The ever-changing ideals of beauty are a dominating force in society and the ways in which people perceive themselves and each other. Throughout history, societal conceptions of what is beautiful have changed and evolved. Today, with the media serving as the dominating force behind people’s perceptions of body image, social perceptions continually conform to the projected norms of the moment. Beauty is defined differently in every society, yet in the last half century, globalization has enabled Hollywood to set standards which are increasingly impacting the rest of the planet. A deconstruction of the Western conventions of beauty reveals the manufactured perceptions which are quickly spreading throughout all cultures of the world.
Black Beauty in the African American Experience
By Desi K. Robinson
The issue of race and beauty must first be examined through the crisis of publicly defined beauty. The debate on beauty should really be attributed to the frenetic, schizophrenic hailstorm that years of popular culture has created. Much of it comes down to good old-fashioned dollars and cents. It’s easy to speak of the evils of Eurocentric ‘white’ beauty. There is surely enough blame to hand out to the forefathers who indoctrinated blacks as three fifths of a human being. But even slavery was not solely driven by prejudice and dominance, but also by money. There is much exclusion in publicly defined beauty and a case can definitely be made for the appalling prejudice against the old, the fat, the ugly, and the unknown.
It is clear that a universal prototype of beauty has been defined as thin and symmetrical, for the most part. But the underlying, purposeful confusion and dual consciousness are what continue to drive the beauty market. There is so much more revealed to consumers in this day and age. Now more than ever, we are aware of how much of beauty and lifestyle in the media is enhanced by lights, make-up, smoke and mirrors, but we still aspire to it. Anorexia and bulimia were all taboos of the past; yet now, every other celebrity has had some bout with it and is an advocate for treatment. Cable has given us access to all the nips, tucks, stays in rehab, infidelities, attitudes and intelligence levels of the people we admire. So much of entertainment is questionable but remains a multi-billion dollar industry. In an era of Hollywood long ago, plastic surgery was a secret that died with the celebrity and her agent. Today, young girls are getting nose and boob jobs from the surgeons of the stars for graduation presents. Singers don’t actually sing and gangster rappers are not really gangsters. We revere the beauty of young girls and assume or impose onto them the sexual prowess and experience of an older woman who, ironically, is not as revered. We know and understand all of these inconsistencies and hypocrisies. It is the stuff of twenty years of Oprah. But why? This confusion and double standard that exist in our psyche are the monster that drives the industry. … We’re back to the dollars and cents.
Western society is a mechanism that is fueled by commerce and what better market to tap than one of superficial, emotionally wounded and increasingly low self-esteemed individuals who will always want bigger, better, faster, more beautiful lives? Why have a regular vacuum cleaner when you can have one with the motor of a jet ski? Why have a reliable car that will take you to and from work when you can take up three parking spaces with a Hummer? Why get engaged with a regular gold band when you can spend two month’s salary on a diamond you can see the future in?
Television shows like Extreme Make
and The Home Edition
, MTV’s Pimp My Ride
, Doctor 90210
and The Swan
, all bank on the fact that we continue to aspire to have better bodies, bigger houses, and faster cars. What would we sell, improve, pimp or make over if we were led to believe that we are good enough as we are? Continuing to fuel the hailstorm of inconsistencies, double-standards, and self-deprecation is to drive the business of commerce. The larger shame of it, is that more under-represented groups like blacks, Latinos, Asians, homosexuals, and people with disabilities get further lost in the mix because the standards of beauty and lifestyle are often different for them and are not as clearly defined.
There has always been a history of the mainstream banking on black culture. As early as the 1830’s, singing in Blackface (where white men would paint their faces black and imitate blacks) had been common on American stages and was just one form of the coarse humor that many racial and ethnic groups were subjected to at that time (although it was not considered racially offensive in the early 1900’s). The mainstream’s adoption of urban and black culture remains true today and still contributes to the grey areas of defined beauty. Tommy Hilfiger has made a killing as a designer with his sidewalk to catwalk fashion, even being mentioned in the lyrics of several hip hop songs. Urban language is now on the tongue of every metro hot chick, with Paris Hilton uttering the now famous “That’s hot,” which was heard on the streets months prior. The word “dis” will surely make its way into Webster’s dictionary in the years to come, and you’d have to have been living under a rock to not have heard “bling, bling”(a term which refers to the sound that your shiny “ice,” otherwise known as platinum jewelry, makes) in the last couple of years. In 1980, Bo Derrick sexily galloped across the sand in the movie 10
with strands of beaded braids that black woman had worn many moons before. Derrick popularized and made acceptable a style long thought of as tribal, a style now being paid for by droves of spring breakers on holiday at the beach. Tanning salons offer packages where you could pretty much pack a lunch and spend the weekend in a booth, and it is fair to say that the identifiable full lips and ample derriere of black ladies past and present are now textbook plastic surgery cases of collagen injections and Brazilian butt lifts. But who decides? Who decided that Jennifer Lopez’s booty was going to be the one to break the bank? The vehicle of ‘celebrity’ is driven by projecting a truly unobtainable image of beauty to a society that continually craves to somehow be different or better than what they are. Go to The Bronx. J. Lo booties are a dime a dozen. Always have been. But the mechanism of ‘celebrity’ as a vehicle to promote defined beauty dictates what will be popular today and tomorrow. It is one thing for blondes, brunettes and redheads to be a revolving trend but, lips, butts, and skin tone? Changing body structure is more extreme than picking up a box of I Love Lucy red #19 hair dye. What is a black girl with naturally full lips, hips and butt to do when her birth-given structure is no longer the trend?
It is still very recent history that defines Vanessa Williams as the first black Miss America (1984), Tyra Banks as the first black woman on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition
(1997) and Naomi Campbell as the first black woman on the cover of Cosmopolitan
magazine (1990). Halle Berry became only the fifth black woman by 2002 to appear on the cover of Cosmopolitan
since the magazine began using cover photographs in 1964. While women of every race are dealing with the larger animal of publicly defined beauty, the barometer can be further confusing for black girls who may or may not have ample backsides, now popular and acceptable, to feel they are beautiful if that trend subsides.
White sun worshipers are tanning themselves to a golden brown, but black girls in videos and popular television shows seem to mainly be represented as lighter skinned, more exotic-looking beauties with longer hair. More and more hair salons are catering to black women who have decided not to chemically straighten their hair in the same industry that has had an increase in long hair weaves and hair extensions for both black and white women.
Black girls and women are contending with what is expected or acceptable beauty for ‘them’ in tandem with BET (Black Entertainment Television), MTV, VH1, and society standards, knowing that their beauty exists, yet still hearing about the first representation of black beauty on this cover, that movie, or this show as epiphanal moments.
When you ask people their opinion about the images of beauty in the mainstream and the inclusion of minorities, many are very quick to negate what exists. It’s very politically correct to say, “oh she’s too skinny” or, “they should definitely have more black images of beauty in fashion.” But if not for our continued fascination to emulate and support what already exists, there would be no continued sales of music, concerts, films, DVDs, and fashion items.
We will always be a society that worships beauty. The problem is that publicly defined beauty is limited. The full range of it exists but is not often enough highlighted. We, of course, have images of black beauty from the hues of Sade to Grace Jones and the sizes of Halle Berry to comedian Monique and the tresses of Janet Jackson to the kinks of Macy Gray. But we must have honest dialogue about representations of all beauty to understand mainstream beauty as entertainment and nothing more. We fall into a dangerous trap if we do not, constantly trying to conform rather than experiment with beauty. We live in an age of special effects. Just as we watch the cinematic magic of film and know that ordinary humans cannot jump out of planes without parachutes and land on careening cars, we must accept that women are not flawless, hairless, perfectly fat and cellulite-free symmetrical beings. Perhaps we should journey toward more truthful education. The same way that we teach our children the concept of make believe, we also have to teach them, as well as ourselves, about the mechanism of fame and publicly defined beauty.