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Black Beauty

by Aïda Croal

Alex WekThey stare at us from the tops of skyscrapers, the sides of buses and bus stops. They entice us from behind boutique windows, pixilated TV sets, and the glossy pages of magazines. They smile, they pout, smoke cigarettes, drink beer, all the while holding their perfectly sculpted bodies poised just so. Our idols teach us to how to look, how to dress, and how to carry ourselves. But most importantly, these heavenly creatures teach us how to want. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” their heavy-lidded eyes tell us. “You can get the right product and look just like me.”

For centuries, people of African descent have struggled with the paradox of black beauty as reflected by a Western gaze. Historically, to many European observers, black hair was seen as too kinky and too short; black lips, thighs and behinds were too large; and, of course, black skin was, well, too black. Black looks were contrasted to a white ideal, and a simultaneous Western fascination and distaste for black features found expression in many ways, perhaps most tellingly in the 18th century exhibition in Europe of a Southern African “Hottentot Venus” whose physique was perceived as freakish and worthy of circus display.

In a world dominated by Western values, it’s no wonder that blacks themselves began to internalize white standards of beauty and to aspire to a European aesthetic. The battle for black beauty has been a long and protracted one, and through the ages black people have both responded to white expectations and struggled to define their own standards of beauty. And black women’s preoccupation with manipulating their appearance has fueled lucrative businesses and influenced social movements.

Madame C. J. Walker was the first African American entrepreneur to cash in on the particular beauty needs of black women. Born in 1867 to former slaves, Walker developed “Wonderful Hair Grower,” a hair care product for women who suffered from hair loss. The resourceful one-time domestic went on to create a hot comb that could soften and straighten black hair, a style that aspired to white hair texture but which soon took on its own uniquely black aesthetic.

Walker started by selling her inventions via mail order, but eventually her products became so popular that she built a nationwide, door-to-door distribution network to fill the demand. By 1914, Walker was a millionaire twice over, but more importantly she had taught African American women to reclaim a certain pride in how they looked, even if beautifying themselves had come to mean making themselves look as white as they could.

In her book Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models, former fashion model Barbara Summers traces the origins of African American beauty icons back to the turn of the century.

Three early figures, Summers argues, were the prototypes for African American images of beauty. “Madame C. J. Walker was the original black female entrepreneur, Josephine Baker was the entertainer diva, and Lena Horne is the very beautiful, but non-threatening, black woman who is strong and determined,” she says. It would be decades before a prototypical black beauty could sport dark skin or kinky hair.

Copyright All rights reserved. Reprinted at with permission.

Photo: Portrait of Alek Wek by Wilfred Tenaillon/Corbis

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Awakening BeautyAnthony Napoleon, the author of Awakening Beauty: An Illustrated Look at Mankind's Love and Hatred of Beauty, is a psychologist who has spent many years studying beauty and its impact upon both individuals and society. He has worked with both cosmetic surgery patients and beauty pageant contestants as well as conducting original research into the field. Awakening Beauty is an unprecedented exposé on the subject of beauty. It is both entertaining and thought provoking, a combination that is as unique as it is telling about the author's approach to the subject of this book. The reader is taken backstage into the worlds of beauty pageants, plastic surgery, trophy wives, murderous rage, wardrobe, makeup, Bill Clinton, the events of September Eleven and other provocative topics where beauty has had its effect. Awakening Beauty invites the reader into a world that is as interesting as it is frightening. Readers are transformed as the author shepherds them from their world into his unique perspective and expertise on beauty. Awakening Beauty includes over one hundred tantalizing photographs and illustrations. Awakening Beauty is a compendium of some of the most interesting facts in print. The subject matter of the book along with the author's unique approach to it makes this book a "must read." Get ready to re-think everything you thought you knew about beautiful women and physical attractiveness.

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