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Black Beauty

By Aïda Croal

They 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.

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.”

French fashion photographer Thierry Le Goues illustrates her point. In his 1998 book of photography, Soul, Le Goues covers his nude black models from head to toe in black greasepaint and then photographs them in a white space. The result is provocative, striking and, yes, beautiful.

“I always loved to photograph black models,” Le Goues is quoted as saying in the introduction to his book. “I just got better results with my technique and lighting. It’s not a sexual dimension at all. [Black] bodies are more sculptural. The shape of the ass and the curvature of the spine is very dramatic; the carriage is different, stronger than the white body. The book is a reaction to never being able to book black girls when I do fashion shoots. Soul is an homage to my medium, which is the models who are my inspiration.”

And who wouldn’t be inspired by the nude figures of Naomi Campbell, Iman, Kiara, Karen Alexander or Alek Wek whose sleek, black bodies carve out the white spaces of Soul’s pages like ancient Egyptian sculptures?

Even though America’s visual culture has been slow to change, in the past several years, leaps and bounds have been made. This shift is largely due to the rise of hip hop.

“It’s interesting to see how hip hop and fashion have become intertwined,” Mosko remarks. “A couple of years ago, Vogue did a spread featuring Puff Daddy and Kate Moss. Foxy Brown was the special guest at the last Calvin Klein show and Lauryn Hill was on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. African Americans are gaining access to fashion through hip hop. And fashion is using hip hop artists to sell their products.”

From the high end to popular fashions, hip hop culture has also been aggressively mined for its aesthetic innovations. Think of Tommy Hilfiger et al. Last season, Christian Dior’s show shamelessly borrowed from Lauryn Hill’s aesthetic in her “Everything is Everything” video. And not only was the clothing imitative, but the models, most of whom were white, all walked the runway in faux dreadlocks – a bit of cultural appropriation that harks back to white America’s flirtation with cornrows, as seen on Bo Derek in the 1979 movie 10.

In days of old, each culture had its own standard of beauty, and both men and women begged, borrowed or stole just to meet it. But in this relatively new (one-size-fits-all) order, we’re not just trying to get along, we’re all trying to look like each other too. Perhaps it is enough that images of black beauty continue to push at the norm. Perhaps it is enough that black women’s cosmetic needs are now catered to.

If Madame C. J. Walker were alive today she would be overwhelmed by the plethora of companies now selling black beauty products. Perhaps she might jump back into the fray. Or perhaps she’d simply kick up her feet, thumb through a magazine and smile.

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Photo: Portrait of Alek Wek by Wilfred Tenaillon/Corbis Home Print Version