Black Women and Beauty: the Perception of Personal Attractiveness and the Influence of the Media

Heather Kroes Oxford College of Emory University

In this paper I have attempted to discuss the various reasons behind the traditional and modern aesthetic beauty standards held by Black women in America and Brazil. In both countries there is a correlation between the personal and political value of skin color, the relative lightness or darkness of a Black women’s skin, hair, the political and social upheaval caused by the Black woman’s Afro, body weight and personal attractiveness, and the role the media plays throughout all of these facets of personal appearance. I also identify and explain the different stereotypes that the media, particularly the Western media, use to encapsulate Black women of all cultures.

KEY WORDS: Black women, Brazil, urbanization, beauty standards, personal appearance, Afro

INTRODUCTION The world today is obsessed with personal appearance. We are constantly bombarded with images associated with the body and beauty. While there is a surge of new media attention given to male attractiveness, beauty like housework is almost exclusively associated with women. Beauty is the elusive variable that both binds and

there remains a “pervasiveness of Eurocentric standards of beauty” [Hill 2002] that is rampant in today’s media-driven world. as a whole. black females? Despite the overall advancements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Black women. . hair. “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.2 segregates females. The old adage. and blue-eyed in order to be desirable to the opposite sex. particularly white America’s.e. In this paper I will attempt to discern America’s. influence on African American women and what role the eye of the media plays in determining what is deemed necessary for a Black woman to be beautiful. What then. Black women and Caucasian women have different definitions of beauty. But what is beautiful? Who defines it? And how does a definition of something inherently ambiguous impact an entire sex so completely? The truth is one cannot ascertain an unconditional definition of beauty. does it tell young.” is as close as we shall ever come. But as black women’s socioeconomic status improves and they move up the social ladder. and overall beauty standards and become more homogenous in their beliefs about personal appearance [Molloy 1998]. white middle class partialities about the lightness of skin tone. white girl that she must be thin. I will also compare the different standards of ideal beauty that are found throughout Black cultures in other countries and see how the media affects or does not affect their beliefs on ideal beauty. i. middle class. but what is really significant is the different beauty standards held by different black women. It simply does not exist and it would be haphazard to even attempt to define the abstract concept of physical attractiveness. they become more exposed to the media. blonde. weight. It is the media that tells a young. have perceptions of beauty that are more variable than whites [Molloy 1998].

as skin color. it is first imperative to look at distinctive differences and trends among black women in America and those abroad. intellect. The most basic place to begin is with skin color. Throughout the world there is a general notion that the whiter an individual is the better they are and the more pleasing they are to the eye [Molloy 1998. while black skin became associated with evil and ignorance [Hill. As a black child rather frankly stated during a study that used dolls to determine children’s take on the idea of preferred skin color.3 SKIN COLOR To understand how the media affects black women and what role the white world plays within that view. . “I don’t like being black. 2002]. Slaveholders. 2006]. Hill 2002. slaves who had lighter skin were given better treatment than those who were noticeably darker [Hill 2002]. I will be rich if I am like the white doll” [Hill. The notion that white is right originates almost entirely from America’s history of chattel slavery. claimed that the darkness of enslaved Africans made them more evil and subsequently inferior to whites [Ansariyah-Grace. 2002] that categorizes these women in the first place. Even in this century. Ansariyah-Grace 1995]. and morality became more and more intertwined [Rooks 1996]. Numerous studies have proven that blacks with lighter skin are given more opportunities than those that are noticeably darker. 2002]. skin color is a major factor affecting social status and people’s perception and judgments [Hill 2002]. Therefore. to justify slavery and instill the notion of white supremacy. One reason behind black women’s want of paler skin is much like white women’s desire to be thin: social status. white skin became synonymous with beauty and piety. for it is the notion of “colorism” [Hill. Even in the antebellum era.

In the lyrics of a popular song. The desire for paleness also stems from the widely held notion that black males are more sexually attracted to women with lighter skin [Hill. the concept of beauty is delineated by the widespread notion of white superiority upheld by advertisements. must alter their phenotypes in order to ascertain higher social status [Rooks 1996]. The media sends rather direct messages that confirm and maintain the link between fair skin and the feminine ideal. Advertisements imply that black women. I want . the relative blackness of an individual “[influenced] the attractiveness ratings assigned to black women in a compelling.4 Even into the twentieth-century with the advent of widespread media coverage. “Your Hair Gives You Away. For black women. 2003]. places high value on fair skin found within the mulata race [Caldwell. Brazil. Whiteness equaled femininity. As NSBA investigators thought.” it is clear that the skin had by the mixing of Black and White ethnicities is highly valued. “You are mulata in color…/Mulata. BRAZILIAN RACE POLITICS This preference for light skin is still prevalent today. The pursuit of fairer skin is not solely a quest of upward social mobility however. The same is true in other countries. even though America has experienced the Civil Rights and “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s and 70s [Ansariyah-Grace 1995]. then. for example. The National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA) conducted a study in which researchers attempted to determine the role skin color played in determining physical beauty and just how reaching skin color’s influence is [Hill 2002]. 2002]. monotonic manner”[Hill 2002]. in particular. having fair skin translates into being a more feminine woman and a more desirous partner.

Even given the extent of Brazil’s diverse racial composition. Because it is a visible characteristic that helps to shape society’s view of our personal identity. 1992]. has been a battleground where hot irons and cornrows determine one’s . 1992]. [Telles. particularly the line that the woman’s hair reveals her African heritage. and neighborhoods revealed this same trend. This song reflects the views of popular culture. Being Black or having some trace characterizations is not. the wording of the song. material still suggested that dark skinned blacks and mulatas lived in the poorer neighborhood and were considered less desirable as neighbors to whites than lighter skin mulatas or blacks. it is clear that there is some research evidence that provides concrete correlation between socioeconomic class and skin tone [Telles. political identity and one’s racial identity [Rooks. especially for black women. on racial segregation throughout districts. Hair. Even though Brazil’s historical ties to colonialism have created ambiguous feelings about race in general. 1996]. hair is both a sign of public. if given the choice. shows that there is still a racial demarcation in Brazil. Research. in Brazil being mulata is identified as being the quintessential Brazilian and is thus very prized. like in the United States. whites and blacks are still segregated based on their skin. HAIR: PERSONAL OR POLITICAL STATEMENT? What is sometimes not thought of as a contributing factor determining a woman’s overall perception of her beauty is her hair.5 your love” [Caldwell. desirable and certainly has parallels to social class and projected upward social mobility. housing projects. While researches emphasized the relationship between skin color and class. 2003]. for example. in terms of social mobility being a prime reason behind the advent of skin lightening products.

“For my grandmother. It was also a determinant of social class: author Noliwe Rooks recalls that when she wanted to straighten her hair. She claimed that at an early age she had wanted to become a ballerina but was not ever put on center stage. It was during that century that black women were first subjected to the commercialization of hair care products that aimed to bring them closer to the white standard of beauty that their female mistresses embodied [Rooks. a woman from Brazil named Gislene came into contact with the racism that formed the basis of hair discord. particularly hair straightening. She . “natural” hair styles are highly valued because they symbolize a black woman’s outward declaration of her internalized pride in her blackness and her rejection of the incessant attacks on her heritage by the dominate white middle class [Ansanriyah-Grace. which translates into white culture. In most black families and indeed most of black culture. or straight like the hair of their white counterparts. smooth. advised black women even as early as the 1830s that they were inherently unattractive because their hair was curly. 1996].” The hair straightening craze. like all attempts by whites to systematically trap blacks into emotional and psychological slavery. is an area of much contention within the overall black community. and not fine. hair spoke of acceptance from a certain class of African Americans.6 commitment to one’s ethnic identity and to the betterment of the black race. began during the antebellum era. PROTEST WITH AN AFRO Hair care. Rooks notes that. thus ugly. Popular culture. 1995]. In one case. it was her middle class grandmother who disregarded Rooks’ mother’s view of ethnic pride and took her to the beauty parlor.

black power in political activism and social revolution. This was not an isolated incident. Cleonice. The notion of natural hair as symbolic of national identity and proof of racial pride became an intrinsic concept during the Civil Right’s Movement. They counteracted white hair dominance by transforming the connotations associated with their natural hair. In Brazil. Regina. it was difficult to develop a sense of racial identity and pride because she did not have “cabelo liso” which was straight hair that would presumably move in the wind. During the tumultuous and revolutionary 1960s and 70s wearing an Afro became the ultimate embodiment of social revolution. Again.7 claimed that that spot was reserved for the prettiest girls in the class. a 51 year old woman from Brazil. Gislene said. much like it has today [Rooks 1996]. a personal interview provided significant insight into the concept of hair as a visible and perhaps more powerful form of protest. however. Cleonice said it was not until the 1970s that she decided to put her straightener away and wear an Afro. The Afro meant black pride. 2003]. claimed that when she was growing up and developing a self. discussed her experiences with hair care. with straight hair… Preferably with light colored hair” [Caldwell 2003]. girls. women wearing one were showing their contempt of white societal pressures outwardly [Rooks 1996]. But Black women were not content to assimilate into white culture. also a Black female from Brazil. it is used similarly as an outward sign of inner Black pride. were “White. During a research interview she talked solely about her want of straight hair that would blow in the wind like the hair of a young white girl that she had seen once on a school bus [Caldwell. She claimed that she began straightening her hair after a child at school said it looked like “arame” or wire. It is during this time that .

Anti-Black beauty aesthetics are just as prevalent in Brazil as they are in the United States. it will affect social status [Rooks 1996]. for example. Curl-I-Cure: A Cure For Curls. locks into hair that was long. 1995]. This defining word is significant because it meshes both cultures’ languages. was a company that promised to transform clients’ curly. Like in Brazil. HAIR AND THE MEDIA Cleonice’s experience is telling. the American media was quick to latch onto black women’s insecurities and white principles. or the popular term nappy.8 Cleonice says she began to “me assumir como negra” or assume that she was in fact Black [Caldwell. and straight. Popular portrayal of natural Black hair or the Afro was to term it “cabelo black” which combines the Brazilian word for hair cabelo with the Western word black. The product’s maker uses advertisement to imply that by changing the hair’s texture. 2003]. Like skin tone and body weight. In many other personal interviews. Black Brazilian women continually stated that they felt there was not a sufficient number of pro-Black beauty ads shown by the media [Caldwell 2003]. Black women in Brazil like those in America are constantly bombarded with images that they can never aspire to imitate. there is somewhat of a correlation between class and the notion of “relaxing” or styling one’s hair [Ansariyah-Grace. . silky. Advertisements dating back to the Reconstruction Era were entrenched with racial beauty slurs.

The notion that a black woman’s weight. 2001]. gyms. the weight of a woman was directly linked to the economic prosperity of her husband. 2002]. it meant she was well fed. If a woman was what the American media would deem heavy. A weightier woman had a higher social status because her family was wealthier. nutritionists. 2002]. etc [AnsanriyahGrace. both sexes needed to be equally as hardened in order to keep up with the pace set for them by slave owners and even after they were free. Investigators have found that black women’s ideal body weight is subject to . politics. In several studies conducted. it was found that women who were considered slightly plumper than those deemed slightly thin were also thought to be more attractive [Hill. and social norms [Lovejoy. use their bodies to project their inner thoughts on morals. it is quite the opposite: a thinner woman is generally thought to be wealthier because she would have more access to plastic surgery. And the idea of a correlation between thinness and beauty may also be endemic to the United States.9 WEIGHT AND BEAUTY While skin color is one of the most prevailing predictors of a black woman’s level of attractiveness. In the histories of most European and African nations. women still had to find work that required them to have a bulkier body shape than the frail white women around them [Hill. personal trainers. in particular. In today’s America. which subsequently meant her husband was financially secure. her thinness. During the Antebellum period. contributes to her overall beauty also stems from slavery days. The obsession over body weight is practically an epidemic in the United States. Women. it is second to another variable: weight. But the idea of weight management and thinness is not as homogenous of an issue as the lightness of skin tone. 1995].

female counterparts. This is because the higher the social status. During a personal interview with a woman named . Lovejoy. Black women in these countries are more likely to be physically heavier and desire to maintain this chunkiness because of the perceived preference by black males. they view their weight on a different level of reference than their female white counterparts. Black women are however much more likely to be obese and engage in overeating or binge eating [Lovejoy. Black women tend to be less prone to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia than their white. Like the matter of skin tone. the more exposure black women have to white middle class preferences of an ideal body size. forty percent of black female participants who were medically overweight think that their bodies are more aesthetically pleasing [Molloy. 1998]. 2001]. In fact researchers have found that on average female black women and adolescents are more likely to be pleased with their phonotypical appearances. black women strive to embody what they and the general society believes black men find more sexually attractive. 1998. Social and economic class also play key roles in black women’s want or lack of desire to be deemed “thin” by mainstream America. Research shows that black women of lower economic class were larger and thought larger body sizes were more attractive than women in the middle and upper classes.10 the idea that black men find heavier builds more attractive. in fact. In one study. 2001]. While women in America have a skewed view of normal eating which includes dieting on an almost daily basis [Molloy 1998]. Because black women in America and Brazil base their notions of feminine body ideals on what their male counterparts deem attractive [Molloy. black women as a whole are not as predisposed to being infatuated with what their scales say as white women.

11 Chinake. like their Black counterparts in America. they have a comparatively greater range of acceptance of different body shapes and types and at the same time they think that they themselves are physically thinner. and most noticeably by the media. The media had little difficulty finding historical references on which to base this interpretation of a black woman. when shown by the mainstream media. members of the white race. are most often portrayed in a harmful and/or hackneyed fashion. their . and political potential of black women. the media has created stereotypes that feed into white misconceptions and ignorance. you are not beautiful. In an attempt to control the intellectual. black women are characterized as the domestic servant who is always jovial and enjoys taking care of her white master. the Black women presented in the servant role are considered the norm and are used as the standard when describing or defining Black women. the sexual siren. 2001]. Researchers have designated four categories in which black women are most often placed: “the mammy. and the welfare mother” [Woodard 2005]. In the first category. you are ugly” [Ansariyah-Grace. social. Even though Black women in Brazil prize physical slimness. 1995]. The result is a collectively higher degree of self acceptance and positive body image in terms of weight [Lovejoy. she expressed the common American and Brazilian belief that “If you are fat. mistress. Black women. and their children. Because of its historical context. the matriarch. MEDIA STIGMAS Black women have a unique status in our country: they are women and they are black. With those two distinctions comes a plethora of restrictions placed on them by members of their own race.

harsh working mothers. The media’s portrayal of black women as docile servants. The next representation often portrayed through the media is that of the black woman as a matriarch or black working mother. i. Here black women are seen as out-of-work and constantly pregnant [Woodard 2005]. the White culture in Brazil and America. the ability to hold Black women accountable for the accomplishments and failures of their children. . or welfare mothers serves to validate and rationalize white culture’s attempts at controlling and containing the power and identity of Black women in America and their Brazilian counterparts [Lovejoy. Brazil’s image of Black women is rather congruent to those portrayed by the American media in part because of the extensive colonization and urbanization of that area before and after the slave trade [Ansariyah-Grace 1995].e. exotic prostitutes. and their sexuality. This black woman is dictating and often busy outside of the home. like the other images. 2001]. The fourth media image created to subjugate black women is the welfare mother which. Showing black women in this light gives the dominant culture. has its roots in slavery times as well. black women shown as sexually promiscuous is vital to the beliefs held by upper-class White men about black womanhood: attempts at controlling black women’s sexuality lies at the heart of their emotional and physical oppression. The third stereotype projected by the media is that of the sexual siren who is concerned only with what she can get sexually.12 societal roles. particularly their male children. This representation of a black woman also stems from the antebellum period.

most importantly. I would like to thank Dr. racial. 1996]. 2003]. Wendy Dirks (Oxford College of Emory . who is a white blonde. overcoming the obstacles of white supremacy that stem from the antebellum era and are even internalized within their own African heritage. Black women fought back against media and Western culture to try to obtain and maintain their own sense of racial identity [Rooks 1996]. and other non-White stars in the Brazilian media do offer young women in that area a different model of aesthetic beauty to mimic [Caldwell. By their ability to adapt to and resist portions of the dominant white culture. Black. Regardless. actresses. and models are gaining notoriety. In Brazil. black actors. feminine identity. are stil preferred by white and black Brazilians. the mere presence of mulata.13 CONCLUSION Black women have had to carve a name of their own. although popular television characters like Xuxa. disregarded the Black population. and. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I would like to thank the researchers mentioned throughout my paper for lending me their expertise. black women have “recontextualized” their scripted role in society and have created new aesthetic beauty identities within the Black culture in America and Brazil as well as the white culture at large [Rooks. By staying in tune with themselves and their own cultural. It is important for Black women from Brazil and America to look to the press because Western standards of beauty have. Black women have always served to foster a sense of culture all the while being systematically abused and stigmatized by the media. in general.

umi. and African American Women. REFERENCES Ansanriyah-Grace. “Look at Her Hair: the body politics of black womanhood in Brazil. “Urbanization and the Beauty Myth. “Residential Segregation by Skin Color in Brazil. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are used Against Women. 11 Mar.umi. 1st>. Molloy. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP. Lovejoy. 2006. 11 Mar. . Fidelis U. New York: William and Morrow and Company. “Black Womanhood: Essence and its Treatment of Stereotypical Images of Black>. 1991. Meg. Beth L. 2006 <http://proquest." African Aesthetic Values. 2006 <http://proquest. Jennifer B. "Body Image and self-esteem: A comparison of African-American and Caucasian women.” Transforming Anthropology 11 (2003): 18-29. Noliwe M. Woodard. 2006 <http://proquest. 3 Mar. 2006. Hill. Naomi. 1996. Wolf. Teles.umi.. 12 Mar. Culture.” Gender & Society 15 (2001): 239-261. Mark E. 12 Mar. “Skin Color and the perception of attractiveness among African Americans: Does gender make a difference?" Social Psychology Quarterly 65 (2002): 77-92.” American Sociological Review 57 (1992): 186-198.>.” Journal of Black Studies 36 (2005): 264-281.umi." Sex Roles 38 (1998): 631-644. 2006.proquest. 9-348. Hair Raising: Beauty. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers that will be reading and criticizing this paper. 149-159. 2006 <http://www. Kia Lilly. Tansneem. Inc.14 University) who assigned this research>. 11 Mar. “Disturbances in the Social Body: Differences in Body Image and Eating Problems among African American and White Women.” Southern African Feminist Review 1 (1995): 99. Okafor. 1-157. Rooks. "Frontiers of Transculturality in Contemporary Aesthetics. 2006. Caldwell. 2 Feb. 11 Mar.

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