Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 19

159

Race, beauty, and the tangled knot of


a guilty pleasure

Maxine Leeds Craig California State University, East Bay

Feminist Theory
Copyright 2006
SAGE Publications
(London,
Thousand Oaks, CA
and New Delhi)
vol. 7(2): 159177.
14647001
DOI: 10.1177/1464700106064414
http://fty.sagepub.com

Abstract Recent feminist theory has attempted to bring considerations


of womens agency into analyses of the meaning and consequence of
beauty norms in womens lives. This article argues that these works
have often been limited by their use of individualist frameworks or by
their neglect of considerations of race and class. In this article I draw
upon examples of African-American utilization of beauty discourse and
practices in collective efforts to resist racism. I argue that there is no
singular beauty standard enforced by a unified male gaze. Instead, we
should conceive of fields in which differently located individuals and
groups invest in and promote particular ways of seeing beauty,
producing both penalties and pleasures in womens lives.
keywords African-Americans, beauty, class, racial rearticulation,
racism, representation

In 1968 inside the convention centre in Atlantic City, fifty women


competed to be crowned Miss America. On the boardwalk outside of the
hall, another group of women dumped bras, girdles, and false eyelashes
into a trash bin to protest the degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol
(Morgan, 1970: 5856). The Womens Liberation protest at the Miss
America pageant attracted extensive news coverage and brought the second
wave of the feminist movement into the awareness of a broader public.
Many women appreciated the demonstration, which, regardless of its use
of theatrical techniques, took seriously the ways in which beauty standards
were oppressive to women. For others, the demonstration suggested that
the womens movement was out of touch with womens ambivalence
regarding beauty. The protesters did not seem to see that, despite the
coercive pressures of beauty standards, women derive pleasure from
beauty. The meaning of beauty in womens lives continues to be a problem
for feminist theory. Feminist scholarship remains caught between two
competing analyses of beauty. One frames beauty as part of a structure of
oppression. The other describes beauty as a potentially pleasurable instrument of female agency. Perhaps feminist theory remains stalled in this
dichotomy because it has been asking the wrong questions about beauty.
Michel Foucault raised new questions about the guilty pleasures of sex

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

FT

160

Feminist Theory 7(2)


when he theorized sex as a product of disciplinary institutions and knowledge regimes. He encouraged his readers to ask of any specific discourse
on sex . . . appearing historically and in specific places . . . what were the
most immediate, the most local power relations at work (Foucault, 1990:
97). This paper examines several specific instances of the deployment of
beauty. It asks which women claimed beauty for themselves, who
proclaimed the beauty of others, and what was at stake when beauty was
claimed. As I explore the deployment of beauty, I will put race at the centre
of my analysis. I do this with the understanding that race is co-constructed
with gender and class. Thus, to write accurately about race, I also write
about gender and class.
The difficulty of theorizing beauty is that any body which might
possibly be characterized as beautiful exists at a congested crossroads of
forces. Bodies provide us with a principal means of expression, yet our
bodies are read in ways that defy our intentions. We act on others
through our bodies, but nonetheless our bodies are the sites of the
embodiment of social controls. The body is the locus of our pleasures and
it is the vehicle through which we consume. Our bodies are the targets and
the subjects of advertisements. Our bodies mark us in ways that place us
in social categories and these categories may form the bases of political
solidarities. Each of these uses and meanings of the body can involve
beauty. The meeting of these diverse forces in our bodies confounds broad
generalizations we might make about the meaning of beauty in womens
lives.
I suggest that we look at beauty as a gendered, racialized, and contested
symbolic resource. Since beauty is contested, at any given moment there
will be multiple standards of beauty in circulation. By thinking about
competing beauty standards and their uses by men and women in particular social locations, we can ask about the local power relations at work in
discourses and practices of beauty and examine the penalties or pleasures
they produce. If we take this approach, oppression and the production of
pleasure, domination and resistance no longer exclude each other. Our
dichotomies will collapse.
My analysis builds on decades of feminist theorizing and feminist
activism relating to beauty. The first section of this paper explores the place
of race in feminist work on beauty. The second and third sections consider
how recent feminist analyses of beauty have attempted to complicate
earlier feminist theory by bringing womens experiences of pleasure into
the analysis. In the fourth and fifth sections I bring these two bodies of
work together by thinking about African-American experiences of the
interconnections of race, class, gender and beauty.

Race and studies of beauty


Discourses of race and beauty are often intertwined. Racist ideologies
commonly promote the appearance of the dominant group against the
purported ugliness of a subordinate group. When, in his Notes on the State
of Virginia Thomas Jefferson sought to defend a continued separation of

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


the races, he pointed to what he considered the self-evident beauty of
whites (Jefferson, 1975: 187). Likewise, Nazis used assertions of superior
Aryan beauty to build anti-Semitism (Mosse, 1985: 139).
Claims of beauty have also been central to anti-racist resistance. When
Marcus Garvey built a mass African-American movement in the early 20th
century, he implored black people to take down the pictures of white
women from your walls. Elevate your own women to that place of honor
(Garvey, 1968: 29). In Garveys nationalist rhetoric, racial pride began with
an appreciation of the beauty of black women.
Despite the close connections between discourses of beauty and racial
politics, race has often been left out of feminist analyses of beauty. If we
take the 1968 Miss America pageant protest as a historical beginning point
for second wave feminist activist critiques of beauty regimes in the United
States, we can see that an analysis of the interpenetration of racism and
beauty regimes was present at the beginning. The organizers of the 1968
Miss America contest protest decried the racial exclusivity of the pageant,
noting that there had never been a black finalist nor a single Puerto Rican,
Alaskan, Hawaiian or Mexican-American winner (Morgan, 1970: 586).
Though early activists found and critiqued racism and sexism in institutions of beauty, an analysis of race escaped some of the most widely read
academic feminist writing on beauty that followed.
This section traces the presence, absence and reappearance of race in
feminist theories of beauty. My account cannot be strictly chronological,
as in some cases early writers and activists had greater sensitivity to issues
of race than writers who followed them. In this narrative, I organize the
works considered into those that are foundational, those that engaged in a
project of specifying differences in womens experiences of beauty, and
those that complicated existing theory by addressing questions of agency.
Given the wealth of feminist writing relating to beauty, this survey is
necessarily incomplete and will inevitably omit important work. Works are
included here because they articulate central tendencies within the
literature.
Lois Banners 1983 American Beauty laid important historical groundwork for subsequent feminist scholarship on beauty. By chronicling the
transformation of beauty standards in the United States, Banner demonstrated the constructed and historically specific character of ideals of
beauty. As written by Banner, however, beautys American history is a
white womens history. Joan Jacobs Brumbergs study of decades of young
womens diaries documents the way that the expansion of marketing to
young women increased womens self-consciousness regarding their
bodies. Given that women who have enjoyed certain privileges are more
likely to keep diaries and have them collected by archives, the experience
documented in Brumbergs study was primarily that lived by white
middle- and upper-class women. Nonetheless, Brumbergs 1997 The Body
Project importantly challenged the common assumption that young
women have always been anxious about the appearance of their bodies.
Young womens diaries written in the 19th century were less focused on
outer beauty. As the reach of marketing increased throughout the 20th

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

161

162

Feminist Theory 7(2)


century, young women were more likely to write about their bodies in their
diaries and more frequently expressed dissatisfaction with their shapes
and weight.
Published in the 1980s, essays by Iris Marion Young and Sandra Lee
Bartky were also foundational.1 Young and Bartky articulated feminist
analyses of womens beauty work as a disciplinary practice policed by the
force of a coercive and pervasive male gaze. These works were indispensable for later feminist writing and practice relating to beauty, yet the
woman who was their subject was a racially unmarked, implicitly heterosexual woman of an unspecified class. In Youngs essay Throwing Like a
Girl, the essence of the female experience is a physical passivity caused
by the ever-present possibility that one will be gazed upon as a mere body,
as shape and flesh that presents itself as the potential object of another
subjects intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention (Young, 1980: 154). Women take up the view
of themselves as things looked at and acted upon, and use cosmetics,
diets, and other disciplinary practices in attempts to craft themselves into
more beautiful things (Young, 1980: 148). In this argument, a woman sees
herself as men see her, and the embodied actions a woman takes are
usurped by male intentions. She acts upon herself to realize the will of a
generalized male gaze.
From the present vantage point, Youngs argument appears not incorrect
but incomplete. Youngs essay vividly describes and explains the selfconsciousness regarding appearance that male domination imposes on
women. Whether measured by the grossly disproportionate amounts of
money spent by women on beauty care or the higher rates of eating
disorders and cosmetic surgery use among women, it is clear that women,
as a group, work to change their appearance more than men do. The
feelings of inadequacy produced by the presence of beauty standards in
womens lives are, arguably, among the most personal manifestations of
gender inequality in our lives.
That being said, the essential woman she describes is that racially
unmarked, implicitly heterosexual woman, of unspecified class.
Connected to no community, she stands alone under the male gaze. The
gazing male is similarly unspecified. What happens if we rethink the
argument, with the understanding that the woman under the gaze has a
race, a sexual identity, an age, abilities, and more or less wealth? Does she
still stand alone in relation to the gaze? Which techniques of transformation are available to her, which are impossible, and what are the meanings
of those techniques within her community? When, and if, she sees herself
through the eyes of a male, what is his race and how does his race affect
her assumptions about what he sees? Is he also the target of an objectifying gaze?
Sandra Lee Bartky similarly describes beauty work as a product of the
female self-surveillance that arises from the male gaze. Yet she describes
the beautifying woman as active rather than passive. According to Bartky,
women actively construct feminine selves, the only selves that patriarchal
regimes support, or risk the annihilation that awaits those who refuse

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


to embrace socially acceptable subjectivities (Bartky, 1988: 78). Bartkys
self-monitoring women, like Youngs, are generalized women who stand
alone. Each woman, because she is not envisioned as a member of any
social group based on race, class, age, sexuality, or ability, is equally alone,
and subject to a generalized male gaze.
Beginning in the 1980s, and continuing to the present, a sizeable group
of scholars has engaged in a project of specifying, in various ways, womens
experiences of beauty standards. These works document and analyse the
racism inherent in dominant beauty standards (Banet-Weiser, 1999; Banks,
2000; Bordo, 1993; Candelario, 2000; Chapkis, 1986; Craig, 2002; DuCille,
1996; Espiritu, 1997; Gilman, 1985; Hobson, 2003; Kaw, 2003; Lakoff and
Scherr, 1984; Peiss, 1998; Weitz, 2004). Focusing on the diverse and
particular ways that dominant beauty standards positioned white, black,
and Asian women, these scholars argue that beauty standards maintained
racial inequality as well as gender inequality. Much of this scholarship
addressed the polarized positions of black women and white women in
dominant beauty regimes. Dominant beauty standards that idealized fair
skin, small noses and lips, and long flowing hair defined black womens
dark skin colour, facial features, and tightly curled, short hair as ugly. In
many, but not all representations, black womens bodies were also stigmatized as hypersexual, a characterization that positioned black women as
the moral opposites of pure white women. The ordeal of Saartjie Baartman,
the black South African woman who was transported to London and Paris
in 1810 and exhibited barely clothed as an entertaining spectacle, is
emblematic of the abusive representation of black women as the hypersexual other (Gilman, 1985). Saartjie Baartman was dubbed the Hottentot
Venus, a name that identified her as a stigmatizing symbol of beauty for a
defamed group within a colonial context (Hobson, 2003). The exclusion of
non-white women, or their marginalization within representations of
beauty, supported the place of white women within beauty regimes. That
is, racists defined white and chaste beauty in opposition to the imputed
ugliness and hypersexuality of other, racially marked, groups of women
(Collins, 2004; hooks, 1992; Omolade, 1983).
Writers who have considered the position of contemporary non-white
women in beauty regimes have variously found categorical exclusion of
women of colour, appreciation of the beauty of women of colour to the
extent that they approached the appearance of whiteness, or the inclusion
of a changing spectrum of women of colour in the marginalized and
marked position of the exotic beauty. A shifting economic and geopolitical
context underlies these alternative and unstable positions of women of
colour in beauty regimes. Asian women were portrayed as monstrous in
19th-century caricatures drawn by whites engaged in nativist politics. In
later periods, when exclusionary immigration laws removed Asian workers
from competition with American workers, Asian women were represented
as exotic beauties (Espiritu, 1997). African-American women, who were
categorically excluded from representations of beauty prior to the Civil
Rights Movement, have, within the past forty years, along with the
emergence of a sizeable black middle class, gained inclusion in fashion

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

163

164

Feminist Theory 7(2)


industry and cinematic representations of beauty, albeit often in ways that
continue to mark them as exotic (DuCille, 1996).
Among these authors Susan Bordo provides the broadest theoretical
basis for understanding how beauty regimes locate women in specific
valued or devalued positions. She argues that representations of beauty
produce norms for women, against which the self continually measures,
judges, disciplines, and corrects itself (Bordo, 1993: 25). Her argument
was more than a restatement of that advanced by Bartky and Young,
because of Bordos sustained consideration of the ways that race matters
in womens experience of dominant beauty standards. Racism and sexism
intertwine in the form of a normalizing discourse that marks women of
colour as abnormal and thus flawed.

Guilty pleasures: complicating the analysis of beauty


The theorists considered to this point largely continue a line of thought
that can be traced to the feminist activism of the 1968 Miss America
protest. These writers have described the dominating force of a racist and
sexist beauty regime that disciplines and ranks women. The 1968 protesters asked women to join them in throwing their bras and girdles into
the freedom trash can. Decades later, their daughters and younger sisters
have replaced their mothers girdles with a succession of fitness regimes,
the disciplinary practices of a generation striving to have the toned bodies
demanded by the aesthetics of what has been called the post-feminist era.
Young black women can see black women occasionally win national
beauty contests. They can watch soft-pornographic images of black women
celebrated throughout popular culture in a post-Civil Rights Movement era
and aspire to the wealth, fame, and apparent freedom given to female hiphop stars who achieve the ideal hypersexual look. New images of beauty
have generated new disciplinary practices and new guilty pleasures. These
new images, disciplines, and pleasures have added complexity to the gap
between analyses of beauty as a component of a structure of oppression
and analyses of beauty as an instrument of female agency. Bordos work
challenged theorists who characterized beauty work as the exercise of
female agency and she indicated a way to bridge the gap. Bordo argued that
discoveries of agency in womens beauty practices tell us little (Bordo,
1993: 31). A disciplinary regime can shape our choices. It can tolerate and
even produce our pleasures.
Bordos argument, however, did not satisfy numerous writers who were
troubled by an analysis that implied that women were cultural dupes.
These writers took up the project of complicating feminist theory by
writing accounts that placed in the forefront womens subjective experiences of beauty and beauty work. Debra Gimlins 2002 Body Work is
characteristic of theory engaged in this project. Gimlin opens Body Work
by noting the domination versus pleasure dichotomy, and offers to write a
more complicated and sympathetic portrait of women who work to transform their bodies. I find it implausible, she argues, that the millions of
women who engage in body work blindly submit to such control or choose

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


to make their bodies physical manifestations of their own subordination.
Her work, in many ways, echoes the controversial stands taken by Kathy
Davis regarding plastic surgery (Davis, 1995). Both argue that women who
engage in body transformation do so to feel normal, rather than beautiful,
and both ask readers to interpret womens body work as identity work
rather than beautification. Davis and Gimlin both stand on the pleasure
side of the domination versus pleasure dichotomy because they view body
transformation as an expression of free will. Women who, these accounts
briefly note, are white, middle class, and heterosexual, use technologies of
beautification or normalization strategically. They know what they are
doing, they achieve some physical or psychological results, and they are
not dupes.
Ann J. Cahill addresses the problem of agency by distinguishing between
beauty as a thing produced and the process of beautification (Cahill, 2003).
In a case study of women preparing for a wedding, Cahill describes the
process of beautification as positive when it is engaged in by a group of
women who perform beauty work for a singular occasion. This suggests
that routine body work, especially when carried out in isolation, is a
conformist chore performed by women who view their un-worked bodies
as flawed. By contrast, occasional dressing-up, when done in the company
of other women, is creative play. While earlier scholars have noted the
pleasures of dressing-up and the camaraderie found in beauty parlours
(Bettie, 2003: 64; Candelario, 2000; Furman, 1997; Rooks, 1996: 5; Skeggs,
1997: 105), Cahills distinction between product and process is clarifying
and her attentiveness to collective practices is instructive.
Gimlin, Davis, and Cahill thus complicate analyses of beauty by bringing
in the experiences of women who derive various forms of personal satisfaction from body work. Dressing-up and making-up can be creative and
social activities. Through beauty work, some women win the privileges
that come with male patronage. Body work allows others to escape stigma.
Women who successfully engage in body work ironically win a momentary freedom to forget their bodies. I will argue, however, that by neglecting the social locations of their subjects, these authors produce incomplete
accounts of the experience of beauty in womens lives. The authors note
the white race, middle class, and heterosexuality of their subjects, but
proceed with their analyses as if these social characteristics did not matter.
They complicate analyses of beauty, but not enough.

Thicker complications: specifying the metaphor of negotiation


I place myself among the complicators, but will argue that we cannot
untangle the knots of womens engagement in the guilty pleasures of beauty
work without incorporating the lessons of theorists who have specified and
attended to the social locations of the women whose lives they study. The
word negotiation has had an increasing presence in scholarship that
attempts to explain womens experiences of beauty work (Banet-Weiser,
1999: 69; Davis, 2003: 84; Gimlin, 2002). Gimlin, for example, concludes
that women who perform body work are savvy cultural negotiators

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

165

166

Feminist Theory 7(2)


(Gimlin, 2002: 106). The appeal of the word arises from the activity it
implies. Negotiation provides an image, perhaps, of women successfully
traversing difficult terrain, negotiating beauty standards like drivers
rounding tight turns on mountain roadways. Yet the beauty standards
women negotiate are not fixed like the topography of mountains. They are,
instead, changeable configurations of discourse and practice. If we use the
metaphor of negotiation to describe womens beauty work, perhaps
labour/management contract negotiations provide a more apt image.
Contract negotiations take place in unstable fields of power shaped by
inequalities. Anyone who enters contract negotiations is stronger if she is
part of a collectivity. Many writers who use the negotiating image seem to
imagine, however, the lone woman driving around a tight corner. They
frame womens negotiations in individualistic terms and address the
oppression versus pleasure dichotomy from within a discourse of
autonomy and free choice. Writers who use an individualistic approach to
theorizing womens negotiations of beauty standards encourage readers to
think about women as they stand alone in relation to seemingly universal
beauty standards.2 For example, Gimlin observed women in exercise
classes and beauty shops and argues that through body work in these
collective spaces, women diminish the place of aesthetic concerns in their
lives. By exercising, women can remove the stigma of laziness associated
with fat bodies. By getting simpler haircuts than the ones suggested by their
haircutters, women resist the demands of beauty ideology (Gimlin, 2002:
47).
Women make choices when they engage in body work, but do their
choices constitute resistance? To answer the question we must begin with
a richer description of beauty ideology. Gimlins fieldwork suggests that
rather than a coherent and universal beauty ideology, women face a
complicated and contradictory set of expectations that are fragmented by
class. Middle-class white women are expected to appear thin, young, and
well-groomed while conforming to class-laden, moral expectations that
they be natural and unconcerned about their looks. In the context of such
contradictory demands, a womans refusal of a beauticians styling suggestion represents something more complicated than resistance. The evidence
presented in Gimlins study suggests that her subjects actively submitted
to racialized, class norms, defined in opposition to the marginalized femininities of poorer women or women of colour. White middle-class women
resist forms of femininity that are associated with poor women and women
of colour by adopting alternatives that are associated with the dominant
race and class.
Women negotiate a sense of self through beauty work and in relation to
beauty standards, but they do so as socially located women positioning
themselves in relation to socially located beauty standards. Beverley
Skeggs and Paula Black have made important contributions to feminist
understandings of beauty in work that is closely attentive to the role of
class in womens lives. In her study of white, working-class women, Skeggs
argues that these women manage their appearance through clothing and
cosmetics in order to shield themselves from the particular stigmas

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


attached to working-class femininity (Skeggs, 1997). Their tastes are cultivated and rehearsed through collective experiences, such as shopping
excursions with friends, whose similar class location burdens them with
similar vulnerabilities. Paula Black, in a study of white women in beauty
salons, develops the concept of appropriateness as a term that allows class,
age, ethnicity, sexuality to enter the discussion (Black, 2004: 51). She
shows women who use beauty practices to position themselves as classed
and racialized subjects of a particular age. Their use of beauty work is too
embedded within structures of inequality to be characterized as acts of
resistance or liberation. Skeggs and Blacks work recognizes that women
exist amid and contribute to reshaping multiple and changing beauty standards that are structured by, among other things, racial identity and class
location. In an environment of shifting and multiple standards, which are
linked to structures of inequality, it is impossible to declare easily a
womans victory over beauty standards merely because she refuses a
particular beauty practice.
Instead of a single standard of beauty, there are competing standards that
have distinct consequences and meanings in the lives of different women.
Though public figures and mass media may promote narrow definitions of
beauty, a variety of standards of beauty compete for dominance within
everyday life. Much of the scholarship that has specified the experiences
of non-white women in relation to beauty has considered these women
only in relation to dominant beauty ideals. Yet standards of beauty circulating within non-white communities have been neither monolithic nor
identical with dominant standards. They have taken shape in dialogue
with dominant standards, challenging some aspects of dominant ideals and
incorporating others.

Race, sex, and beauty: dominant and African-American


representations
In an analysis of cosmetic surgery undertaken to eliminate or diminish
racial characteristics, Kathy Davis wrote that the study of embodiment
involves examining the intersection of the persons experiences with
his/her body as well as the cultural meanings attached to the body and
body practices (Davis, 2003: 85). This section will consider the public
meanings of black bodies as a necessary preface to a discussion of AfricanAmerican deployments of beauty discourse and practices. I will begin by
discussing dominant representations of blacks, that is, representations
produced by or following the patterns of those produced by whites. Social
meanings of the black body are produced within what Gilman has
described as race and gender systems of representation (Gilman, 1999:
220). Sex, and its projection onto particular bodies, is at the core of the
interconnections between representations of race and representations of
gender.
In gendered systems of representation, women are defined by beauty.
Women who lack beauty are flawed as women. These gendered systems of
representation have arisen in the context of societies, structured in gender

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

167

168

Feminist Theory 7(2)


inequality and heterosexism, in which men have sought to control
womens sexuality. Beauty can be a basis of sexual appeal, yet within
gendered systems of representation, sexually active female beauties are
flawed beauties. The unmarried, virginal Miss America is a symbol that has
long served to embody and sustain the separation of beauty and sex.
Dominant racialized and gendered systems of representation placed
black women, in a variety of ways, outside of the beauty category. When
she was represented as the mammy figure, the black womans appearance
and bearing was the opposite of what was valorized in dominant standards
as beautiful. She was obese in a culture that favoured slenderness, darkskinned in a culture that favoured light skin, and servile in a culture in
which the beautiful had leisure. The love she supposedly received and
returned was the familial, rather than personal, love that exists between a
benevolent owners or employers family and its devoted nursemaid. The
image of the black nursemaid of white children has, for the most part,
passed from contemporary popular culture, yet the image continues to live
in contemporary cinematic and televised representations of the large,
maternal black woman who provides emotional support to white women.
She gives and receives the non-exclusive affection of female friendship.
She is the beautys friend, but is not the beauty.
Representations of hypersexual black women, which were related to but
distinct from the mammy figure, also excluded black women from being
considered beautiful. Black women were frequently depicted in caricatures
that emphasized large breasts (Gilman, 1999: 221) and buttocks (Hobson,
2003) in ways that signified sexuality of grotesque proportions. Even when
not represented as grotesque figures, black women, in historical and
contemporary popular representations, have nonetheless been portrayed as
hypersexual (Collins, 2004; hooks, 1992; Omolade, 1983). Thus, black
women were excluded from the beauty category on moral grounds. They
lacked the innocence of true beauties. Dominant systems of representation
have positioned the supposedly excessive bodies of black women outside
of emphasized femininity precisely by casting them as hyperfeminine. In
these hypersexual representations, black female bodies are the objects of
white repulsion and desire.
In her study of the cosmetics industry, Kathy Peiss documents the ways
that advertisers expanded the definition of beauty to include a range of
women who could be categorized as white (Peiss, 1998: 149). Advertisers
frequently described beauty in terms of types and sold make-up to Jewish,
southern European and Latin American women, who were represented as
embodying forms of exotic beauty. Through the 1950s, the mainstream
cosmetics industrys types of beauty did not expand widely enough to
include black women. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, African-American
demands for inclusion and growing corporate awareness of the profit to be
gained by marketing to black customers led to the inclusion of AfricanAmericans in fashion magazines (Haidarali, 2005). Since the 1960s, brownskinned models have appeared with increasing frequency in mainstream
magazines. The brown-skinned model Naomi Sims appeared on the cover
of the New York Times fashion supplement in 1967, Ladies Home Journal

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


in 1968, and in the same year was photographed by Irving Penn for
an interior article in Vogue. In 1969 British Vogue published Patrick
Lichfields photograph of Marsha Hunt, who appears nude except for arm
and ankle bands and her grand round Afro. This image conformed to an
emerging fashion industry pattern of featuring black models associated
with signifiers of the primitive, wildness, or exotica.
The exoticization of black women in dominant representations corresponds, to some degree, to popular portrayals of black men. In Youngs as
well as Bartkys work, women and men are in very different positions in
relation to the male gaze. Women are the self-conscious and vulnerable
objects of the gaze, men are the seers, whose power shields their bodies
from being the objects of anothers judgemental and eroticizing gaze. Yet
contemporary black men do not have the privilege of escaping the gaze.
Given the prevalence of residential segregation, media images of black
male bodies as sports figures, hip-hop stars, and menacing criminals have
exceptional power to define the broader public meaning of the black male
body. In these images, black men exist as ideal, erotic, and terrifying objects
under a white gaze. In this regard, contemporary black men have an experience that is characteristic of women; they are defined by their bodies. Like
black women in particular, black men are characterized in dominant representations as hypersexual and are the objects of white repulsion and desire
(Collins, 2004).3
Standards of beauty that circulated within African-American communities were never identical with beauty standards held by whites. For
example, while dominant standards position thin women as beauty ideals,
African-Americans have appreciated the beauty of heavier women
(Lovejoy, 2001). On the broadest level, black people have often valued,
loved, and respected each other, when whites found them worthless,
monstrous, or hypersexual. Nonetheless, numerous writers have documented the influence of white standards of beauty on the ways blacks
evaluated themselves. Scholars frequently cite African-American preferences for light skin colour and norms that required black women to
straighten their hair as evidence of Eurocentric tendencies within AfricanAmerican beauty standards (Collins, 2000: 8992; Hill, 2002). Yet the
African-American discourse of beauty has never been monolithic and has
changed over time (Craig, 2002). When I studied records of late 19th- and
early 20th-century African-American beauty contests, I found preferences
for light-skinned women alongside protests in favour of their dark-skinned
competitors. Straightening hair was a normative practice, but it was a
practice that was steadily criticized by advocates of racial pride. A general
consciousness of race and racism framed African-American discourses and
practices of beauty. Racism is, as George Mosse explains, a visually
centered ideology (Mosse, 1985: 134). When African-Americans celebrated the beauty of a light-skinned woman or a brown-skinned woman,
they did so with an awareness of the consequences of skin colour in a
society structured by racial inequality. When a black woman engaged in or
refused to engage in the beauty practice of hair straightening, she positioned herself in relation to the many white and black meanings of tightly

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

169

170

Feminist Theory 7(2)


curled hair. The meanings were shaped not only by aesthetic concerns,
but by black political projects.

Beauty and racial rearticulation


Against this background of meanings, I will look at the ways in which
African-American men and women engaged with beauty discourse and
practice. What local power relations were at work? How were AfricanAmerican beauty standards coercive, and what pleasures did they
produce? Michael Omi and Howard Winant have described a process of
racial rearticulation in which the meaning of racial categories is reconstituted through the recombination of familiar ideas and values in hitherto
unrecognized ways (Omi and Winant, 1994: 163). Racial rearticulation
proceeds through racial projects. African-American struggles against
racism have included efforts to recast cultural representations of the race.
Struggles over representation took the form of individual and collective
projects of racial rearticulation.
Black communities have always contained a small but influential
middle class whose history of engagement in racial projects is better
documented than that of the poor. Middle-class black women who simply
wished to present themselves in ways that would garner respect, and
middle-class political activists, deployed beauty discourse and practices
against a backdrop of white repulsion and desire. From the end of the
19th through the middle of the 20th century, the black middle class
proclaimed the beauty of black women in ways that simultaneously
proclaimed their virtue. In what Darlene Clark Hine has described as a
culture of dissemblance and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called a
politics of respectability, many black women fought characterizations of
hypersexuality by playing down the presence of sexuality altogether
(Hine, 1989; Higginbotham, 1993: 1415). In dominant gendered and
racialized systems of representation, true women were beautiful, white,
and pure. Middle-class blacks worked to claim similar positions of beauty
and purity for black women and thus restructure racial systems of representation. A 1904 book of portraits of African-American women was
typical of this sort of project. African-American artist John H. Adams, Jr.
published a book of ideal images of faces of Negro women. Underneath
each portrait, a caption described the subjects cultivated tastes (Gates,
1988: 1412). The caption under a portrait of Gussie noted that she was
a homemaker who wrote, played violin, and appreciated literature in her
free time. Middle-class black deployment of beauty discourse in this
period tried to expand the racialized and gendered structure of representation to include a limited number of cultivated black women. Adams
portrait of Gussie makes visible the importance of considering race and
class in attempts to understand the meaning of beauty in womens
lives. As a representation of beauty, Gussies image contributed to a
collective anti-racist project by claiming positions for black women that
they were denied in racist systems of representation. Yet by portraying
the beauty ideal as a cultivated, married, and leisured woman, Gussies

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


image left unchanged the continued stigmatization of the majority of
black women.
Without violin lessons or adequate leisure time, however, many poor and
working-class women, nonetheless, took up the racial project of beauty as
their own, in their own ways. In the early 20th century, many urban black
women whose race caused them to be excluded from or relegated to the
bottom rungs of most forms of employment became beauty entrepreneurs,
providing hair care services to other black women (Rooks, 1996). These
small businesses provided essential economic opportunities for black
women and their families and often were infused with a strivers ethic of
self-improvement. In these women-owned businesses, black women
obtained hairstyles that secured for them a measure of respect within their
own communities. Women who could not afford commercial treatments
turned to female relatives who used heated metal combs in the flames of a
kitchen stove to press and shape their hair. Numerous authors have
described the affection and friendship present in black womens home hair
care and beauty shops (Banks, 2000: 1303; Rooks, 1996). Black womens
hair care practices, which continue to include straightening techniques but
have expanded to include braids, dreadlocks, and the use of hair extensions,
remain accessible vehicles for black female entrepreneurship, sites of
camaraderie, and ways of producing a locally valued female appearance.
The record we have of early to mid-20th-century projects of racial rearticulation is largely that left behind by the middle classes. We can view
a small number of printed representations of beauty drawn by blacks from
the period. We can see the portraits of light-skinned African-American
beauties published in black newspapers. These records show that middleclass black men and women celebrated the beauty of black women but only
saw beauty in prosperous, desexualized, light-skinned women. In between
the lines of this record, there are glimpses of competing African-American
standards of beauty. Here and there it is possible to find a letter to the editor
that proclaims the beauty of dark skin. Black nationalist leaders of the
period often celebrated the beauty of African as opposed to European types
in their speeches and essays. This tension surfaced more frequently in the
mid-to-late 1960s with the emergence of the Black Power Movement, when
black activists of a new generation deployed beauty in the service of racial
rearticulation.
Prior to the 1960s, black women straightened their hair as part of good
grooming. Hair straightening was a beauty technique used by black women
as they made the transition from rural poverty to urban promise. Straightened and styled hair, shaped into immaculate styles, was worn as a symbol
of self-care and urban sophistication to claim the dignity that whites would
deny black women.4 It was an embodied project of upward mobility. The
meaning of straightened hair radically changed within black communities
in the early 1960s. African-Americans developed new techniques for
creating unstraightened hairstyles as the Afro emerged as a new symbol of
racial pride. Dichotomous questions about oppression versus autonomy are
too narrow to encompass the array of meanings of hair practices that
circulated within black communities.

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

171

172

Feminist Theory 7(2)


The first black women who wore the unstraightened hairstyles, which
later were known as naturals, or Afros, were women affiliated with the
Civil Rights Movement in social movement organizations or on historically
black college campuses. I interviewed Mary ONeal, who in 1960, as a
student at Howard University, was among the early group of black women
who stopped straightening their hair. She had entered Howard University
as a fashion-conscious young woman who followed the conventions for
black female grooming and straightened her hair. As a student she became
involved in civil rights activities, participated in demonstrations and
landed briefly in jail. ONeal became friends with a fellow campus activist,
Stokely Carmichael, who encouraged her to cut her hair and stop straightening it. He presented her with a new way of seeing her hair. In his view,
unstraightened hair was not the mark of a poorly groomed woman. Instead,
it was a symbol of racial pride. With his encouragement, she stopped
straightening her hair but quickly became the target of ridicule on campus.
ONeals refusal to straighten her hair was incomprehensible to most of her
peers. The sharp criticism she received was balanced by the praise given
by men she knew in the Civil Rights Movement, who told her that her
unstraightened hair made her more beautiful. Though activist men told her
she was beautiful, she wanted the support of other women. Mary ONeal
entreated another female student activist, Muriel Tillinghast, to stop
straightening her own hair so that she would not feel so alone. Tillinghast
recalled the day she got her first natural hairstyle.
There was a girl in SNCC [Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee] at that
time Stokelys girlfriend, whose hair was natural. I never really paid much
attention to it, but one day she came up to me and said, Muriel, dont get your
hair straightened anymore. I need somebody to be with me in this. And I said,
Well what are you in? What is the problem? She explained it to me. So when
I went to the hairdresser that day, after she washed my hair, I said, Dont press
my hair. And that just sent a boomerang around the hairdressing parlor.5

Black women who wore Afros used beauty practices (regular hair cuts,
raising the texture of the hair with Afro picks, employing products to add
lustre to the hairs surface) to conform to an emerging but hotly contested
beauty norm. The norms of beauty that circulated on the Howard
University campus in 1960 were not generalized norms enforced by a
generalized male gaze. Instead they were norms linked to class and racial
projects. The transformation of the meaning of black female unstraightened
hair was shaped by a broader black re-conceptualization of American black
identity as an ethnic identity with cultural connections to Africa. It was
also shaped by an emerging national and generational criticism of artifice
and a concurrent valorization of practices that were considered natural.
The comparatively privileged women at Howard University had more
leeway to experiment with unconventional styles than the majority of
black women. As college students, their social standing was relatively
secure. By wearing an unstraightened style, ONeal complied with new
beauty norms by resisting others. The meaning of her beauty work was
simultaneously an attempt to be beautiful according to the very local

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


standards held by some of the men around her and an expression of a
newly configured and politicized sense of racial identity.
In 1966, Ebony, a popular black magazine dedicated to representing
African-American achievement, printed what the editors probably
assumed would be an innocuous feature story entitled, Are Negro Girls
Getting Prettier? The article, illustrated with photographs of light-skinned
black women, represented Negro prettiness as a delightful product of a
better way of life. One reader agreed and penned a letter to the editors
explaining that more Negro girls are rising to the middle class and they
are therefore more beautiful. Other readers disagreed. A group of black
women picketed Ebonys headquarters to protest the Eurocentric standards
promoted by the article. One carried a sign that asked Are Negro Girls
Getting Whiter? This demonstration signalled a continued shift in AfricanAmerican deployments of beauty in projects of racial rearticulation.
A new generation of activists saw systems of representation as part of
the structure of racism. Their project quickly gained economical
expression in the phrase black is beautiful. Between 1960, when an
American black woman wearing unstraightened hair was an oddity, and
1968, Civil Rights and Black Power Movement activists transformed the
meaning of unstraightened hair. I interviewed women who had been
involved in or associated with civil rights activism in the United States as
youths regarding the feeling of wearing an Afro in the late 1960s. The
pleasure they described went beyond personal vanity. Unstraightened hair
signified the politicized racial pride of a stigmatized group. A woman
recalled the warm greeting she was given by a total stranger when she
walked out of a beauty shop wearing an Afro for the first time:
There was a place in Harlem called Black Rose. It was on 125th street. I heard
about it and took the subway up there and got off, went in, and cut my hair off.
And as I walked out, there was a little black man, on the sidewalk, and he said,
Sister youre looking good! I remember putting my head up and just . . . I was
shocked. But I mean literally he said it as soon as I stepped outside the beauty
parlor.6

Through body work, she engaged in the collective racial project of the
politics of representation. Her Afro made her beautiful under a specifically
African-American rather than generalized male gaze. The Afro was a sign
through which African-American women who shared similar political
orientations could recognize each other. One woman who wore an Afro in
the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s recalled an exhilarating feeling
of community among black women:
There was a part of it that felt so magical and so true and honest . . . There was
community in the beauty standard. It wasnt like it was one person who was
doing this. It was a whole community of people who were embracing these
standards. You could look around a room and see fifteen, twenty other women
with an Afro.7

Though the Afro produced feelings of unity, it could still function to rank
women. During the late 1960s, within black communities, women with
larger Afros frequently were seen as more beautiful than women with

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

173

174

Feminist Theory 7(2)


close-cropped hair. Larger Afros required longer hair, a conventional
feminine attribute. Gendered systems of representation, which require the
proliferation of sex differences, resurfaced within the newly rearticulated
public meaning of unstraightened black hair. The Afro existed at a
congested crossroads of forces. It provided black women with an accessible means of expressing identification with other black women and a way
of expressing a political orientation. The heightened political significance
of black womens hairstyles, however, made their bodies more subject to
public judgement. Though the style was purportedly a celebration of a
natural appearance, it did not equally value every black womans hair
texture.
Beauty is a resource used by collectivities and individuals to claim
worth, yet it is an unstable good, whose association with women and with
sex, and its dependence upon ever-changing systems of representation,
put its bearer at constant risk of seeing the value of her inherent beauty
or beauty work evaporate. If beauty is ever capital, it is a somewhat
stigmatized capital. It must appear unearned if it is to be authentic, as
opposed to purchased, beauty. Nonetheless it is a suspect form of capital
because it is unearned. It is bodily amid a culture that places the body
below the mind. Black women successfully claimed beauty, yet find themselves today celebrated for their sexuality. Claiming beauty was a risky yet
necessary strategy for black women, who as women and as blacks were
already seen primarily as bodies. Identified by and disparaged because of
their bodies, black women had to claim beauty or, to put it in terms used
by Sandra Lee Bartky, be annihilated. What we can learn through a close
look at instances of African-American deployment of beauty discourse and
practice is that there is no singular beauty standard enforced by a unified
male gaze. Instead, we should conceive of fields in which differently
located individuals and groups invest in and promote particular ways of
seeing beauty. We can ask who invests in which standards and why. We
can study instances when beauty standards align, producing beauty
hegemonies, and when they diverge and create space for the appreciation
of difference.

Notes
I thank Jessica Fields and the editors of this special issue for their helpful
comments on earlier versions of this article.
1. Naomi Wolfs 1992 The Beauty Myth brought feminist critiques of the place
of beauty in womens lives to a wider audience.
2. Cahill (2003: 43) similarly critiques the individualist orientation of much
of feminist theory on beauty. However in her work, the collectivity studied
is a single nuclear family. She does not extend the argument to consider
larger social bases of solidarity.
3. For an early 20th century example of the erotic objectification of black
men, see Hazel Carbys (1998: 4583) analysis of the use of Paul Robesons
body as a modernist symbol of ideal black masculinity.
4. In a study of contemporary US immigrants from the Dominican Republic,

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


Candelario (2000) describes hair straightening as an effort made by racially
ambiguous Dominican women to become white. Within the US racial
system, Dominican womens Spanish language and national origins opened
flexible possibilities for racial classification. Non-immigrant black women
in the United States cannot become white through using hair practices. My
argument is that by straightening their hair black women attempted to
re-position the race as a collectivity.
5. These accounts and quotations are drawn from the authors interviews with
Muriel Tillinghast and Mary ONeal in 1993 and 1994.
6. Author interview with Sala Steinbach, 1992.
7. Anonymous interview.

References
Banet-Weiser, S. (1999) The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Banks, I. (2000) Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Womens
Consciousness. New York: New York University Press.
Banner, L. (1983) American Beauty. New York: Knopf.
Bartky, S.L. (1988) Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of
Patriarchal Power, pp. 6186 in I. Diamond and L. Quinby (eds) Feminism
and Foucault. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Bettie, J. (2003) Women Without Class: Girls, Race and Identity. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Black, P. (2004) The Beauty Industry: Gender, Culture, Pleasure. New York:
Routledge.
Bordo, S. (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the
Body. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Brumberg, J.J. (1997) The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.
New York: Random House.
Cahill, A.J. (2003) Feminist Pleasure and Feminine Beautification, Hypatia
18(4): 4264.
Candelario, G. (2000) Hair Race-ing: Dominican Beauty Culture and Identity
Production, Meridians 1(1): 12856.
Carby, H. (1998) Race Men. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chapkis, W. (1986) Beauty Secrets. Boston: South End Press.
Collins, P.H. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and
the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edn. New York: Routledge.
Collins, P.H. (2004) Black Sexual Politics: African-Americans, Gender, and the
New Racism. New York: Routledge.
Craig, M.L. (2002) Aint I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the
Politics of Race. New York: Oxford University Press.
Davis, K. (1995) Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic
Surgery. New York: Routledge.
Davis, K. (2003) Surgical Passing: Or Why Michael Jacksons Nose Makes
Us Uneasy, Feminist Theory 4(1): 7393.
DuCille, A. (1996) Skin Trade. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Espiritu, Y.L. (1997) Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and
Love. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New
York: Vintage.

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

175

176

Feminist Theory 7(2)


Furman, F.K. (1997) At the Mirror: Older Women and Beauty Shop Culture.
New York: Routledge.
Garvey, A.J. (1968) Garvey and Garveyism. New York: Macmillan.
Gates, Jr., H.L. (1988) The Trope of a New Negro and the 1988 Reconstruction
of the Image of the Black, Representations 24: 29155.
Gilman, S. (1985) Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of
Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and
Literature, Critical Inquiry 12: 20438.
Gilman, S. (1999) Making the Body Beautiful. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.
Gimlin, D. (2002) Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Haidarali, L. (2005) Polishing Brown Diamonds: African-American Women,
Popular Magazines, and the Advent of Modeling in Early Postwar America,
Journal of Womens History 17(1): 1037.
Higginbotham, E.B. (1993) Righteous Discontent: The Womens Movement in
the Black Baptist Church, 18801920. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University
Press.
Hill, M.E. (2002) Skin Color and the Perception of Attractiveness among
African-Americans: Does Gender Make a Difference?, Social Psychology
Quarterly 65(1): 7791.
Hine, D.C. (1989) Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle
West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance, Signs 14(4):
91220.
Hobson, J. (2003) The Batty Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black
Female Body, Hypatia 18(4): 87105.
hooks, b. (1992) Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End
Press.
Jefferson, T. (1975) The Portable Thomas Jefferson. New York: Viking.
Kaw, E. (1993) Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian-American Women
and Cosmetic Surgery, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7(1): 7489.
Lakoff, R. and R. Scherr (1984) Face Value: The Politics of Beauty. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Lovejoy, M. (2001) Disturbances in the Social Body: Differences in Body
Image and Eating Problems among African-American and White Women,
Gender and Society 15(2): 23961.
Morgan, R. (1970) Sisterhood is Powerful. New York: Vintage.
Mosse, G.L. (1985) Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and
Sexual Norms in Modern Europe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Omi, M. and H. Winant (1994) Racial Formation in the United States, 2nd
edn. New York: Routledge.
Omolade, B. (1983) Hearts of Darkness, pp. 35067 in A. Snitow, C. Stansell
and S. Thompson (eds) Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. New
York: Monthly Review Press.
Peiss, K. (1998) Hope in a Jar: The Making of American Beauty Culture. New
York: Metropolitan Books.
Rooks, N. (1996) Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African-American
Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of Class and Gender. Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE.

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

Craig: Race, beauty, and guilty pleasure


Weitz, R. (2004) Rapunzels Daughters: What Womens Hair Tells Us About
Womens Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Wolf, N. (1992) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against
Women. New York: Doubleday.
Young, I.M. (1980) Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine
Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality, Human Studies 3: 13756.

Maxine Leeds Craig is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology and Social


Services Department at California State University, East Bay. She is the author
of Aint I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty and the Politics of Race
(Oxford University Press, 2002). She is currently writing a history of Miss
Bronze, a 1960s California beauty pageant for black women, and conducting a
study of contemporary womens fitness clubs.

Address: Sociology and Social Service Department, California State


University, East Bay, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd, Hayward, CA 94542, USA.
Email: maxine.craig@csueastbay.edu

Downloaded from fty.sagepub.com at UNIV OF MIAMI on October 29, 2015

177