Written by Sakura Koner, edited by Kenzie O’Day
“We live in a world that asks Black femmes, girls, and women to shrink, alter, and bend themselves in order to be given a modicum of support. Athletes such as Michael Phelps are lauded for a body that has been said to give him a ‘competitive edge.’ But Serena’s muscular physique remains an issue in the media’s lens.”
– Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, PhD
Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder is a defunct saying, for the beheld is pressured to be what the beholder desires. Throughout history, women have been subjected to various beauty standards. From the times of the corset to the push-up bra, the female body has been an object of scrutiny and modification. With fashion for women changing at a startling rate, desirability quotients for certain body types over others have been modified. From a woman’s hairdo to her shoes, everything has been judged against societal norms and standards. Extreme measures to conform to beauty standards exist across all cultures: foot binding, neck elongation, and muscular paralysis (aka botox), are just some examples amongst thousands of similar practices.
The American idea of beauty is largely centred around White femininity, representing a clear preference for Caucasian features over other ethnicities. This enforces a unique beauty standard on Black women. The commercialization of beauty (and thus, a Eurocentric preference) has flooded the market with beauty products that encourage Black women to change their appearances to conform to ‘mainstream’ beauty standards. Hair straightening and smoothing products, coupled with the lack of foundation and make-up products that match Black skin tones, have driven Black women to modify their appearances and adapt to Eurocentric expectations.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said about relaxing her hair, “You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do”. For Black women, hair has always been politicised and a point of debate. Beauty standards tied to appearances and ethnicity have contributed to excessive racial discrimination, Black women with coiled hair are forced to compete with the general bias for naturally straight or wavy hair. The array of straightening products on the market are a testament to that. There are multiple records of Black women facing racial discrimination or uncomfortable enamour because of the way they wear their natural hair. Janine, a US Government Official said, “I have had white people touch my hair without my permission, and rarely some would ask. My response is to repeat their actions. I have also received stares and whispers from white and Black women. Many Black women have offered to braid or straighten my hair, called me nappy, or asked, ‘When is your next hair appointment?’ Overall, my hair is a science project or seen as unprofessional.”
In a survey conducted in 2016, Rudman and McLean measured Black men and women’s reactions to photographs of Black celebrities with natural hair and smooth hair. The survey revealed that overall, the participants preferred smooth hair, but the Black women expressed no preference. In 2016, another study conducted by health researchers showed that adolescent Black girls often avoided exercise that incited excessive sweating to avoid getting their straightened hair wet or “nappy”. They recognized that natural hair is preferred for working out, but it was less attractive compared to straightened hair. Furthermore, when shown pictures of celebrities with different hairstyles, the young girls showed bias for longer, straightened hair. These studies, especially ones involving younger Black women, reveal that the societal preference for straighter, smoother hair impels younger women to change their appearances, while fortifying the belief that their natural hair is not socially acceptable.
Sabrina Strings, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine and author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. She has credited the establishment of a racial hierarchy amid a dialogue surrounding the legality and morality of slavery, to the efforts of Francois Bernier, a French physician and traveller. Scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries built upon Bernier’s work and concluded that the ideal body type for White women should be slender, because African women’s bodies tend to be curvier, says Strings. Researchers at the time configured the slimmer bodies of White women as the ideal female figure – a general preference that has pervaded throughout the years.
In the modern world, under the White gaze, Black female bodies are often fetishized. Among the features commonly associated with Black women are large, round butts, curvy hips, and large breasts and noses, says Tiffany Barber, Ph.D., assistant professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware. Karen Balumbu-Bennett is a Long Beach, California-based licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, who is a first-generation Congolese American. She spoke about her work with an educator, who had changed her attire to avoid being sexualized by her preteen students and adult colleagues. In spite of dressing in a more modest style, she still felt penalised and isolated. She received inappropriate comments from male and female colleagues, such as: “Oh, girl, you have a nice body,” or, “I can’t get away with that, [but you can] because you’re curvy.”
In the U.S, fatphobia directed at Black women emerged during what was being referred to as an obesity epidemic in the 1990s. During this period, the discourse among many doctors centred on helping Americans that had become “too fat,” says Strings. But for all the panic around obesity among Black people — Black women, in particular — medicine failed to account for the factors that could be contributing to these systemic differences, such as genetics, environmental conditions, and the lack of fresh produce and healthy food options in some Black communities.
The weaponization of European beauty standards against Black women, does not in the least spare Black female athletes. Studies have shown that 24.2% of NCAA Division I female athletes and 30.7% of Division III female athletes were either very dissatisfied or mostly dissatisfied with their overall appearance; more than 60% of elite athletes reported pressure from coaches concerning body shape; and female athletes have become increasingly sexually objectified in the media.
When young Black women grow up with the constant subliminal messaging that their worth and status is based on their features, it promotes a feeling of discouragement and causes irreparable harm to their psyches. Media promotion of Eurocentric appearances and hypersexualization of Black bodies, encourages judgement and condescension. This leaves young people scarred and feeling helpless over features that cannot, and should not, have to be changed. Acceptance of people the way they are born is the best we can do as a society, so that no young Black girl ever feels unattractive or ashamed of her looks.
- Image taken from: https://stock.adobe.com/ca/images/do-not-define-black-women-s-beauty-by-european-standards-vector-quote/395946412?as_campaign=ftmigration2&as_channel=dpcft&as_campclass=brand&as_source=ft_web&as_camptype=acquisition&as_audience=users&as_content=closure_asset-detail-page
- Brown, D.L.E.C. (2021) The policing and punishment of black girl magic in sports, FirstAndPen.https://firstandpen.com/policing-punishment-of-black-girl-magic-in-sport/
- What is good hair? (2020) Perception Institute. https://perception.org/goodhair/whatisgoodhair/
- Allen, M. (2021) 22 corporate women share what wearing their natural hair to work means, Byrdie. Byrdie. https://www.byrdie.com/natural-hair-in-corporate-america
- Rudman, L. A., & McLean, M. C. (2016). The role of appearance stigma in implicit racial ingroup bias. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19(3), 374–393. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430215583152
- Woolford, S.J., Woolford-Hunt, C.J., Sami, A. et al. No sweat: African American adolescent girls’ opinions of hairstyle choices and physical activity. BMC Obes 3, 31 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40608-016-0111-7
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- Walk-Morris, T. (2021) Eurocentric beauty standards are ubiquitous – and they’re taking a toll on Black Women’s Mental Health, Shape. Shape. https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/mental-health/eurocentric-beauty-standards-black-women
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- Charles Malveaux, W. (no date) Black women in sport and the weaponization of beauty standards, Psychiatric Times. MJH Life Sciences. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/black-women-in-sport-and-the-weaponization-of-beauty-standards