&ing in the white
woman=s &itchen all day, of being $irtually defenseless before the sexual ad$ances of white men,
blac& women enacted a charade of teas, cotillions, and all the assorted paraphernalia and
pretensions of society life %t was a desperate mas"uerade which seemed to increase in fren+y as
time went on !lac& women began to turn their heads in /harlotte Forten=s
2
direction, e$en if
their economic circumstances pre$ented them from imitating her standard of li$ing <any fewer
loo&ed to the examples of 0arriet (ubman and )o-ourner (ruth, whom no man in his right mind
would want, except, perhaps, patient Uncle (om
1Wallace 7848, 75EA46
Wallace challenges the concept of assimilation
9
/reati$ity in hairstyling can be a challenge to
assimilationist notions of beauty 1regardless of style worn6 because it can challenge percei$ed
expectations When hair must be straightened for employment or for social mobility, it can be
seen as assimilationist.subscribing to dominant cultural standards of beauty 0owe$er, as @rbe
and 0arris noted, in an organi+ational situation an organi+ational member must balance her
identity ,?ust as [a] young woman must negotiate her identities, so must an organi+ational
member who comes from an underrepresented racial'ethnic group )ome organi+ational
members may feel their racial'ethnic identities become less important as they climb the ladder of
success, 12337, 7826 0owe$er, engaging in organi+ational social mobility does not mean that
one will automatically assimilate or substitute her cultural, racial, and ethnic identity for that of the
ma-ority culture Gather, women can ta&e creati$e measures in sur$i$ing the organi+ation and
being true to one=s self @ne way is with appearance While indi$idually not all African American
women $alori+e White beauty standards, African American women ha$e had to in$ent their own
beauty measures %n utili+ing the uni"ueness of African hair textures, which range from the &in&y
curls of the <andingos to the flowing loc&s of the Ashanti 1!yrd and (harps 2337, 76, !lac&s ha$e
been $ery creati$e in hairstyling %n the early fifteenth century hairstyle for the Wolof, <ende,
<andingo, and Horuba signaled age, ethnic identity, marital status, ran& within the community,
religion, war, and wealth 12AF6 0airstyling sessions were a bonding time for women A hairstylist
always held a prominent position in these communities ,(he complicated and time:consuming
tas& of hair grooming included washing, combing, oiling, braiding, twisting, and'or decorating the
hair with any number of adornments including cloth, beads, and shells (he process could last
se$eral hours, sometimes se$eral days, 15AE6 (he most common hairstyles $%nd !age &/( the
#uropeans encountered when they began exploring the western coast of Africa in the mid:7F33s
3
included ,braids, plaits, patterns sha$ed into the scalp, and any combination of shells, flowers,
beads, or strips of material wo$en into the hair, 186 During this time period hair was not only a
cosmetic concern, but ,its social, aesthetic, and spiritual significance has been intrinsic to their
sense of self for thousands of years, 146 Geali+ing the prominence hair played in the li$es of
western Africans, the first thing ensla$ers did was sha$e their heads> this was an unspea&able
crime for Africans, because the people were shorn of their identity 1736
(hroughout the centuries of sla$ery scar$es became a practicable alternati$e to co$ering &in&y,
unstyled hair or hair that suffered from patchy baldness, brea&age, or disease For example, in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because sla$es did not ha$e traditional styling tools and
were not gi$en combs, they de$eloped new hair implements @ne de$elopment was a ,sheep
fleece carding tool, 1796, which was used to untangle their hair Additional household hair care
included ,bacon grease and butter to condition and soften the hair, prepare it for straightening,
and ma&e it shine /ornmeal and &erosene were used as scalp cleaners, and coffee became a
natural dye for women, 1746 0airstyles were often determined by the &ind of wor& a sla$e
performed %f one was a field sla$e and li$ed in separate sla$e "uarters, ,the women wore head
rags and the men too& to sha$ing their heads, wearing straw hats, or using animal shears to cut
their hair short, 1796 %f a sla$e wor&ed directly with the White population, eg, barbers, coo&s,
house&eepers, they often styled their hair similarly to those of Whites For example, house sla$es
were re"uired to ha$e a ,neat and tidy appearance or ris& the wrath of the master, so men and
women wore tight braids, plaits, and cornrows, 1796 !lac& male sla$es, li&e upper class White
males, chose to wear wigs in the eighteenth century or ,styled their own hair to loo& li&e a wig,
1796
#mulating White hairstyles, particularly straight hair, signified many things in the !lac&
community First, straighter hair was associated with free:person status ;ight:s&inned runaway
sla$es ,tried to pass themsel$es off as free, hoping their #uropean features would be enough to
con$ince bounty hunters that they belonged to that pri$ileged class, 1746 #mulating Whiteness
offered a certain amount of protection )econd, lighter:s&inned straighter:haired sla$es ,wor&ed
inside the plantation houses performing less bac&brea&ing labor than the sla$es relegated to the
fields, 17B6 !ecause of this, these sla$es had better access to clothes, education, food, and ,the
promise of freedom upon the master=s death, 17B6 0owe$er, the ,-ealous mistress of the manor
often sha$ed off the lustrous mane of hair, indicating that White women too understood the
significance of long, &in&:free hair, 1786
(hus, as has already been shown, adopting many White #uropean traits was essential to
sur$i$al, eg, free $s sla$e> employed $s unemployed> educated $s uneducated> upper class $s
poor %ssues of hair straightening $%nd !age &0( were hotly contested in the !lac& community
(he practice was $iewed as ,a pitiful attempt to emulate Whites and e"uated hair straightening
with self:hatred and shame, 1946 (he most $ocal opponents of hair straightening were W # !
Du!ois and !oo&er ( Washington 1see !yrd and (harps 2337, 94AF36.both men were light:
s&inned !lac& males with wa$y hair.and <arcus Dar$ey All of these men had influence in the
African American community With regard to the issue of hair, Dar$ey proclaimed, ,Don=t remo$e
the &in&s from your hairI Gemo$e them from your brainI, 19B6 0owe$er, most !lac& women felt
straightened hairstyles were not about emulating Whites but ha$ing modern hairstyle <adame /
? Wal&er was one of the more popularly &nown hairstylists who helped African American women
achie$e modern hairstyles
%n the twentieth century, the 7835 in$ention of <adame / ? Wal&er=s hair softener, which
accompanied a hair:straightening comb, was the rage
F
0air straightening was a way to challenge
the predominant nineteenth:century belief that !lac& beauty was ugly According to Goo&s,
,African Americans had long struggled with issues of inferiority, beauty, and the meaning of
particular beauty practices [Wal&er] attempted to shift the significance of hair away from
concerns of disa$owing African ancestry, 1788E, 956 Wal&er=s beauty empire, therefore, not only
4
contributed to higher self:esteem among the !lac& community, but also created a new -ob
industry for those who attended her beauty schools
0air straightening has continued to be a contro$ersial beauty mo$e by some in the African
American community, particularly after the 78E3s= and 7843s= ,!lac& is !eautiful, social
mo$ement For example, <alcolm J spo&e out against hair straightening due to the belief he had
had that hair straightening caused !lac& people to feel ashamed of their own uni"ue beauty, as
well as the belief that hair straightening emulated White standards of beauty 0owe$er, hair
straightening, as (aylor challenged, ,has ta&en on such raciali+ed significance that participation in
the practice can be a way of expressing blac& pride rather than a way of precluding it, 12333,
EEB6 Additionally, straightening one=s hair is not synonymous with racial shame or ,acting white,
?ones and )horter:Dooden argued that ,Cot e$ery woman who decides to straighten her hair or
change the color of her eyes by wearing contacts belie$es that beauty is synonymous with
whiteness (rying on a new loo&, e$en one often associated with #uropeans, does not
automatically imply self:hatred %t is possible to dye your brown tresses platinum and still lo$e
your !lac&ness, 12339, 74B6 While blond straightened hair and colored contacts are still
contro$ersial and seen as assimilationist to many in the African American community, hair:
straightening also may be an expression of creati$ity or for employment reasons As Wallace
noted, ,White features were often a more reliable tic&et into this society than professional status
or higher education %nterestingly enough, this was more true for women than it was for men,
17848, 75B6 %n addition to straightened hairstyles, other hairstyles that $%nd !age &1( African
American women use in order to define their own beauty include afros, braids, dreadloc&s, and
&nots All of the aforementioned hairstyles carry with it signs of beauty, boldness, rebellion, self:
confidence, spiritual consciousness 1?ones and )horter:Dooden 2339, 7B46 and whether
intended to or not, a challenge to White beauty standards
African American and ;atina women ha$e adopted many strategies when confronting White
standards of beauty from society in general, as well as from African American and ;atino men in
their communities* ,;atino and African American men seem more often than white men to lin&
long hair with attracti$eness for women of all ages, 1Weit+ 2337, E426 (he three most common
standards of White beauty in the United )tates that women are sub-ect to include* 176 women=s
hair should be long, curly or wa$y.not &in&y.and preferably blond> 126 women=s hair should loo&
hairstyled.this re"uires money and time> and 196 women=s hair should loo& feminine and
different from men=s hair 1Weit+ 2337, E426 Due to the fact that beauty is sub-ect to the social
conditions of racism, sexism, and classism, few women are able to attain such nebulous
standards (hrough the de$elopment of strategies, African American women demonstrate Disch=s
claim that ,#xpectations for what constitutes femininity and masculinity are fre"uently affected by
race, class, culture, and other factors (he freedom to be the &ind of woman or man a person
might li&e to be is greatly curtailed by sexism, po$erty, racism, homophobia, and other cultural
constraints and expectations, 17884, 236
White Beauty
)alt+berg and /hrisler noted that ,beauty cannot be "uantified or ob-ecti$ely measured> it is the
result of the -udgements of others, 17884, 7956 0owe$er, it is fair to say that in the United )tates,
and in many countries that are influenced by the United )tates 1largely through mediated forms6,
the current standard of beauty is a White, young, slim, tall, and upper class woman, and some
ta&e extraordinary measures in order to meet such standards
/onstituting itself as the site of absolute presence, whiteness functions as an epistemological and
ontological anchorage As such, whiteness assumes the authority to marginali+e other identities,
discourses, perspecti$es, and $oices !y constituting itself as center, non:white $oices are
@thered, marginali+ed and rendered $oiceless Whiteness creates a binary relationship of self:
@ther, sub-ect:ob-ect, dominator:dominated, center:margin, uni$ersal:particular
1Hancy 2333, 7546
5
Adherence to White beauty standards also can be traced throughout the centuries and since
many of these beauty standards largely, but not exclusi$ely, affected White women, the
standards mentioned below can be -uxtaposed against African American beauty standards As
)alt+berg and $%nd !age 23( /hrisler illustrated, sixteenth:century #uropean women ,bound
themsel$es into corsets of whalebone and hardened can$as A piece of metal or wood ran down
the front to flatten the breasts and abdomen (his made it impossible for women to bend at the
waist and difficult to breathe, 17884, 79E6 %n the se$enteenth century, the waist was still cinched,
but fashions were designed to enhance the breasts ,Ample breasts, hips, and buttoc&s became
the beauty ideal, perhaps paralleling a generally warmer attitude toward family life, 179E6 %n the
eighteenth century, corsets were still worn> howe$er, the introduction of large crinolines
exaggerated the smallness of the waist and made mo$ement difficult 1(he Kictorian #ra, nd,
np6 %n the nineteenth century, wearing corsets and, paradoxically, dieting to gain weight,
became popular in #urope and Corth America Physicians and clergy spo&e against the use of
corsets because the tight lacing often led to ,pulmonary disease, internal organ damage, fainting
1also &nown as ,the $apors,6, and miscarriages, 1)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 79E6 %n the
twentieth century and twenty:first century, beauty trends continue to fluctuate
For example, in the 7823s slender legs, hips, and small breasts were popular ,Women remo$ed
the stuffing from their bodices and bound their breasts to appear young and boyish, 1)alt+berg
and /hrisler 7884, 79E6 %n the 78F3s and 7853s, the hourglass shape 4eg, <arilyn <onroe5 was
popular %n the 78E3s, a youthful, thin body and long, straight hair were popular %n the 7843s, a
thin, tanned physi"ue and the ,sensuous loo& was =in=, 17946 %n the 78B3s, the mesomorph body
type was preferred 1thin, but muscular and toned body6 with large breasts %n the 7883s, two
dichotomous beauty images pre$ailed* 176 the heroine:chic, gaunt, waif:li&e body with some
breasts and 126 the $ery thin body with large breasts ,)mall breasts [were] a disease that
re"uired surgical inter$ention, 17946 %n the beginning of the twenty:first century, youthful, slim
body types with large breasts are still preferred
(here are se$eral things learned from this brief history of body image First, women were
sub-ected to hegemonically defined standards of beauty )econd, history, and our &nowledge of
history and women, in general, pri$ileges and largely traces #uro American body:image issues
(hird, women currently continue to be held to hegemonically defined standards of beauty For
example, modern beauty standards encompass tattoos, piercing 1belly button, chin, ear, eyebrow,
labia, nipples, nose, tongue6, high:heeled shoes, tight -eans, curlers, perms, straighteners, diet
aids, liposuction, plastic surgery, botox in-ections, s&in lightening, and gastric bypass All of the
abo$e are costly, but the physical costs of altering the body to attain hegemonic standards of
beauty can range from breast cancer [,silicon lea&s in some implants ha$e resulted in breast
cancer, 1)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 7946], to anorexia, bulimia, and emotional stress $%nd
!age 26(
Finally, it is clear from these beauty standards that not all types of Whiteness are $alued <any
#uro American women cannot measure up to the White normati$e standard of beauty promoted
.beautiful, blond:haired, slim, tall, $irginal, and upperclass !ecause of this exclusionary
standard of beauty, not all #uro American women emulate the stereotypical White woman> only a
few women are pri$ileged to be in this ,beautiful, club (hose #uro American women who de$iate
from this standard of whiteness are displaced li&e ethnic minority women for their departure from
,pure, White womanhood %n order to challenge the homogeni+ed standards of beauty, standpoint
theory and Afrocentric theory are appropriate theoretical framewor&s to use
Stand7oint Theory and Afrocentric Theory
Stand7oint Theory
6
%n general, standpoint theory ad$ocates the inclusion of all people and perspecti$es rather than
reifying the status "uo or in$erting the current hegemonic order Further, it focuses on how the
circumstances and culture of one=s life influence her or his perspecti$e, $alues, beliefs
,)tandpoint theory focuses on how gender, race, class and other social categories influence the
circumstances of people=s li$es, especially the social positions they ha$e and the &inds of
experiences fostered within those social positions, 1Wood 788F, 576 According to Allen, @rbe,
and @li$as feminist standpoint theory ,see&s to expose both acts of oppression and acts of
resistance by as&ing disenfranchised persons to describe and discuss their experiences with
hope that their &nowledge will re$eal otherwise unexposed aspects of the social order, 17888,
F386 )tandpoint theory can create clea$ages in and assist in sub$erting the status "uo because
,(o establish a woman=s and ethnic minority woman=s standpoint is to prepare to challenge
hegemony, 1Patton 233F, 78B6 (o attempt to $alidate the self by resisting the oppositional binary
system of either'or and embrace both'and 1a dialectical perspecti$e6 is transformati$e and mo$es
toward engaging in dialogue
)tandpoint theory coupled with Afrocentric theory is an extremely powerful critical tool in which to
examine body image, hair, and race Afrocentric theory is another way to redefine and confront
the marginali+ation and racist beauty standards felt by all women Asante=s Afrocentric theory has
allowed for a centering of Africans and the African diaspora in research and practice (his mo$e
is important since African experiences in communication ha$e often been analy+ed through a
#uropean framewor& 1Asante 788B6 As /lifford illustrated, the !lac& diaspora seems to be
,complexly related to Africa and the Americas, to shared histories of ensla$ement, racist
subordination, cultural sur$i$al, hybridi+ation, $%nd !age 2&( resistance, and political rebellion,
17884, 2526 (herefore, diaspora represents transnationality, political struggles, local community,
and historical displacement 12526 (he aforementioned struggles contribute to the fluidity and
fixity of diaspora and the diasporic consciousness, which ultimately impacts one=s social and
cultural inclusion or dislocation Afrocentric theory ,re-ects the notions and practices of hegemonic
or alleged uni$ersal tendencies and practices of a gi$en paradigm, 1!er&ie 788F, 79EA46
Additionally, Afrocentric theory see&s to de$elop agency through collecti$e consciousness
1Asante 788B6 As !er&ie stated, Afrocentricity is an intellectual pursuit that endorses humanistic
mission (his mission is pursued by first affirming our own humanity %t is pursued by defining and
naming phenomena that emanate from our own experience %t is about exercising one=s
agency %t is a theory that see&s to empower, free the mind, and ring the bell of harmony 17FB6
(herefore, Afrocentricity is not to be placed abo$e other perspecti$es but e"ually beside other
cultural theories and historical contexts Afrocentric theory challenges hegemony by mo$ing the
#uro standard from a hierarchical norm to a hori+ontal e"uali+er Afrocentricity also allows for a
performati$e nature of beauty With its focus on humanity, the di$ersity one can find through
Afrocentric theory is transformati$e Afrocentric theory is important because it ,embraces an
alternati$e set of realities, experiences, and identities, 1Delgado 788B, F296 @ne need not
necessarily be African or African American to embrace Afrocentricity and conduct Afrocentric
research 1Asante 78876 A woman cannot only exercise agency with her beauty choices, but
Afrocentricity creates a performati$e space of creati$ity and acceptance that has room for all
types of beauty because it is no longer in the context of a #uro:supremacist framewor& (here is
not an adherence to any beauty standard but a celebration of the self (his celebration of self is
challenged through #urocentric beauty standards of body image, hair, and race
Body Image and )ace
,%t rained L thundered -ust beautiful % got soa&ed, but % lo$e to wal& and play in the rain, except
my hair doesn=t % wish it would be alright for us Cegro[e]s to wear our hair natural % thin& it loo&s
good but it=s not [ac]cepted by society Any way % got soa&ed anyway, hair L all and mommy
nearly had a white child 1Kalerie (urner [Kalerie ?ean], ?une 72, 78EB, age fourteen6,
.Kalerie (urner, ,Part (wo* )earching for )elf, 1788F, 446
7
As the American standard of beauty continues to be stringent and marginali+ing, ,many women
de$elop distorted body images and become frustrated with not being able to obtain the =ideal
figure=, 1<olloy 788B, 76 Unli&e #uro American women who are plagued by waif:li&e images $%nd
!age 22( they cannot attain, African American women are relati$ely positi$e about their body
image 1although this trend is changing, see page 95A946 0owe$er, this is due to the fact that
African American women tend to ha$e different stereotypes to demythologi+e A 788B 20/20
tele$ision broadcast "uestioned the different ways in which African American and #uro American
women see themsel$es (he 20/20 broadcast found that #uro American women, as compared to
African American women, tend to be more prone to anorexia and bulimia due to the mediated
body images that tell women what they need to loo& li&e #uro American women see their body
image and beauty reified and accepted by mainstream society, as opposed to African American
women whose body image has traditionally been defiled Despite reification of #uro American
images, a $ariety of reasons ha$e been gi$en concerning why #uro American women tend to be
more prone to anorexia and bulimia, and why African American women deal with anorexia and
bulimia to a lesser degree
According to <olloy, there are four reasons First, African American women ,belie$e that African:
American males prefer larger women, they ha$e less need to lose weight, and therefore, feel
more attracti$e, Whereas #uro American women ,belie$e that white men prefer ultra:thin
women, 1788B, 26 )econd, African American women are more li&ely to describe themsel$es
using androgynous traits, whereas #uro American women use feminine traits ,<asculine and
androgynous indi$iduals exhibit higher le$els of self:esteem, ha$e more positi$e body image, and
are more satisfied with their sexuality than those who are feminine or undifferentiated, 126 (hird,
ethnic identification may play a role ,(o the extent that [African American women] interact mostly
with other African:Americans, they may be =protected= from white norms regarding body styles,
126 Fourth, socioeconomic class may impact body image According to Allan, <ayo, and <ichael
178896 as cited in <olloy, ,lower socioeconomic African:American women were hea$ier and
percei$ed hea$ier body styles as more attracti$e than did higher socioeconomic blac& women
and white women of all socioeconomic groups, 1788B, 26 Additionally, African American women
who tended to be hea$ier were slower to identify themsel$es as o$erweight as compared to #uro
American women, and tended not to ,denigrate their weight as much as those who tend to
interact with women who are thinner, 1<olloy 788B, 96
Finally, according to the study shown on the 20/20 broadcast, only 73 percent of #uro American
women were happy with their bodies due to the pressure #uro American women feel about their
bodies and beauty expectations /on$ersely, 43 percent of African American women were happy
with their bodies 1788B6 0owe$er, while research has shown that African American women tend
to ha$e a more positi$e attitude about their body image than White women, as ;ester and Petrie
noted, ,the idea that all African American women are protected fails to ta&e into account $%nd
!age 2'( the reality of within group indi$idual differences and the complexities associated with
de$eloping a self:image within an oppressi$e and racist society, 1788B, 9756 African American
women, li&e all women, are constantly exposed to #urocentric messages and images that
"uestion beauty standards outside the dominant realm )ome African American celebrities such
as 0alle !erry, )tar ?ones, and @prah Winfrey ha$e struggled with beauty image issues
%n addition, many African American women 1younger and older generation6, including those who
grow up in predominantly #uro American areas, state that they are beginning to feel pressure to
conform to the White standard of beauty For example, while research about women of color and
anorexia and bulimia is an under:researched area, /rago, )hissla&, and #stes found that eating
disorders were more fre"uent among 0ispanic and Cati$e American females and less fre"uent
among !lac& and Asian American women 1788E6 0owe$er, they also found that ris& factors
associated with eating disorders were more common among ethnic minority women who were
younger, hea$ier, better educated, and more identified with #uro American middle:class $alues
8
%n a 7888 Uni$ersity of Alabama sur$ey of 9,433 !lac& and White women and men, researchers
found that ,!lac& women were more in$ested in their physical appearance than White women
and that !lac& and White women had similar le$els of dissatisfaction with body and weight
si+e hea$y !lac& women were more satisfied with their weight than hea$y White women,
1?ones and )horter:Dooden 2339, 7B3A76 0owe$er, this research does not belie the fact that
!lac& women, li&e their White counterparts, experience dissatisfaction with their body and feel
pressure to conform to normati$e beauty standards )ometimes this conformity can ta&e
dangerous and drastic measures in the form of anorexia and bulimia For example, 4 million
women ha$e been diagnosed with eating disorders 1Cational Association of Anorexia Cer$osa
and Associated Disorders nd6 (he cost of treating anorexia ner$osa and'or bulimia often
includes medical monitoring, treatment, and therapy often o$er a two:year period or longer
(reatment is expensi$e* M93,333 or more a month for outpatient treatment> M733,333 or more for
inpatient treatment 1nd6 An eating disorder is something that women, regardless of race or
ethnicity, as well as men, may face> the disease does not discriminate
(hese hegemonically defined #uro American beauty standards are not only dangerous, they are
,created and maintained by society=s elite Gacism, class pre-udice, and re-ection of the disabled
are clearly reflected in current American beauty standards, 1)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 7F36
For example, the high cost of $arious beauty regimens such as cosmetics, tanning salons, perms,
hair straighteners, gyms, diets, nice clothes, and plastic surgery eludes, excludes, and
marginali+es poor women who cannot afford the high cost of fulfilling hegemonically defined
beauty $%nd !age 2-( standards !utler argued that gender is performati$e and is ,produced as a
rituali+ed repetition of con$ention, 17885, 976> beauty and hair are also performati$e 0aircare and
styling become a performance in adherence to beauty standards %n listing the multiple ways in
which women come to perform beauty, hairstyling for African American women not only becomes
a performance or ritual in hegemonically defined beauty, but also hair is performed as a way for
the marginali+ed to attempt to become centered in a world of beauty that tends not to $alue
African American forms of beauty African American beauty is the antithesis of White beauty,
,White, hair, and ,White, norms
According to Wood, ,appearance still counts Women are still -udged by their loo&s (hey must be
pretty, slim, and well:dressed to be desirable, 1788F, B96 ;orde found that ,institutionali+ed
re-ection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as
surplus people, 17884, 7446 (his "uote aptly supports the ideology of racism and sexism> an
ideology of gender relations that states one type of gender is superior to another, one type of
woman superior to another, and one type of beauty is superior to another As Wilson and Gussell
indicated, ,if the two groups of women were better informed of each other=s beauty issues, they
would reali+e that their seemingly contradictory attitudes about tan s&in were actually dri$en by
the same underlying concern* impro$ed social status, 1788E, 456 Women who ,fit, the social
construction of the stereotypical woman may ha$e a better chance of getting [the] -obs as
opposed to those who do not fit the standardi+ed model of beauty ,(hose who were -udged to be
attracti$e were also more li&ely to be rated intelligent, &ind, happy, flexible, interesting, confident,
sexy, asserti$e, strong, outgoing, friendly, poised, modest, candid, and successful than those
-udged unattracti$e, 1)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 7F76 An ideology of race and gender relations
that states that one racial group is superior to another is embedded in cultural symbols that
support, -ustify, and maintain the current hegemonic order.a hegemonic order that supports race
ine"ualities among women )alt+berg and /hrisler summing up a study by Faludi 178876 noted
that, ,American women ha$e the most negati$e body image of any culture studied by the Ninsey
%nstitute, 17884, 79B6 Further, ,Asian American and African American women ha$e sought facial
surgery in order to come closer to achie$ing the #uro:American beauty ideal, 1Faludi 7887 in
)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 7F36 As a result of ,falling $ictim, to #uro American standards of
beauty, hog lard 1used during sla$ery6, hot combs, curling irons, and formulas and solutions such
as <adame / ? Wal&er=s hair softener were in$ented to help straighten curly hair Assimilation
into American society by changing hair is a $ery effecti$e campaign According to a 7884
American 0ealth and !eauty Aids %nstitute 1A0!A%6 sur$ey, ,African Americans spend M225
9
million annually on hair wea$ing ser$ices and products, 1!yrd and (harps 2337, $%nd !age 2.(
7446 %n fact, although African Americans comprise about 72 to 79 percent of the U) population,
,!lac& women spent three times as much as White women on their hair care, 1Wilson and
Gussell 788E, 826 During the teen years the focus on assimilation to beauty standards,
regardless of race, is pre$alent
As girls grow and mature and become women, one of the only items o$er which they ha$e control
is their hair Perhaps the focus on beauty is to appear attracti$e to the opposite sex or play the
role for which women are sociali+ed.concern for beauty Whate$er the reason, ,hair becomes
such a ma-or preoccupation for adolescent girls of both races that their self:esteem can actually
rise and fall with e$ery glance in the mirror, 1Wilson and Gussell 788E, B76 As Wilson and Gussell
also disco$ered, issues of hair can become politici+ed at this time* #uro American women needed
constant feedbac& on their loo&s, whereas for African American teen girls, ,hair decisions are
sub-ect to more critical feedbac& from friends, because hairstyles are laden with political
o$ertones, 1788E, B76 (hese political o$ertones can be seen when an African American woman
wears a wea$e, or cuts her hair short, or wears a natural style, or when she dyes her hair blond
which ,smac&s of White assimilationism to many in the !lac& community, 1876 0owe$er, the
range of beauty and hairstyles embraced by African American women can ha$e an effect on
employment opportunities
Failure to wor& toward the #uro American beauty ideal can result in such conse"uences as the
loss of a -ob For example, some African American women ha$e lost their -obs due to their
hairstyle preference, which was deemed ,too ethnic, (he 78B7 case of Rogers v. American
Airlines, ,upheld the right of employers to prohibit the wearing of braided hairstyles in the
wor&place, 1/aldwell 2333, 24E6 %n 78B4, the 0yatt Gegency, outside of Washington D/, using
the 78B7 precedent, forced /heryl (atum to resign after she came to wor& wearing cornrows and
refused to ha$e them ta&en out )he was told that she was in $iolation of the company policy
1/aldwell 23336 According to (atum, the 0yatt manager 1a woman6 stated, ,% can=t understand
why you would want to wear your hair li&e that anyway What would our guests thin& if we allowed
you to all wear your hair li&e thatO, 1/aldwell 2333, 2BF6 %n 78BB, Pamela <itchell was as&ed to
lea$e her -ob at the <arriott 0otel in Washington D/ for refusing to remo$e her braids Another
case in 78BB concerned Genee Gandall who was fired from her -ob with <orrison=s /afeteria
because her multi:colored ponytail was ,too extreme, 1Wilson and Gussell 788E, BB6 %n 2337,
Cew Hor& Federal #xpress and UP) offices were both facing religious discrimination lawsuits for
firing employees with dreadloc&s, which are a re"uirement of the Gastafarian religion 1France
23376 )imilar lawsuits pending around the country include claims against ,police departments
and prison authorities, schools and retailers, alleging that rules against &notted loc&s $%nd !age
2/( unfairly single out Gastafarians in particular and African Americans in general, 1France 2337,
np6 What these firings and ultimately lawsuits show is a lac& of understanding by non:African
Americans regarding hairstyle di$ersity and an enforcement of White standards of beauty
)ubse"uently, after the lawsuits many corporate grooming policies were changed to include
braids and cornrows as an ,acceptable hairstyle, Federal #xpress employees who see& a wai$er
against company appearance standards may ,tuc& their loc&s under uniform hats, 1France 2337,
np6 Despite this acceptance, ,psychotherapists ha$e noted increased reports from their blac&
women clients of guilt, shame, anger, and resentment about s&in color, hair texture, facial
features, and body si+e and shape, 1)alt+berg and /hrisler 7884, 7F36
(he fact remains that outside the African American community there is little appreciation and
positi$e reification for African American beauty (his lac& of appreciation can ha$e a de$astating
effect on self:esteem According to West, ,this demythologi+ing of blac& sexuality [beauty] is
crucial for blac& America because much of blac& self:hatred and self:contempt has to do with the
refusal of many blac& Americans to lo$e their own blac& bodies.especially their blac& noses,
hips, lips, and hair, 1788F, 7226 0owe$er, physical and facial features e"uated with African
Americans produce their own beautiful counter:narrati$e For example fuller lips, tan s&in, body
cur$es, and curly hair are fashionable Women who do not naturally ha$e these beauty attributes
1
pay to ha$e what African Americans tend to ha$e naturally by $isiting their dermatologist, tanning
salons, buying padded undergarments, or going to their hairstylist %n addition, the popularity of
models such as )udanese:born Alex We& pro$ides a $isual and popular counter:narrati$e to
White physical and facial beauty features Unfortunately, the difficulty is finding this counter:
narrati$e in the same abundance in which we find White beauty standards
Media Stereoty7es: Body Image, Hair, and )ace
0istorically, the relationship between African American women and their hair goes bac& to the
days of sla$ery and is connected with the notion of the color caste system* the belief that the
lighter one=s s&in color, the better one is and that straighter hair is better than &in&y hair (his
thin&ing creates a hierarchy of s&in color and beauty that was promoted and supported by sla$e
masters and sla$ery (he woman with the wa$y hair was considered more attracti$e and had
,good, hair, as opposed to the woman with the &in&y hair who had ,bad, hair (he notions of
,good, hair and ,bad, hair come from the social construction of beauty standards According to
Wallace, ,the blac& community had for "uite some $%nd !age 20( time been plagued by color
discrimination (he upper echelons of blac& society in particular tended to rate beauty and merit
on the basis of the lightness of the s&in and the straightness of the hair and features, 17848, 75B6
(hese notions are still maintained in some portions of the African American community and in the
media
%n the media, many of the African American women who are glorified for their beauty tend to be
lighter:s&inned women who ha$e long, wa$y hair 0owe$er, this reification of the beauty standard
does not come solely from the African American community but also from the #uro American
community, which promotes the acceptable standard of beauty All one has to do is pic& up a
hairstyle maga+ine for African American women and see that many of the models ha$e $ery light
s&in 1some models could be mista&en for #uro Americans6, some ha$e blue or green eyes, and
most of them ha$e long, straight or wa$y hair, A few notable exceptions include (yra !an&s,
Caomi /ampbell, (omi&o, and Alex We& Despite these exceptions, it is important to note that
while these models may ha$e their own definition of beauty, the media may promote or single out
a more #urocentric:loo&ing model because #uro American standards of beauty are paramount
and mediated standards of beauty promote adherence to whiteness
(he performance of beauty comes to us through a $ariety of mediated images that we are
bombarded with daily (hese messages of beauty largely encompass ways in which women can
ma&e themsel$es loo& better, s&in products that can tone, redefine, and ta&e away age
)ubse"uently we learn that beauty is one of the defining characteristics of a woman For
example, among the numerous beauty products ad$ertised on tele$ision are hair products <ost
often the hair commercials show #uro American women tossing their bouncy, shiny, long, straight
hair #$en humorist, #rma !ombec& obser$ed that,
After watching supermodels /indy /rawford and /hristie !rin&ley push what appear to be
pounds of hair off their face o$er and o$er again there would be no time to do anything else
(hese people can=t carry a pac&age, eat hot dogs, wa$e, or sha&e hands #$ery second of their
li$es is consumed with ra&ing their fingers through their hair and getting their sight bac&
1Wilson and Gussell 788E, B26
(his image, while directed toward #uro American women, impacts African American women,
because it is often not our image that becomes the $ision and standard of beauty We are socially
constructed through language and mediated images to belie$e that what ma&es a woman
beautiful is not her intelligence or her inner beauty but her outer beauty $%nd !age 21(
Historical )esistance: Body Image, Hair, and )ace
11
As ?ames !aldwin said, ,(he power to define the other seals one=s definition of oneself, 1nd, n
p6 Whether intended or not, hair ma&es a political statement (o counterhegemonic #urocentric
standards of beauty !lac& women in the past and present continue to create resistant strategies
as their beauty was not and is not predominantly represented (he resistant strategy used by
Africans and African Americans was in the counter:hegemonic creation of uni"ue hairstyles that
showcased both !lac& beauty and creati$ity whether it was through the use of curls, dreadloc&s,
plaits, scar$es, wa$es, wea$es, wigs, and ornamentation in the hair Popular resistant strategies
were most $isibly seen during the !lac& Power mo$ement that simultaneously promoted the
,!lac& is !eautiful, campaign
For example, as bell hoo&s indicated, the !lac& Power mo$ement of the 78E3s challenged white
supremacy in many areas, and one area briefly challenged was hair What this social mo$ement
did with slogans such as ,!lac& is !eautiful, was wor& to ,inter$ene in and alter those racist
stereotypes that had always insisted blac& was ugly, monstrous, undesirable, 17885, 7236 (he
!lac& Power mo$ement raised and challenged the ingrained stereotypes of beauty that were and
are perpetuated by #uro Americans (he mo$ement also examined the psychological impact
such beauty standards had on African American girls and women (he !lac& Power mo$ement
first ,sought to $alue and embrace the different complexions of blac&ness, 1hoo&s 7885, 7276
(his meant that African Americans would examine the racist notions behind the di$isi$e color
caste system
)econd, the !lac& Power mo$ement agenda allowed for an examination of children who suffered
discrimination and who were ,psychologically wounded in families and'or public school systems
because they were not the right color, 17226 (his allowed for an examination of the effects of the
color caste upon children (hird, African American women stopped straightening their hair (his
means that there was a decade of acceptance for ,natural, hairstyles Fourth, many people who
had stood passi$ely by obser$ing the mistreatment !lac&s recei$ed on the basis of s&in color,
,felt for the first time that it was politically appropriate to inter$ene, 17226 Finally, in addressing
issues of s&in color and hair, African Americans could ,militantly confront and change the
de$astating psychological conse"uences of internali+ed racism, 17226 0air, therefore, became
one of the tools or mechanisms that African Americans could utili+e in order to confront the
damaging #urocentric standards of beauty that African Americans were unable to attain For a
brief moment, African Americans were able to create and reify their own standards of beauty
0owe$er, the progressi$e changes made during the !lac& Power mo$ement eroded as
assimilation became more dominant in the late 7843s and throughout the 78B3s As African
Americans were told that the &ey to $%nd !age '3( American success was through assimilation
of hairstyle and dress, many African American women began to press or chemically straighten
their hair again and ,follow the latest fashions in Vogue and Mademoiselle, to rouge her chee&s
furiously, and to spea&, not infre"uently, of what a disappointment the blac& man has been,
1Wallace 7848, 7426 <any women found that it was easier to don wigs, wea$es, or undergo
expensi$e chemical processes in order to replicate mainstream hairstyles rather than wear their
hair in an afro, braids, or dreadloc&s which may con$ey a political statement or socioeconomic
status According to hoo&s, ,once again the fate of blac& fol&s rested with white power %f a blac&
person wanted a -ob and found it easier to get it if he or she did not wear a natural hairstyle, etc
this was percei$ed by many to be a legitimate reason to change, 17885, 7226
/onse"uently, White standards of beauty became the norm and became further reified by both
African Americans and #uro Americans in their communities and through mediated images
Assimilation, in essence, made African Americans more socially mobile (his assimilation also
,meant that many blac& fol&s were re-ecting the ethnic communalism that had been a crucial
sur$i$al strategy when racial apartheid was the norm and were embracing liberal
indi$idualism /onse"uently, blac& fol&s could now feel that the way they wore their hair was
not political but simply a matter of choice, 1hoo&s 7885, 7296 Cot e$eryone saw African American
hairstyles as a ,freedom of choice, (his can be seen from the #uro American reaction to braids
12
and cornrows at wor& %n addition, the color caste system was bac& in place (his system pitted
light:s&inned African American women against dar&:s&inned African American women African
American men once again returned to $aluing highly desirable white or lighter:s&inned women
who had long hair, as opposed to lighter:s&inned or dar&er:s&inned African American women who
may ha$e chosen to wear shorter or natural hairstyles (he return to the o$ert and internali+ed
system of assimilation to the #uro American standard of beauty not only created rifts between
African American women but also pitted African American and other women against one another
%n the 7883s through the present, African Americans ha$e begun to use a resisti$e strategy of
acceptance %n this counter:hegemonic turn, beauty differences within the !lac& community are
considered good, because one is being creati$e in their own indi$idual beauty standard, rather
than loo&ing for outside acceptance According to )usan (aylor 120/20 788B6, editorial director of
Essence maga+ine, African American women, ha$e not traditionally seen themsel$es
represented positi$ely in any mediated form, so African American women create their own
standard of beauty !ecause of this counter:hegemonic creation, there is a wider range of beauty
norms among African American women and more acceptance of different body types and
weights )ome of the African $%nd !age '6( American women inter$iewed for the 20/20 segment
said that they do not concern themsel$es with weight, but rather they loo& at the whole pac&age*
hair, disposition, dress, style, and the way a person carries herself 1788B6 With this counter:
hegemonic strategy in place, this approach begs the "uestions* who determines differenceO and
who determines which differences matterO (hese "uestions are best answered using standpoint
theory and Afrocentric theory because they allow for a cultural criti"ue of hegemony and beauty
Blac+ Beauty 8i"eration: 9hallenging Hegemonically :efined
Beauty ;orms
,)ay it ;oud, %=m !lac& and %=m ProudI,
.?ames !rown, ,)ay it ;oud, %=m !lac& and %=m Proud,, 78E8
)ignified meanings o$er time by people, groups, and politics become fixed to a group and can
impact identity Gather than being fluid, identities become trapped in the marginali+ing rhetoric
that initially erected the boundary !oundaries not only define the borders of nations, territories,
communities, and imaginations of the mind, but also they define the limits of space, place, and
territory 1/ottle 23336 @ne marginali+ed demarcation point is understanding and appreciation of
difference.appreciation of African American beauty (he boundaries of beauty become deeply
entrenched and thus are accepted as ,common sense, (he fictions and narrati$es about African
American women exist, but without thoughtful understanding and &nowledge, the dialectical
tension between body image, hair, and race will continue to exist and contribute to oppression
and marginali+ation %n order for bridges of understanding to be built, the boundaries of beauty
need to be redefined and the borderland of marginali+ed beauty needs to be centered
0ow do we transcend the interloc&ing system of domination that reifies the hegemonic order to
the detriment of all womenO <arable found that ,the challenge begins by constructing new
cultural and political identities, based on the realities of America=s changing multicultural,
democratic milieu, 12333, FFB6 According to <oon, ,it might be more useful to thin& of identity as
a habit rather than an essence %dentity:as:habit is an idea that allows both for the ingrainedness
of habits 1as anyone who has attempted to brea& a long:term habit can attest6 and for the
possibility of mo$ement away from such habits, 1788B, 92F6 @ne way to enact ,identity as habit,
is to thin& of African American women and the intersections between beauty, body image, and
hair through the lens of womanism and !lac& beauty liberation $%nd !age '&(
)tandpoint theory and Afrocentric theory support a womanist criti"ue of beauty, body image, and
hair !oth theoretical perspecti$es are important in allowing for a criti"ue of marginali+ing
#urocentric beauty standards First, standpoint theory allows for a centering of indi$idual
13
experience and allows for a space for that story to be told (his space for alternati$e narrati$es
and experiences allows room for acts of oppression and resistance to be exposed )tandpoint
theory also considers how social categories, li&e gender, race, sexuality, and socioeconomic
class influence our li$es Finally, standpoint theory allows one the ability to $alidate the self by
resisting participation in the continuance of the hegemonic order
)econd, Afrocentric theory is complementary to standpoint theory because it allows for a
centering of !lac& people and !lac& experiences ?ust li&e in standpoint theory, Afrocentric theory
allows room for acts of oppression and resistance to be exposed %n this case, it allows the
centering of !lac& beauty and counter:hegemonic experiences to be exposed Afrocentric theory
also allows room for the possibility of di$ersity in beauty and di$ersity in beauty standards among
this group Gather than this theory being rigid, Afrocentric theory is used in a dynamic way that
allows one to be able to loo& at the beauty di$ersity within !lac& women, instead of treating all
!lac& women as a monolithic group ?ust li&e in standpoint theory, Afrocentric theory allows one
the ability to $alidate the self by resisting the continuance of hegemony Finally, Afrocentric theory
allows one to see the di$ersity among !lac& women in terms of body image, body si+e, hair, and
s&in color because of the focus on $aluing the personal experience, allowing one to name and
define her own experience1s6 As Delgado aptly stated, Afrocentric theory, ,embraces an
alternati$e set of realities, experiences, and identities, 1788B, F296 (hrough embracing
alternati$es, Afrocentric theory shatters the myth that !lac& women constitute a monolithic group
because one is allowed to be considered intragroup di$ersity
%n using the standpoint'Afrocentric theoretical matrix, the ideas behind Alice Wal&er=s womanism
are complementary because
womanism also ad$ocates the inclusion of the traditionally oppressed and marginali+ed, as well
as promotes consciousness raising for both the oppressor and oppressed Womanism recogni+es
that society is stratified by class, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexuality, howe$er, the placement of
race, the importance of race, and the experiences ethnic minority women ha$e had to deal with
regarding race and racism are central and &ey points in womanism
1Patton 2337, 2F2A96
5

%t is through this framewor& that % offer a womanist liberatory !lac& !eauty ;iberation campaign
<uch li&e the ,!lac& is !eautiful, campaigns $%nd !age '2( of the 7843s, African American
women need to be liberated from the confines of White:dominated standards of beauty A
womanist !lac& !eauty ;iberation campaign would encompass a !lac& or woman of color whose
beauty issues 1eg, body image, hair, and race6 are brought in from the margin to the center in an
attempt to honor the beauty in her that has been re$iled, rebuffed, and ignored (o be a !lac&
beauty liberationist means that you are not identified with the powers that be, but rather directly
challenge the White supremacist hegemony that has &ept your beauty and your body in$isible,
marginali+ed, and stereotyped
(o create a re$olution of beauty it is not enough that ,creati$e, style challenges to White
beautification be accepted only by celebrities or by ,radical, professors (he acceptance of these
marginal groups still means that the ma-ority of women are marginali+ed based on White
supremacist beauty standards %n the standpoint'Afrocentric theoretical matrix, the $isible in$isible
center is decentrali+ed A direct challenge to hegemonic beauty standards comes under criti"ue
as !lac& women define their beauty standards.not the White center defining it for them
For example, in a commodification of the @ther through Whites setting the beauty norms then
co$eting aspects of otheri+ed beauty, while at the same time re-ecting the @ther, we find that
many White women are incorporating !lac& beauty standards into their regime For example,
in-ecting collagen into their lips to get the full effect that African American women ha$e naturally,
tanning in order to achie$e the natural brown s&in of African Americans, and padding the derriere
in order to ha$e a fuller bac&side What these few differences show is that beauty concerns and
14
the expectations of li$ing up to and fulfilling the stereotypical sociali+ed role of ,woman, is
something that unites women since we all ha$e to endure the scrutiny Without understanding
and respecting beauty differences in general, women face alienating and stereotyping one
another, rather than becoming a united force As Wallace noted ,white men, white women, blac&
men, and blac& women are -ust an accumulation of waste.wasted hope and wasted coc&iness,
born of insecurity and anxiety, which help to &eep us all in our respecti$e places, 17848, 7936 We
need to understand the implications and history behind the standards of beauty ,!eing a !lac&
woman in the United )tates is necessarily different from being a White woman because of the
different histories that lie behind each social identity or point of intersection, but alliances can be
formed across these differences if both parties consent to the repression of difference in$ol$ed,
1Fis&e 788E, 896 !y resisting ascribed identities, we may begin to challenge the notion of beauty
as it is currently defined because we are critically and acti$ely challenging hegemony (hrough
the standpoint'Afrocentric matrix we are able to challenge the hegemonic narrati$es that confine
beauty into binaries of White:beautiful, !lac&:ugly $%nd !age ''(
)uch libratory stances against White supremacist beauty ha$e ta&en place> howe$er, it is now
time to directly challenge the assimilated beauty standards that are continually promoted through
the media Geality (K shows li&e Extreme Makeover and The !an attempt to produce the same
type of woman.one who maintains hegemonic beauty standards.that no woman can naturally
attain (hrough an oppositional beauty ga+e an appreciation of !lac& beauty has flourished in
children=s boo&s [eg, "app# to be $app# %&ump at the un', by bell hoo&s> $app# "air by
/aroli$ia 0erron] and in hairstyles beyond straightened styles 1eg, afros, dreadloc&s, and twists
are again considered stylish for !lac& musical artists, athletes, and on college campuses6
0owe$er, these $enues are not enough to promote the feeling of beauty acceptance on a large
scale With liberation comes a critical transformation ,;iberation means challenging systemic
assumptions, structures, rules, or roles that are flawed, 10arro 2333, FE96 (hrough liberation and
challenging the systems of domination that exist in regard to body image, hair, and race, a
recentering of marginali+ed beauty can begin For example, !lac& communities ha$e already
ta&en smaller steps that ha$e led to some success in redefining beauty whether through lawsuits
or in their own practices %n order to be a liberated self, White hegemonic beauty needs to be
challenged %nstead of succumbing to the White supremacist status "uo, African American
women need to continue to challenge the norm We need to demand the same recognition of
di$ersified !lac& beauty As )pellers noted, ,)ilencing the stories of marginali+ed groups aids in
the creation of a dominant discourse !y studying personal stories, the tendency to naturali+e
one=s experiences of reality as a uni$ersal experience of reality becomes minimi+ed and we come
to understand that there are different ways of &nowing, 1788B, 426 (hrough ac&nowledging and
recogni+ing that other forms of beauty exist in the world beyond white supremacist definitions, we
come to understand that there are different types of beauty in the world @ne of the more
immediate effects of beauty challenges can be seen in mediated di$ersity largely on ,!lac&,
tele$ision shows on UPC* (irl)riends and *evin "ill both showcase a $ariety of hairstyles and s&in
colors And All# Mc+eal was the first ,White, show that featured an African American female main
character with naturally curly, non:straightened hair
Beauty Identity: To Begin Again
/hallenging and redefining the self, ingrained identities, and White hegemony is $ery difficult
,(hese stereotypes and the culture that sustains them exist to define the social position of blac&
women as subordinate on the basis of gender to all men, regardless of color, and on the basis of
$%nd !age '-( race to all other women (hese negati$e images also are indispensable to the
maintenance of an interloc&ing system of oppression based on race and gender that operates to
the detriment of all women and all blac&s, 1/aldwell 2333, 2B36 Debun&ing the myth of what is
beauty would re"uire #uro American women to say ,the hell with what men thin&, and African
American women would ha$e to say ,the hec& with what all of White culture thin&s, 1Wilson and
Gussell 788E, B56 (his is "uite a difficult position for all women and e$en more so for African
American women because African American women ha$e to challenge an entire race of people
15
and system of thought As a society, we seem to forget our rhi+omatic past 1Dilroy 78896> a past
that is impacted by the diasporic connections between people and cultures For example, much of
what once was African or African American culture is now mainstream and worldwide* pierced
ears, nose, nipples, and other body parts come from the twelfth century and were introduced to
#uro Americans once Africans were ensla$ed> music 1spirituals, gospels, -a++, roc&, blue grass,
country, rap, and hip hop6 all ha$e origins or ha$e been influenced by African or African American
culture ,Co matter what a woman does or doesn=t do with her hair.dyeing or not dyeing, curling
or not curling, co$ering with a bandana or lea$ing unco$ered.her hair will affect how others
respond to her, and her power will increase or decrease accordingly, 1Weit+ 2337, EB96 Until we
criti"ue the message of stereotypical standardi+ations of beauty, African American women, and
all women in general, and the disparagement of their beauty, we will ne$er get past the wall of
misunderstanding, sexism, and racism As hoo&s stated, ,#$eryone must brea& through the wall
of denial that would ha$e us belie$e hatred of blac&ness emerges from troubled indi$idual
psyches and ac&nowledge that it is systematically taught through processes of sociali+ation in
white supremacist society, 17885, 7976 We will not only continue to cause self:esteem and
psychological damage to women and to African American women specifically, but we will
continue to pass on our sexist and racist ways to generations of young people We ha$e all seen
the de$astation that societal standards of beauty wrea& upon women* psychological damage, loss
of self:esteem, anorexia, bulimia, sexism, racism, ignorance, and lac& of communication (he
language, $erbal and non$erbal, as well as the reification of White standards of beauty needs to
be challenged and will continue to be challenged as women create their own standards of beauty
Trace# ,!ens -atton is an Associate Professor of /ommunication in the Department of
/ommunication and ?ournalism at (he Uni$ersity of Wyoming 0er areas of expertise are critical
cultural communication and rhetorical studies 0er wor& is strongly influenced by critical theory,
cultural studies, feminist theory, and rhetorical theory Patton=s research $%nd !age '.( focus is
on the interdependence between race, gender, and power and how these issues interrelate in
education, media, and speeches )end correspondence to topattonPuwyoedu
Ac+nowledgments
An earlier $ersion of this article was presented to the @rgani+ation for Gesearch on Women and
/ommunication %nterest Droup at the Western )tates /ommunication Association /on$ention,
Kancou$er, !/, 7888 (he author than&s ?ill !ystyd+iens&i and )amuel Patton for their
comments and suggestions
%ndnotes
7 For a thorough analysis of stereotypes, see Donald !ogle=s 123376 seminal boo&, Toms.
/oons. Mulattoes. Mammies. and +ucks0 An 1nterpretative "istor# o) +lacks in American 2ilms
2 /harlotte Forten of Philadelphia was ,one of the tiny minority of free, educated blac& women of
the nineteenth century, )he came from a middle:class abolitionist family ,who did not differ
appreciably from their well:off white neighbors in demeanor and $alues, )he was a teacher at an
integrated grammar school in )alem ,charged with teaching the Cegroes all the necessary
rudiments of ci$ili+ation until they be [sic] sufficiently enlightened to thin& and pro$ide for
themsel$es, Despite her status, she suffered racist incidents from Whites and berates herself for
not being worthy enough or intelligent enough Although her ,contemporaries described her as a
handsome girl, delicate, slender, attracti$e, whereas she saw herself as hopelessly ugly, 17F5,
7F4A86
9 Hep defines assimilation as a ,$iew [that] directs the marginali+ed person to try harder and
harder to adhere, obey, and follow the rules of the dominant group.rules that he or she can
ne$er fully and completely participate in creating, 1B36 <artin and Ca&ayama 123336 state that ,%n
16
an assimilation mode, the indi$idual does not want to maintain an isolated cultural identity but
wants to maintain relationships with other groups in the new culture And the migrant is more or
less welcomed by the new cultural hosts When the dominant group forces assimilation,
especially on immigrants [or U) ethnic minority groups] whose customs are different from the
predominant customs of the host society, it creates a =pressure coo&er=, 1788B, 2346
F <adame / ? Wal&er did not in$ent the hot comb <arcel Drateau, a Parisian, used ,heated
metal hair care implements as early as 7B42, and hot combs were a$ailable in )ears and
!loomingdale=s catalogues in the 7B83s, presumably designed for white women, 1Princeton nd6
$%nd !age '/(
5 Alice Wal&er created the term ,womanism, Wal&er=s definition of womanism found in )mith
states that ,womanist comes from the word =womanish=* @pposite of =girlish,= ie, fri$olous,
irresponsible, not serious A blac& feminist or feminist of color From the collo"uial expression of
mothers to daughters =Hou=re acting womanish,= ie li&e a woman Usually referring to
outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful beha$ior Wanting to &now more and in greater
depth than is considered =good= for one %nterested in grown:up doings Acting grown:up being
grown:up %nterchangeable with other collo"uial expression* =Hou=re trying to be grown=
Gesponsible %n charge )erious, 178B9, xxii6 A womanist or !lac& feminist criti"ue ma&es one
aware of the exclusi$e nature of feminism as it has been popularly articulated by White,
educated, middle:class women 1Wood 788F6 Womanists belie$e that challenging patriarchal
oppression and sexism is e"ually important with fighting against racism (herefore, articulating a
type of feminism that shows how the twin oppressions of racism and sexism are interrelated is
paramount, as both are necessary in fighting against a system built on oppression
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2