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Black Beauty

By Aïda Croal Pt II

With figures like Walker, Baker and Horne as models, and all but invisible to the larger American culture, for decades black women persisted in their battle for beautification. Armed with hot combs, relaxers, dyes and pomades, we straightened our posture and our hair, bleached our skin, and acted right. Then we waited for a sign, a glimpse of Lena, perhaps, or Dorothy Dandridge, some evidence that we were red-blooded, female, alive.

The rare instances of black celebrity did little to shake the intractable foothold of Western beauty standards. In fact, with their fair skin, treated hair, and classical good looks, the black women who did become fashion icons only reinforced those standards.

“There are a number of different pitfalls in each generation,” Summers asserts. “You knock something down in the ’30s and ’40s and there’s something else in the ’50s and ’60s. There is always going to be something.”

The radical Black Power movement with its cry of “black is beautiful” was a major turning point, liberating black women from the paradox of trying beautify themselves under a Western gaze. Angela Davis’s Afro and a new cultural outlook made it okay for us to embrace our natural hair, our thick lips, thighs and butts. Our only accessory was the Afro pick, and John H. Johnson’s Ebony Magazine and its Fashion Fair contributed to the growing visibility of black beauty. Suddenly black was reliably beautiful.

Now that images of black beauty had finally broken through, there remained one problem: there were no cosmetics to enhance or care for those looks. Left to make do with products designed for white skin – or cheaply made makeup in darker but garish shades – black models and entertainers suffered at a disadvantage.

Frustrated with the lack of adequate beauty products after a decade in the fashion industry, supermodel Iman recently launched her own, self-titled line of cosmetics. Somalia-born Iman was “discovered” by the fashion photographers in the late 1970’s (in one embellished tale, they saw her running gazelle-like across the Savannah plain). Long and lean as the white models, Iman’s dark complexion and African beauty came as a revelation to the world of high fashion.

“For too long, women of color were an invisible consumer,” her website’s manifesto reads. “No more.” Based on Iman's extensive professional experience, the product formulas were developed with the vast array of skin tones and types characteristic of so-called “ethnic” women.

"I believe that women of color are the women of the world,” Iman asserts. “Native American, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, African and Middle Eastern. These women live right here in this country. It's time to address the concerns of this "invisible" consumer because today's minorities are tomorrow's majority."

Her message resonates with today’s ethnically diverse beauty images – which include models much darker-skinned than Iman herself, such as Sudanese sensation Alek Wek. But while a lot has changed, much has stayed the same in the world of fashion.

“The industry is all about marketing,” says fashion stylist Lisa Mosko. “What’s cool about it is that it’s truly multiethnic. From the bookers to the stylists, everybody is from every race. But when it comes to doing a fashion shoot, they know their market. In high end fashion, the market is a white and upper, upper crust [consumer], so they choose someone who they think is going to sell the clothes to those people. Usually, it’s a tall, skinny, blonde girl that reminds you of Grace Kelly or Kate Moss.”

“It’s a much more specific choice to use a black model. It’s a creative decision. For example, they might choose to shoot Alek Wek because the clothes are white and will look great against her dark skin.”

Copyright Africana.com All rights reserved. Reprinted at www.beautyworlds.com with permission.

Beauty Worlds.com recommends the following books on African-American beauty issues with
www.amazon.com
 

Skin Deep : Inside the World of Black Fashion Models

 

Black and Beautiful : How Women of Color Changed the Fashion Industry

 

On Her Own Ground : The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker

 

Hair Matters : Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciousness

 

 

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