Pretty for a Black Girl
here is a beauty revolution going down and the admiral of the Rihanna Navy is marching in the vanguard. Pop chanteuse, style icon, and giver of no fucks, Rihanna launched her Fenty makeup brand in 2017 and upended the cosmetics game, creating a “Fenty effect” that pushed beauty brands to offer a wider range of makeup shades and blew open the door to independent Black beauty brands.1
“It changed everything,” says Patrice Grell Yursik, founder of Afrobella, a holistic beauty blog. “Now we get to see what happens when [Black women] are shifted to the center of the beauty perspective, rather than the margins.”2
Designed with the ethos “beauty for all,” the brand boasted forty different shades of foundation at launch, finally accommodating the breadth of Black skin tones, from alabaster to onyx.3
There, promoting the brand in the debut campaign, was Slick
Woods, bald-headed, juicy lips parted to reveal an imperfectly perfect wide-gapped smile; Halimah Aden, strutting in her hijab; and Leomie Anderson, hair brushing against impossibly smooth mahogany skin.4
Fenty included Black women and recognized their unique and diverse beauty like no other brand had before.
It’s about damned time.
When I began wearing makeup as a teen in the ’80s, finding the right shade was a trial. Inexpensive drugstore brands were clearly manufactured without me in mind—the deepest shade at Walgreens might accommodate a White girl with a slight tan but not my brown skin. Even the two Black department store brands, Flori Roberts and Fashion Fair, had very limited options. Nearly forty years later, Black model Nykhor Paul, who has walked the runway for Vivienne Westwood and others, was still complaining on Instagram about being ignored by the beauty industry: “Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the white girls don’t have to do anything but show up.”5
Naomi Wolf says in The Beauty Myth
that “today’s woman has become her ‘beauty.’”6
A certain amount of artifice has become a near imperative of walking in the world as a woman. A lash of color on the cheeks. The shaping of a brow. Makeup is a woman’s most common connection to beauty. And beauty is important in a society that unfairly values women based on their attractiveness to heterosexual men.
Bre Rivera used to wear makeup, though she doesn’t have a particular fondness for it and enjoys the feel of clean skin. “I understood that’s what women do.” As a trans woman, Bre saw makeup as a key part of survival, though she eventually gave up cosmetics, ironically, for her own safety.7
“[Makeup] allowed people not to see me as a trans person,” she says. “You go to the store; you look cute. Other people see that you look cute. And then that invites them to want to get to know you. I found myself getting into sticky situations where I would be out and about, someone would be interested, and then I would disclose [that I am trans] and they would be, like, super [mad].”
If beauty and womanhood are symbiotic, that a $50 billion cosmetic industry has historically ignored Black women is surely illustrative of who big brands believe get to be beautiful and get to be women. The Great Black Beauty Lie is one of myriad ways America gaslights Black women. It tells them they are ugly while colonizing bits of their aesthetic and calling it beauty, replacing Black women—even in their own communities’ presentations of desirable womanhood—with watered down facsimiles or sisters whose looks hew closest to the White ideal.
Never the Pretty One
Thirty-nine-year-old Heather Carper grew up in Kansas and learned at least one lesson very early: “Black girls were never the cute ones. You could be ‘cute for a Black girl,’ but you were never the pretty one.”8
To be an American woman of any race is to be judged against constantly changing and arbitrary measures of attractiveness. One decade, being waif thin is in; the next, it’s all about an ass with its own area code. Wake up one morning, and suddenly your lady parts “need” to be shaved smooth and your gapless thighs are all wrong. The beauty and fashion industries are dedicated to ensuring that women keep chasing an impossible ideal, like Botoxed hamsters running on the wheel of beauty standards.
But while expectations for how Western women should look have evolved over centuries, one thing has remained constant, and that is Black women’s place at the bottom of the hierarchy. In
1784, Thomas Jefferson praised the skin color, “flowing hair,” and “elegant symmetry of form” possessed by White people, writing that Black men prefer the comeliness of White women “as uniformly as is the preference of the [orangutan] for the Black women over those of his own species.”9
Stereotypes of Black women were designed in part to provide the antithesis to the inherent loveliness of White women, leaving other women of color to jockey for position between the poles of beauty.10
Old beliefs die hard. Hundreds of years later, in 2011, the London School of Economics evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa published a series of graphs and numbers at Psychology Today
, “proving” that Black women are “far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women.”11
Because … science.
Neither a Beast nor Fetish Be
The inferiority of Black beauty has been reinforced partly through popular culture. In allegedly liberal Hollywood, Black women are nearly invisible as romantic partners. American fashion catwalks were so White in the early 2010s that former model and activist Bethann Hardison formed the Diversity Coalition to challenge whitewashed runways and was moved to pen an open letter to the industry:
Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism. Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond “aesthetic” when it is consistent with the designer’s brand. Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.13
Since then, models of color have increased on New York Fashion Week (NYFW) catwalks. Nearly half of all models cast during the Big Apple’s spring 2020 fashion week were people of color—up from under 21 percent in spring 2015.14
But Black beauty is still marginalized, even within subcultures that pride themselves on subverting mainstream values, according to twenty-seven-year-old Black Witch,*
who is active in pagan, punk, and Lolita fashion communities. Lolita fashion originated in Japan and is inspired by frilly, Victorian-era dress—lots of petticoats and delicate fabrics. Black Witch says that many of her fellow community members see Lolita femininity as at odds with Black womanhood.
“They call us ugly. They say we look uncivilized in the clothes,” she says. “I once heard a person say, ‘I’m not racist, but that looks like an ape in a dress.’”15
Increasingly, Black women are even absent in our own culture’s illustrations of beauty.
“I don’t really watch music videos anymore, but I have noticed that White girls are the ‘it thing’ now,” says Liz Hurston,*
thirty-four. “When hip-hop first came out, you had your video girls that looked like Keisha from down the block, and then they just
started getting lighter and lighter. Eventually Black women were completely phased out and it was Latinas and biracial women. Now it’s White women. On one hand, thank God we’re no longer being objectified, but on the other hand, it’s kind of sad, because now our beauty doesn’t count at all.”16
Seeming to confirm Liz’s observation, in 2006 Kanye West told Essence
magazine, a publication for Black women, that “If it wasn’t for race mixing, there’d be no video girls…. Me and most of my friends like mutts [biracial women] a lot.”17
Speaking of presidential hopeful West, his would-be First Lady Kim Kardashian is a pioneer of the galling trend of White women copying and commodifying elements of Black women’s style and phenotype, benefitting from Black femme cool and carrying none of the burden.18
Journalist Wanna Thompson coined the term “Blackfishing” to describe White women “cosplaying” as Black women.19
The Kardashian and Jenner sisters have long been accused of using plastic surgery, makeup, Photoshop, and elements of style, like box braids, to mimic the appearance of Black women. In fall of 2020 the internet went wild when a photo of Khloe Kardashian surfaced with brown skin, full lips, and brown hair that made her look more like Beyoncé from the Third Ward not a White girl from Calabasas.20
Blackness is so fastened to the KarJenner empire that even Black folks frequently argue whether the sisters can rightly be called “women of color.” (Robert Kardashian, Kris Jenner, and Caitlyn Jenner—parents to the sisters—are White. The late Robert Kardashian has Armenian heritage.)21
The Kardashians are not alone in capitalizing on Black women’s style. In a 2018 Twitter thread and an article in Paper magazine, Thompson called out several White women influencers who had been successfully impersonating Black women on social media, gaining followings, partnerships, and brand sponsorships.
“With extensive lip fillers, dark tans and attempts to manipulate their hair texture, white women wear Black women’s features like a costume,” Thompson wrote. “These are the same features that, once derided by mainstream white culture, are now coveted and dictate current beauty and fashion on social media, with Black women’s contributions being erased all the while.”22
This disturbing trend reinforces that when it comes to being beautiful as a woman in America, just a dab of Blackness will do. But it puts the lie to the idea that Black women’s appearance and style are deficient. If anything, they are coveted; it is only when those features and elements of style are attached to unfiltered Blackness that they become “ugly.”
And in a society that judges women’s value and femininity based on attractiveness, perceived ugliness can be devastating. The denigration of Black female beauty not only batters African American women’s self-esteem, it also drives a wedge between Black women with lighter skin, straighter hair, and narrower features and those without those privileges.
Thirty-five-year-old Erin Millender says that the time she felt least attractive was as a teenager. “I went to a very White high school with a very J.Crew aesthetic,” she says. “I was brown. I am built stocky. I’ve always had a butt … and not a tiny, little gymnast booty either. I was aware of the fact that I did not conform to the beauty standard.”23
Erin is biracial. Her mother is Korean American and her father is Black. Many would see her light-brown skin and shiny curls and note her advantage over Black women with darker skin, broader features, and kinkier hair. But Erin says that in school she was teased for “anything that was identifiably Black. White kids don’t know the difference between various grades of nap. They see frizzy hair and brown skin? That’s just nappy hair to them—the same as any other kind of Black hair. Brown skin and a big booty gets ‘ghetto booty.’”
But at the predominantly Black schools she attended before high school, Erin says some Black girls targeted her, jealously pulling the long hair that brought her closer to the ideal of mainstream beauty. “Then, after school, in ballet, White girls made fun of my butt.”
And the attention of men like West, who fetishize biracial women, is no honor. “[It is] creepy and insulting.” Erin says that far too often that appreciation comes with backhanded compliments “implying that I don’t really look Black and would be less attractive if I did,” plus “shade” from other Black women, “who assume I think I’m better than somebody.”
Black looks are not just erased; features commonly associated with people of the African diaspora are openly denigrated in American culture. (Though it is important to note that Blackness is diverse. Black women can be freckled, ginger, and nappy; ebony skinned and fine haired; and every variation in between.)
Get the Kinks Out
Hair has been a lightning rod for enforcement of White standards of beauty. And reactions to Black women’s natural hair help illustrate the broader disdain for Black appearance. While Black hair can have a variety of textures, most tends to be curly, coily, or nappy. It grows out and up and not down. It may not shine. It may be cottony or wiry. It is likely more easily styled in an Afro puff than a smooth chignon. For centuries, Black women have been told that these qualities make their hair unsightly, unprofessional, and uniquely difficult to manage.
The late Don Imus infamously called the Black women on the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”24
In the summer of 2007, a Glamour
magazine editor sparked outrage among many Black working women when she told an assembled group of female attorneys that wearing natural Black hair is not only improper but militant.25
Even the US military has been ambivalent about Black women’s hair. In 2014, new military grooming guidelines—since changed—provoked furor among Black servicewomen and prompted a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel from the women of the Congressional Black Caucu...