Racialized Notions of Beauty in the 20th Century

Being proud and confident in blackness meant loving your skin tone, facial features, and hair texture. The transformation in beauty norms can be found in the advertisement trends during the 1960s-1970s. The importance of these trends is the acceptance in black Americans of their blackness and defying the beauty ideals that had been placed on them decades prior. Racialized beauty standards have negatively affected African American women, but action to stop and reverse this was seen in the Black is Beautiful movement and new interpretations of beauty. The beauty ideal for all women during the 1950s was geared towards straighter hair that was supposedly easier to manage and as similar to straight ‘white’ hair as possible. For African American women, these notions of beauty were to appear as much unlike their natural selves as possible to secure work, a partner, and distance themselves from racial issues that might make white people uncomfortable. At the same time the Civil Rights movement highlighted racist notions of beauty pushing women to defy them. “The Black is Beautiful” movement was born out of the idea that being black should be a celebrated in the mid-1970s. With a total of 197 advertisements in the published issues from 1957-1959 the total amount of advertisement dedicated to hair straighteners was 89 percent while only 8 percent were dedicated to natural hair products.[i] African American women’s image of beauty was defined by a racialized beauty standard that denied them as being beautiful, desirable, and less than.

Notions of beauty can also be called the beauty myth, coined by Naomi Wolf. Her book, The Beauty Myth, summarized what it means to be an idealized woman and its negative effects on women’s health and well-being by forcing an unobtainable idea on them.[ii] The ways in which the beauty myth affect each racial and ethnic group and person differs. Skin tone, body size, and hair are the most common features in many beauty ideals. Race, class, sexuality, and gender are equally important to discuss because they determine the level of change needed to appeal to the common beauty standard. For African American women, the ideal look changed between public and community standards, meaning what is popular in the media may not be the same in African American communities. Public persona and identity-making relate to each other in choosing how to present the self and who to appease in doing so. Advertisements and counter-culture movements are ways to see how competing ideas played out for African American women. Ebony magazine hair and beauty advertisements from 1960s-1970s mirrored those changes. The following paper looked at selected advertisements from three periods within the time frame to track the changes in representation. The case study focus on advertisement from 1960-1963, 1929-1971, and finally 1974-1979. The selected periods were meant to make it easier to see changes and control the original large twenty year period. Literature about racialized notions of beauty focus on the effects of these ideas on black women and within the black community. Ingrid Banks Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Back Women’s Consciousness discussed this through self-hatred of African American women. Black women had varied response to the act of self-hatred that stems from hair care.[iii] The experience of growing up and making changes to fit in, and how media can play a huge role in the personal image. The “relationship between ideologies of race and beauty conventions and identify the cultural contest within which African American women functions…” from Noliwe M. Rooks Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women show the connections between the hair and blackness for black women that is not present in other races.[iv] Gendered beauty norms were evident in advertisements from magazines like Ebony but the similarities and shared norms show the focus on certain aspects of what was achievable. Racialized issues could be separated into intra-racial and inter-racial. The difference being whether they were prevalent in the black communities only are a public issue.

The themes common in Ebony hair and beauty advertisements from 1960-1970 dealt with colorism, ideal beauty, racism, white beauty norms, and identity. The large range of themes had to do with the change of advertisements over time and the overlapping themes. Identity related to the sex, gender, sexuality, and race of the target customer for the advertisements along with how these were reflected in the ad. 1960-1963, the ads focused on skin bleachers and relaxers, products that straightened out the curl patter of African American hair so that it stayed straight longer. Themes connected to these ads included colorism, desirability, and ideal beauty. The Nadinola ad for the October 1960 issue titled “Look how men flock around,” had both colorism and desirable themes.[v] The desirability of the black woman was measured by how light the skin tone was. Colorism in the black community was a prevalent issues that existed for many centuries. By insinuation bleaches and lighteners would make the black woman more appealing was an example of colorism. Other skin beauty ads through the three years showed the better lives of the women after they started to bleach their skins. The issue of desirability was seen in the ad through only light skin women could draw the attention of men. The internalized racism within the black community meant there was already an ideal beauty that looked towards women with light skin as being the ideal. This racism within the own racial group was a product of slavery. Finally, the ad also shows sexism because it made the woman only seem interesting when light skin. Another way it shows this was by showing that only black women needed to have light skin tone. The ad did not show if the men had also participated in the beauty culture that called for light skin. Other selected ads mimicked that light skin was the way to a better life. The products not clearly labeled as bleaches but rather skin lighteners or brighteners were more focus on the maintained light skin. This was seen in ads for Posner Skintona that promoted “lighter, brighter, clearer skin” that seemed to say change in skin tone was only a side effect of the product and not its main purpose.[vi] Literary sources that showed connections to light skin tones included Aurielle C. Mason’s work that focused on the internalized racism in black communities. “Hair Shame: Multigenerational Transmission of Internalized Racism in African American Women” had sections discussing the range of internalized racism and colorism. The creation of identity and internalized racism made it difficult in determining worth and placement in society. One section of Mason’s work focused on attractiveness and colorism and in appearing more ‘white’.[vii] Skin bleach and relaxers were prominent ads in Ebony for years to follow even with the emergence of movements like the “Black Power” movement.

Within the African American community, these are issues that stem from colorism, texture prejudice, and body issues. While problems with body and physically representation are not unique to the black community, their version of it are. Colorism in the black community stems from the notion that those with lighter skin tones are treated better inside and outside the black community.  This, and many other issues, are continued scars from the generations of slavery and the placement of lighter-skinned slaves in the main house and darker-skinned slaves in the fields. Lighter and darker skin toned slaves in the fields are the main house.[viii] In the African American community, lighter skin tones were sought out and advertised in magazines like Ebony. These advertisements sell different types of bleaching creams or lightening lotions to give an even skin tone. Popular brands included Royal Crown, Apex, and Madam CJ Walker. The design of the advertisements only helped to further the image of lighter equals better. One advertisement for the product Bleach and Glow showed the positives of bleaching the skin.  Other types of colorism shown in the magazine were the skin tone of models used in the advertisements. The use of darker-skinned models did not grow until the Black Power movement, and even then, there was still a dominant presence of light skin models. The ideal versus the beauty norm in the black community are two different images. Outside of the black community, the idealized image of the black female had lighter skin and long, straight hair. This was opposite to the ideal from within the black community, after the Black is Beautiful movement that looked for more natural beauty and acceptance. The politicization of beauty, though, is also important to mention because the public image of African Americans were seen as political identifiers. The image of a Black Power couple or mother and child embracing their stylized natural beauty were viewed as statements to the public. Class systems within the black community determined the level of assimilation to the beauty norms. The importance of the image African Americans have of themselves helps to either show a positive or negative representation. The start of this change was the Civil Rights movement and the push for more black representation in public spaces, like the Miss America pageant. The types of issues that concern the African American community were separated into two groups. Ones that pertain just to the black community had a longer history in the community and tougher responses to it. Those outside of the community and dealing with inter-racial issues were the representation and the conversation around these issues. The political feelings in the era were driving forces to the need for change and how the change went along. The racialized notion of beauty before the Black is Beautiful movement was focused on the creation of a common beauty and the generalization of the image of beauty for all groups. These notions of beauty were greatly pushed with the advertisements in magazines that had a hand in creating the myth in the first place.

Into 1969-1971 advertisements still featured relaxers and skin bleaching. Posner’s Miracle Discovery Curlaxer in 1964 and Ultra Bleach and Glow in 1970 show the continued popularity of the products.[ix][x] The advertisements did not use the same language or messages as their old ads in the early part of the 1960s. The Posner ad showed the benefits of the product to last for long periods of time in any weather. While the Ultra Glow and Bleach ad focused more on the appearance of the skin rather than its tone. The popularity of these brands to least into the end and beginning of a new decade had to do with the continued belief in internalized racism. At the time though there were more ads for naturalized beauty too. The new ads that did appear in Ebony at this time were focused on Afrocentric messages. The emergence of new brands and changed messages of others were prevalent at the time. One brand in particular, Duke, was originally advertised mainly for men and as a style holder. Duke’s ad in the February 1970 issue focused on the popularized afro style and inclusion of women’s line from traditionally men’s products.[xi] The ads from this period also showed a greater focus of the language used. Growing Afrocentric trends extended to advertisements using mainstream terms like “sisters and brother” and introducing new ones as in numerous Afro Sheen ads. Afro Sheen hair ads in 1971 were heavily influenced and focused on Afrocentric ideas and presentations.[xii][xiii]  The advertisement compared with the Nadinola advertisement previously mentioned showed a change in the sexism of ads. Instead of trying to appeal to men and men being excluded from participating in the beauty culture, the Duke advertisements shows products for both men and women through a less sexist advertisement. This new focus on the advertisements and the models in the advertisement was to appeal to the consumers who associated with the “Black Power” movement. The movement was meant to show the beauty and greatness of African Americans along with a resurgence of Afrocentric messages. The companies that had changed their ads included Posner.[xiv] Stated previously, the company had ads for hair relaxers, but also ones that showed natural haired models. These advertisements were focused on the choice to style the hair in either relaxed or natural. The ads also showed a change in the type of model representing the natural hair products. The rise of darker skinned models during this time was in direct relationship to the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement and the call for more representation in media. The change of other companies during the ‘Black is Beautiful” was mentioned in Susannah Feeny Walker “For Appearances’ Sake: African American Women’s Commercial Beauty Culture from 1920 the 1970s” and how companies that were white owned but advertised in black publications changed their messages to reflect the changes in the black community.[xv] Thematic changes between the two selected time frames included a greater focus on Afrocentric images and a removal of colorism. The Afrocentric focus was best seen in the advertisements by Afro Sheen. This rise in the ads were reflections of the “Black Power” movement that wanted to push a positive image of African Americans in the public to combat racial stereotypes. One of these stereotypes was colorism. The internalized racism of colorism was not seen the ads from 1969-1971 because there was a conscious movement away from this. Instead the images focused on darker skin models who has natural hair. The inclusion of darker toned models and natural hair was also a political move. The afro hairstyle was symbol of political resistance and was popularized by members of the Black Panther Party. Another difference in the two periods was the reduction of products that focused on skin bleaching and relaxers. Though these products were still being advertised they were instead being presented as alternative options instead of the only one. This was seen in Ultra Bleach and Glow advertisement during the time that focused more on the ‘natural glow’ of clear, brighter skin and less on the lighter complexion achieved through the product. The appearance of these products still during this time though was a product of consumers feeling like they had the ability to choose what kind of look they wanted. Even if the consumer went to another product, there was more diversity within brands at the time also. Posner had two hair advertisements in the same published issue, where one was advertising a hair relaxer and the other was advertising a styling cream with a model with natural hair. Companies had found a way to sell their products while still reflecting the changing concerns of the consumers, who wanted only to be able to buy products the same as white Americans.[xvi]

Another factor in the advertisements were the companies behinds them. After the financial uplift brought on by the war, more and more African Americans were able to afford more expensive brands and buy more material items. This lead many white-owned brands to advertise towards black consumers.  Unsure how to do so, many advertised in ways that made the products seem black-owned instead of white-owned. Cross-racial ownership and buyers played into stereotypes of blacks in white spaces. The race of the advertisers is important for consumers because it lets them know the reason and motivation behind the products and the trustworthiness of the products. White-owned businesses and advertisers assumed that the black middle class would want to assimilate into the white middle class and would not acknowledge the racial interests between the two. Black middle class consumers were looking for products they could be loyal to and ones that stayed true to the product’s promised results. For beauty products that were sold, there was again a focus on lightening and glossy hair. The type of images shown in the public determined the public image of black Americans during this time. Public persona and identity-making are important aspects of the black experience in America. The images that African Americans had to look towards did not focus on them, but instead what they should be.

The last sections of ads from Ebony were from 1974-1979. The end of this decade saw a rapid change in the advertisements. There was more diversity in the models being used and an expansion of the Afrocentric image into products that were not beauty or hair. Modern brands like Avon, Palmer, and Maybelline started to appear. The emergence of these products competed with the older, trusted products on a small scale in the beginning. The majority popular product were able to stay in their positions for some time though. Other new products also focused more on the care and well-being of the hair and scalp instead of natural or relaxed. The emergence of hair and scalp treatments is important because it means that there was a conscious decision to keep the hair healthy. Also during this time the number of issues that advertised for both relaxed and natural hair products had risen. Along with this the percentage of natural hair products had risen to almost equal the percentage of relaxers or products that featured straightened hair. This change in advertisements overall is important for multiple reasons. It meant that the magazine was changing its image, consumers either waned new products or more options, and that companies were willing to produce new products. Even with the emergence of new brands, some were still popular but had changed their image to reflect the times. Ultra Bleach and Glow’s advertisement for the June 1975 issue was more focused on correction of dark spots than full coverage skin tone change. The ad also featured a dark skin model with references to the Afrocentric movement seen in previous ads.[xvii] The change in representation of the advertisement through the three selected time periods shows how the product was popular, either due to internalized colorist ideas or the product worked well, also how the images used in the ad had changed according to the popularized image. Another product change was from Vigoro Hair Relaxer in March 1978.[xviii] The advertisement from this issue featured a dark skin model holding the product and a hot comb. This advertisement had some reflection to the earlier Nadinola ad in the early 1960s and Duke ad form the early 1970. It reflects these ads from the positioning of the female model compared to the male one and the inclusion of the mail model. The last advertisement to be discussed is a cosmetic ad from Dark and Lovely. The advertisement appears in the issue between the Ultra Bleach and Glow and Vigoro Hair Relaxer. The relatively new product shows two separate advertisement that have two dark skin models, where one had natural hair and the other either relaxed or straightened hair.[xix] The combination of these two images into an ad that offered a “beautiful way to care for your king of hair”. This ad most embodied the overall changes of advertisements at the time. There was more inclusion of different hair types and a greater focus on the health of the hair rather than what state it was in. Another phrase on the ad, “How to help make beautiful hair more beautiful” reflects this change also. The concentration of hair and scalp health was to promote hair acceptance. The themes of these ads were continued from the previous ads. Afrocentric themes along with distancing from internalized racism and colorism. The almost complete abandonment of ad that had obvious colorism messages was reflective of the “Black is Beautiful” movement and a change in the types of products. From this point there were some brands that did not completely disappear but their presentation in ads became smaller to make room for the emergence of newer products. The new products allowed for more choices for the consumer. The message had shifted from a forced beauty to one with more options so as not to feel forced and instead of the consumer wanted to use the product it was their choice and not because there were no other options.

Public persona and identity-making for African Americans were determined by the advertisements that were shown of them. The difference in advertisements before and after the “Black is Beautiful” movement shows the difference in importance. Before the movement, the focus was on products that could change the appearance. Afterword’s, there was a focus on naturalized or styled natural looks and a broader range of options to choose from. Even though there was focus on natural beauty, it was not the only option or a forced conversion, the focus was on acknowledging that black was beautiful as a whole and then choosing how to represent themselves based on that and not because it was the norm. A rise in natural products advertised 1977-1979 rose to 29 percent of products while straighteners dropped to 31 percent.[xx] This type of equalizing between the two products had to do with the ability to choose the image. The language used to describe black people and black hair in advertisements creates negative connotations for black skin and hair. These advertisements made it seem that they needed to be fixed or changed to matter in some way. This type of public representation did nothing but create negative images of African Americans. Again, from within the black community, forming their identity from outside of the public gaze was difficult. From the political pressures and changes, how a black woman wanted to represent herself was a statement. This type of issue was further discussed in the “Black is Beautiful” movement. The movement was centered on the uplift of black women socially and politically. The importance of the “Black is Beautiful” movement was to showcase the variety of black beauty not only to other African Americans but the public. Displays of black beauty and claiming it were seen in the advertisements after this time. Instead of showing the downfall, it was more of an uplift of beauty specifically when tied to African heritage. Advertisements published in Ebony magazine, show the more positive images of African Americans following the movement. Identity making during this time was about how much the advertisements and products affected the creation of the individual. The changing movements and ways to show black is beautiful meant a broader range of options for the individual to choose from.

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. The racialized notion of beauty before the Black is Beautiful movement was focused on the creation of a common beauty and the generalization of the image of beauty for all groups. It is that the image of beauty was one that not only encourage others but changed their perceptions of themselves.

[i] Michael Leslie, “Slow to Fade: Advertising in Ebony Magazine, 1957-1989.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 72, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 426.

[ii] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, (1st Perennial ed. NY: Perennial, 2002), 12-15.

[iii] Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness. (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 44.

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

[v] “Look how men flock around the girl with the clear, bright, Nadinola-light complexion”, (Ebony, October, 1960).

[vi] “A Truly Effective Anti-Ash Cream”, (Ebony, October 1963).

[vii] Aurielle C. Mason, “Hair Shame: Multigenerational Transmission of Internalized Racism in African American Women”, PhD diss., (Ann Arbor: Alliant International University, 2015). 40-43.

[viii] Aurielle C. Mason, “Hair Shame: Multigenerational Transmission of Internalized Racism in African American Women”, PhD diss., (Ann Arbor: Alliant International University, 2015). 8-9.

[ix] Posner’s Miracle Discovery Curlaxer, (Ebony, March 1964).

[x] Ultra Bleach and Glow, (Ebony, February, 1970).

[xi] “Sisters are different from brothers”, (Ebony, February, 1970).

[xii] “Kama mama, Kama binti”, (Ebony, August 1971).

[xiii] “Kama baba, Kama mwana”, (Ebony, September, 1971).

[xiv] Susannah Walker, Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 174-176.

[xv] Susannah Feeny Walker, “For Appearances’ Sake: African American Women’s Commercial Beauty Culture from 1920 to the 1970s”, PhD diss., (Pennsylvania: Carnegie Mellon University, 2001), 185-192.

[xvi] Susannah Walker, Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 171-172.

[xvii] “Spotted skin is for leopards…not pussycats like you”, (Ebony, June 1975).

[xviii] Vigorol Hair Relaxer and a Hot Comb!”, (Ebony, March 1978).

[xix] Dark and Lovely, (Ebony October 1977).

[xx] Michael Leslie, “Slow to Fade: Advertising in Ebony Magazine, 1957-1989.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 72, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 426.


Primary Sources

“A Truly Effective Anti-Ash Cream”. Ebony, October 1963.

Dark and Lovely. Ebony October 1977.

“Kama mama, Kama binti”. Ebony, August 1971.

“Kama baba, Kama mwana”. Ebony, September, 1971.

“Look how men flock around the girl with the clear, bright, Nadinola-light complexion”. Ebony, October, 1960.

Posner’s Miracle Discovery Curlaxer. Ebony, March 1964.

“Sisters are different from brothers”. Ebony, February, 1970.

Spotted skin is for leopards…not pussycats like you”. Ebony, June 1975.

Ultra Bleach and Glow. Ebony, February, 1970.

Vigorol Hair Relaxer and a Hot Comb!”. Ebony, March 1978.


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Davis, Angela. “Rhetoric Vs. Reality: Angela Davis Tells Why Black People Should Not Be Deceived By Words.” Ebony (July 1971): 114-120.

Davis, Angela Y. “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia.” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 37-45.

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Howard, Vicki. “At the Curve Exchange: Postwar Beauty Culture and Working Women at Llorens, David. “Natural Hair: New Symbol of Race Pride.” Ebony (December 1967): 139-144.

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