Mar 11, 2023
In African American culture, the concept of beauty has a historical origin. Notably, the concept developed out of variation in the perception of beauty among black men and women due to the different images portrayed by whites and the subsequent exclusion of blacks from the mainstream media and cultural entities. Thus, due to social exclusion, black womens representation as beautiful was equally ignored, even though valued within the black community. Similarly, in order to meet the standards of appearance within the black community, make-up, hair styling, and clothing were also used. By the end of the 20 th century, the black press increased the visibility of black beauty through pageants and contests. This set forth the beauty culture and an important entrepreneurial vehicle for black-owned industries that lost the competitive edge to white own and large-scale industries. Understanding the current trend in the beauty industries and the link with black women call for evaluating the historical trends that set the pace for the current industrial trends. Specifically, the beauty industry business models are founded on the tenets of white supremacy, which in turn set the standards for beauty and beauty representation and contribute to the long history of oppression and marginalization.
The white supremacy ideology has influenced the transition in the concepts of beauty and beauty standards. Under the ideology of “black is beautiful” and “black doesn’t crack,” the beauty industry strived to capture this transition through marketing strategies to change and instill the white supremacy ideology (Baird, 2021). According to Inwood (2018), the social and political economy in the US is organized based on race, with white having psychological wages and privileges, resulting in a system that emphasizes white supremacy over other races. Thus, the white supremacy ideology has transitioned into a system of maintenance, which is rather invisible but with long-term impacts on minority groups. In the beauty industry, the introduction of cosmetics depicted the inclination toward whiteness. Rather, even after the isolation of black beauty, by the end of the 1890s, black beauty pageants organized by black communities strongly preferred women with lighter skin tones, which set a marketing opportunity for skin lightener (Craig, 2017). The inclination toward white skin tones attests to the proliferation of the white supremacy ideology, where whiteness is considered a standard for measuring and evaluating beauty. The dark skin and black hair contrasted the white ideals, hence the significant changes in the cosmetic and beauty industry.
Understanding black womens experience in the beauty industry requires understanding their lived experiences. In particular, exploring beauty and image also calls for an emphasis on understanding the role of race. Based on this premise, the black feminist theory holds that black American women are devalued on the basis of race and exposed to sexism, creating a unique lived experience distinct from other racial groups. Collins (1990, as cited in Wade et al., 2021) introduced the concept of a matrix of domination. Under this matrix, black womens experiences intersect with gender and race that do not occur in different spaces. Thus, in terms of beauty and body image, the matrix of oppression began during the slave era, when women were devalued, sexually assaulted, and used as breeders for the slave plantation (Awad et al., 2014). Hence, the loss of value and the attachment of negative connotations to African American women intersect with race and gender. In such a system, the matrix of oppression acts in favor of white and creates systems of black marginalization. Thus, the influence of white ideology and the black feminist theory provides a framework to dissect the business model adopted by the beauty industry and approaches to marketing, intending to promote the Eurocentric values of beauty.
The beauty industry reflects the common values and beliefs held in the past and today. In essence, due to the influence of the white supremacy ideology and the matrix of oppression, black womens beauty and image are devalued by the mainstream media. Notably, the current beauty standards place premium and value on long hair, blue eyes, and fair white skin as the basic measure of beauty(Awad et al., 2014). Thus, in efforts to embrace the black culture, and the unique beauty associated with blackness, Baird (2021) mentioned that by the end of the 1960s, the cultural movement of “black is beautiful” aimed at challenging the common belief and notions held in the beauty industry which was a reflection of the society. Thus, embracing the curled hair and dark skin formed the basis for accepting and embracing afro African values and norms.
However, black beauty has a different interpretation. In particular, within the media discourse, black is beautiful, but Golash-Boza (2011) argued that white is always the right way to be. In particular, even though embracing blackness as a cultural movement aims to contradict the whiteness standard of beauty, the cosmetic industry leveraged the same concepts to engage with black women. In this regard, the product lines and the cosmetic used in the beauty industry by black women were a reflection of whiteness (Baird, 2021). In this case, introducing skin whitening products and changes in hair styling were all emulations of whiteness. Thus, this supports the notion that black is beautiful, but white is always right. In essence, even though the blackness was beautiful, there was an added need to make such beauty more beautiful.
The white supremacy ideology also manifests in the commercial used by beauty industries. Specifically, the aspects of colorism, which is defined as the stratification based on skin tone, place values on white over black skin (Baird, 2021). In the past, skin color formed the basis for discrimination and segregation of people into social classes. Thus, African Americans occupied the lowest level of the social spectrum due to their skin tone. Similarly, in the age of beauty products, the classification of women based on skin tone further perpetuates discrimination. In the article Marketing Still Has a Colorism Problem by Mallick (2021), the author attests to the reality of colorism, and the discrimination of women, due to skin complexities. Notably, the exclusion of people with dark skin and people of color in the commercials by beauty industries is based on the premise that “black is not attractive.” Hence, the systemic occurrence of colorism within the beauty industry aligns with the old tenets of white supremacy, which has been linked with the marginalization and oppression of people of color.
The beauty industry is a tool of oppression that has filed to evolve with time. In essence, the business operation still adheres to the tenets of white supremacy and sustains the matrix of oppression. Precisely, even after the end of slavery and discriminative laws, the legacy of white supremacy has been held on by beauty industries (Baird, 2021). In this case, white is beautiful, and dark is not; white forms the core business operation for the beauty industry, driven by the need to meet the global demand for skin-whitening products. Thus, beauty standards are reverting to old age, with the language and marketing changing, but the products are as white as ever. Based on this realization, the matrix of oppression, sexism, and devaluing of women is still on a continuum and sustained by the beauty industry, which sustains oppression based on race and gender.
Beauty industries are multi-billion players with large market shares. In any capitalist system, the beauty industry is an important tool for understanding the matrix of oppression against African American women. Post the slave era and the increased rights and freedoms of African Americans; beauty industries have recognized the intersection of race and gender and how it oppresses black women but failed to address the underlying issues. Notably, sustaining the white supremacy ideology had seen the continued sale of “white beauty,” which had seen the growth of the beauty industry, even when the cultural movement emphasized black beauty. Hence, the relationship between beauty industries and black women depicts a complex system of oppression and manipulation and a trend that is yet to end, even with the creation of darker tones and the redefinition of beauty standards.
Awad, G. H., Norwood, C., Taylor, D. S., Martinez, M., McClain, S., Jones, B., Holman, A., & Chapman-Hilliard, C. (2014). Beauty and Body Image Concerns Among African American College Women. Journal of Black Psychology, 41(6), 540–564.https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798414550864
Baird, M. L. (2021). “Making Black More Beautiful”: Black Women and the Cosmetics Industry in the Post‐Civil Rights Era. Gender & History, 33(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/1468- 0424.12522
Craig, M. L. (2017). Black women and beauty culture in 20th-century America. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.433
Golash-Boza, T. M. (2011). Black Is Beautiful, or White Is Right? Yo Soy Negro, 143–169. https://doi.org/10.5744/florida/9780813035741.003.0006
Inwood, J. (2018). White supremacy, white counter-revolutionary politics, and the rise of Donald trump. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37(4), 579–596. https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654418789949
Mallick, M. (2021, May 20). Marketing still has a colorism problem. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/05/marketing-still-has-a-colorism-problem
Wade, J., Alexander, R., Giscombé, C. W., Keegan, D., Parker, S., Jackson, K., Gibbs, J., McElroy, A., & Ferguson, J. V. (2021). Using black feminist theory and methods to uncover best practices in health promotion programming. Qualitative Health Research, 32(3), 581–594. https://doi.org/10.1177/10497323211061108