African American Beauty Myth

In conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement and a number of social and political movements in the mid-20th century, the United States was reinvented. In these changes, people challenged and questioned their perceptions of themselves and each other. As a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power movements saw a change in the public persona of black Americans. Actively trying to promote a more positive, less oppressed image of themselves black Americans, especially women, were no longer looking at others for validation. Going by numerous names and embedding numerous ideologies, the Black is Beautiful Movement sought to teach black women to love themselves again separate from the Eurocentric and majority white beauty they were supposed to strive for.

In later years, those studying this time period and African American women’s history focus on how these movements, Civil Rights and Black is Beautiful, of the 1960s-1970s changed black women and how these changes affect black women today. Periodization for this topic is important because it helps to focus on a continued trend and then the separation of white and black consumerism after the end of the Second World War. Recurring themes from the literature include identity; race, gender, and class. They also focus on public perception or public image and how it relates to both advertisement and the black community. Along with dealing with interracial and intra-racial issues. Literature on the subject covers a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, literature, and media. The types of media being looked at are publications and advertisements.

Interracial and intra-racial issues discussed in Ingrid Banks’ Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness work on problems dealt with inside and outside the black community.[i] Intra-racial issues are those felt within a group or race, such as African Americans, while interracial are problems that cross group or race boundaries, like the beauty myth. Banks, and others, used the example of a white elementary teacher reading Nappy Hair, a book to celebrate nappy hair, to her predominantly black and Latino students. One of the black student’s mother felt the book instead portrayed natural or nappy hair as derogatory. From this incident, and later others that deal with natural hair in public settings, Banks saw how issues were solved and discussed both inside and outside the black communities. Intra-racial issues include skin color; colorism in the black community had long been an issue, stemming from enslavement.[ii] The hierarchical nature depicted through skin color was an issue recognized in the Black is Beautiful movement. For many people and generations, skin tone and color or how light or dark a person was, determined the social treatment they would receive. Much of this was played out in the previous mentioned movements. Besides hair, skin tone was the next biggest intra-racial issue for the black community. Seen played out interracially by advertisements for skin bleaching and the public figures and the types of treatment they received compared to their darker companions.[iii] Interracial conflict with white beauty was a main focus of much of the literature. Starting from general works like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women to Susannah Walker’s Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women shows the range of focuses on the beauty myth and how it affected different races.

Public perception of black Americans changed depending on who was looking. From a black standpoint, how they looked, skin tone, hair, facial features, determined the response they would get. Public perception and identity related to each other because how African Americans wanted to show themselves may not have been the way they were received. For the question of how the “perception of blackness related to how race is constructed [in American] society and to racism” was a leading motive in Banks’ work.[iv] This was further discussed in ways that related to “Ain’t I a Beauty Queen” by Maxine Leeds Craig. Much of Craig’s work looked at the social and public section of black beauty and advertisements. From this source, she showed this through the use of political actions and how those were affected by class and the image black Americans placed forward. On the topic of advertisements, who was in control and make the advertisements also choose the message that it would send. Public spaces like beauty salons and advertisements, whether white or black owned depended on what was trying to be sold. Rooks looked at the life of Madame C. J. Walker and how her own business was in contradiction to the black image. By selling products that achieved the perpetrated ideal look she gave others the opportunity to achieve something.[v] The beauty shop for African Americans was a full experience and a place that taught them how to be black in America. Beauty Shop Politics by Tiffany M. Gill showed the relationship between these public spaces and the private conversations that lead to action. How African Americans identity themselves or what they want to be called was interracially discussed topic also during the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement. The correction from ‘colored’ and ‘negro’ to the preferred ‘black’ and ‘African American’ were community problems before they were public topics.

Those that dealt with issues of identity looked at how when writing about female black Americans, they are defined by race, gender, and class. The theme of race and gender were most heavily related to one another because of the experiences that came with being a black female compared to a black male. Authors were more likely to look at hair and develop intersection of race and gender that led to the double marginalization of women. Seen in Banks’, she looked at how scholars from other fields wrote about hair. Banks used sources from anthropology, sociology, and psychology to show the ways non-African hair was studied. In those the focus was more on the theoretical or symbolic meaning of hair first.[vi] When they wrote about African hair it was more on the relationship to Africa, grooming practices, and political identity. The ways in which the sources talked about hair was a focus not on beauty standards but the symbolism in hair when not used as a means to achieve beauty. Noliwe M. Rooks also focused on identity and the “relationship between ideologies of race and beauty conventions and identify the cultural contest within which African American women functioned…” in her work Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women.[vii] One of the few works that did involve class along with race and gender was Craig. Craig looked at the social context in which blackness, hair, was played out, “the ways in which African Americans contested and reshaped classed and gendered racial meaning.”[viii] Identity, race, gender, and class in the black sphere as portrayed by the authors show a greater focus on race and gender and those experiences instead of how class factored into them.

From reviews of these sources and works more of the topic themes of the works were first focused on the identity of African Americans. The initial focus on identity and define who they were as people before they looked at the ways in which they were defined by others. This was important to mention due to the need to define them first by their hair and how others saw them. African Americans own perception of blackness was heavily related to society and racism. Much of the problems they faced were due to social racism and the ways in which they tried to change from that narrative. In doing so they recreated their own images and identity to what they saw as themselves, this being the Black Power Movement and later the Black is Beautiful Movement. In making these movements African Americans were able to change the public and private narratives.

[i] Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 14.

[ii] Michelle C. Mason, “Hair Shame: Multi-generational Transmission of Internalized Racism in African American Women” (PhD diss., The Union Institution, 2002), 6-8.

[iii] Ibid., 45-46.

[iv]Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 3.

[v] Noliwe M. Rooks, Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 58.

[vi] Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 4-6.

[vii] Noliwe M. Rooks, Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 14-15.

[viii] Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) ,22.


Banks, Ingrid. Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness. New York: NYU Press, 2000.

Brown, Kimberly D. “The Battle for Black Beauty: Howard University’s Grooming Program for Women and African-American Activism in Redefining Aesthetic Ideology Through Pageants Since 1925.” PhD diss., Howard University, 2013.

Craig, Maxine Leeds. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gill, Tiffany M. Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry. Women in American History. Urbana: Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Mason, Aurielle C. “Hair Shame: Multi generational Transmission of Internalized Racism in African American Women.” Alliant International University, 2015.

Merritt-Ferguson, Michelle C. “The Evolution of African-American Haircare Since the 1920s.” PhD diss., The Union Institution, 2002.

Rooks, Noliwe M. 1996. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Walker, Susannah. 2007. Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.