They stare at us from the tops of skyscrapers, the sides of buses and bus stops. They entice us from behind boutique windows, pixilated TV sets, and the glossy pages of magazines. They smile, they pout, smoke cigarettes, drink beer, all the while holding their perfectly sculpted bodies poised just so. Our idols teach us to how to look, how to dress, and how to carry ourselves. But most importantly, these heavenly creatures teach us how to want. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” their heavy-lidded eyes tell us. “You can get the right product and look just like me.”
For centuries, people of African descent have struggled with the paradox of black beauty as reflected by a Western gaze. Historically, to many European observers, black hair was seen as too kinky and too short; black lips, thighs and behinds were too large; and, of course, black skin was, well, too black. Black looks were contrasted to a white ideal, and a simultaneous Western fascination and distaste for black features found expression in many ways, perhaps most tellingly in the 18th century exhibition in Europe of a Southern African “Hottentot Venus” whose physique was perceived as freakish and worthy of circus display.
In a world dominated by Western values, it’s no wonder that blacks themselves began to internalize white standards of beauty and to aspire to a European aesthetic. The battle for black beauty has been a long and protracted one, and through the ages black people have both responded to white expectations and struggled to define their own standards of beauty. And black women’s preoccupation with manipulating their appearance has fueled lucrative businesses and influenced social movements.
Madame C. J. Walker was the first African American entrepreneur to cash in on the particular beauty needs of black women. Born in 1867 to former slaves, Walker developed “Wonderful Hair Grower,” a hair care product for women who suffered from hair loss. The resourceful one-time domestic went on to create a hot comb that could soften and straighten black hair, a style that aspired to white hair texture but which soon took on its own uniquely black aesthetic.
Walker started by selling her inventions via mail order, but eventually her products became so popular that she built a nationwide, door-to-door distribution network to fill the demand. By 1914, Walker was a millionaire twice over, but more importantly she had taught African American women to reclaim a certain pride in how they looked, even if beautifying themselves had come to mean making themselves look as white as they could.
In her book Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models, former fashion model Barbara Summers traces the origins of African American beauty icons back to the turn of the century.
Three early figures, Summers argues, were the prototypes for African American images of beauty. “Madame C. J. Walker was the original black female entrepreneur, Josephine Baker was the entertainer diva, and Lena Horne is the very beautiful, but non-threatening, black woman who is strong and determined,” she says. It would be decades before a prototypical black beauty could sport dark skin or kinky hair.