By B. Ogundipe
Maxine Leeds Craig’s Ain’t I a Beauty Queen: Black Women, Beauty and the Politics of Race explores the social constructs behind hegemonic beauty standards. These hegemonic beauty standards were set in place by white heteropatriarchy, providing a framework for ordering society. Specifically beauty standards were in line with the ideology of white supremacy—dictating that whiteness is ideal and should be the standard for all. In a U.S. historical context given the long legacy of slavery and forceful sexual relationships between slave masters and enslaved women, many individuals of mixed heritage were born. In line with white supremacist thought, those who were closer to whiteness were afforded more social privileges despite existing in a society based on the exploitation of black and brown bodies.
In line with hegemonic narratives about beauty, beauty pageants were often held and broadcasted nationally through media outlets such as newspapers, magazines and television. However, women of African descent were deliberately excluded from these pageants and therefore excluded in the media, save from racist sexual caricatures. In a larger societal construct, African descended women were not even considered “women” to begin with, explaining their deliberate exclusion from beauty contests. Despite the long history of the African presence in the United States, African Americans were still not considered as equals to their white counterparts. This began to change when African American women began entering national beauty contests backed with support from organizations such as the NAACP (Craig 68). African American women then were able to use beauty contests to enter into a public space, displaying themselves and proudly affirming their rights as American citizens.
While white contestants could stand in these events as individuals, when African American women entered into national beauty pageants they were considered representations for the entire African American community (70). The danger in this notion is that certain hegemonic beauty ideals can infiltrate the community, creating racial hierarchies similar to those of dominant white supremacist society. In this case, African Americans with lighter skin tones and looser hair textures were seen as the preferred and acceptable image of blackness. African Americans of deeper hues with coarser hair textures were then considered less socially desirable and less human.
Within the African American community there was also a rejection of these hierarchal beauty standards dictating that lighter was better. One of these examples is the Miss Weusi contest, which shifted the focus of beauty pageants to being accepting of more types of African American appearances, “In an era of all black consciousness, these contests frequently challenged not only white supremacy but also the supremacy of lighter skin” (73). However, there was a trend of characterizing darker skinned woman as solely physical entities which in certain ways can be considered a direct descendant of issues concerning sexual politics during the slavery era. The mass rape of enslaved black women by their white slave masters was predicated on the argument that their appearance, skin colour and physical features somehow explained their lascivious and overtly sexual behaviour. Using this argument, white slave owners were able to justify their sexual misconduct by projecting a specific image of black women tied into an immutable characteristic that they couldn’t control—their skin colour.
By bolstering their argument in politics of desirability, it was imperative to create a narrative that characterized black women as unattractive, yet sexually available, in doing so; the blame is placed upon the bodies of black women. Furthermore, white women and “whiteness” were then conflated associated with characteristics such as purity, grace, and innocence.
This notion of whiteness was also linked to class mobility. African Americans were able to move up the social ladder in my cases depending upon the complexion of their skin. The lighter you were increased chances of success in a racist society. Therefore for many, having the appearance of middle class respectability was seen as a way to uplift the race overall. In addition to lighter skin tones, certain hairstyles were preferred; this lead to the creation of hot combs and chemical relaxers, making it possible for African Americans to emulate beauty standards that could lead to economic gain. This was evidenced by entrepreneurs such as Madame CJ Walker whose line of hair products who made it possible for black women to achieve this status.
Madame CJ Walker’s economic gain was noticed by white capitalist society; in this way white capitalists saw that they could market products to the African American population to further exploit them for material gain. From this viewpoint, the black population and black hair care were additional avenues where a white racist capitalist society could find economic success for beauty standards and practices that came about as a direct result of white supremacy, Craigs cites this as “an example of the manipulation of racial identity as a commodity” (53). The Golden Brown chemical company—a white owned chemical corporation—created a fictional character based on Madame CJ Walker to market their product to an African American audience. In creating this faux Madame CJ Walker to sell their products, they first had to co-opt the image of black womanhood, creating a counterfeit racial authenticity to sell their products to mostly African American clientele. In addition, the Golden Brown company also held a National Golden Brown Beauty contests where the physical appearance of winners upheld hegemonic beauty standards, sending out a specific image of femininity and respectability to the African American women purchasing their products, again creating a rigid physical standard for women to adhere to in order to be considered respectable yet socially desirable.
While initially the conversation surrounding beauty might be considered to some as a shallow research inquiry, the narrative behind certain prevailing beauty standards illuminates multiple issues underlying the formation of society and not simply in a U.S. based context. The implications of hegemonic beauty standards extend all over the globe, interacting with societal preferences and influencing societies everywhere due to the globalization of the beauty market. In addition, the question of desirability, femininity and notions of bodily integrity pose major questions into the purpose of certain beauty standards.
Overall, the links between white capitalist heteropatriarchy and beauty standards cannot be ignored. As with most complex relationships based in a U.S. historical context, the inception of slavery and the direct commodification and exploitation of black and brown bodies as human capital has affected every facet of society. Due to the United States’ refusal to properly address the psychological, physical and economic damage to the African American community that forcible enslavement of African peoples has created, conversations about the nature of white supremacy are suppressed even though the damage has left deep psychological wounds that manifest every day in our society.
In addressing these issues, the conversation about hegemony, power and empire can reach deeper levels of analysis. By interrogating these beauty standards, a larger accurate critical framework can be developed linking the multiple entwined systems of oppression and subjugation that influence the ways in which power dynamics and human relationships are conducted. Investigating these issues leads to more developed, critically conscious lens to better analyze the intersecting nature of multiple societal systems upon our physical bodies.