Beauty Standards for African American Women
By: Neha Narayan
Contemporary beauty standards are grueling enough for women’s mental and physical wellbeing as it is, but the standards and judgments made about African American women can be so much more severe than other races. While currently there is more representation of African American styles and culture in the media, Black women often find themselves being shamed for their natural features and struggling to fit in an unrealistic mold of an “ideal” Black woman.
For instance, there are differences in how Black women’s hair is perceived in the workplace. Some employers find natural Black hairstyles, such as afros and dreadlocks, unprofessional. In a panel hosted BUILD Series, Kennedy Johnson (Yahoo Lifestyle beauty host and social media influencer) and Maya Allen (Beauty Director for InStyle) discussed the battle Black women face with their hair. Johnson described being asked to come into work with her hair combed, because it was normally “wild.” This treatment made her feel more conscious about how her white peers perceived her at work. Allen discussed how she felt about the general ignorance the beauty community has towards African American hair. She believes that African American hair tells stories and gives that community pride in their backgrounds, and she hopes to continue educating other people about it so they know how to approach the subject matter. She later advises against the blind, almost overwhelming love some may have towards Black hair: “People are so enamored by big curls and afros,” but “don’t make my natural hair a fetish. Don’t define me by that either.”
Preference for lighter skin tone has also proved to be a concerning factor in the beauty standards for Black women. This is pushed forward by Eurocentric beauty standards that have been ingrained in our society. These standards look favorably upon Black women who have a lighter skin tone. In the early 1900s, the cosmetic industry encouraged darker-skinned individuals to lighten their skin tone, and they promoted products that lighten skin, such as skin bleaching. However, since there are naturally several different African American skin tones this practice was harmful to the physical and mental wellbeing of darker African American women. When the media shows favor towards those with lighter skin, those with darker skin, especially young girls, may feel more insecure about themselves.
Another harmful standard promoted by Eurocentric beauty standards is body type. This standard requires a more slim, “toned” female figure. This reduces accommodations for those with different body types. Nadirah Mutala, Communications Manager for “My Black Is Beautiful”, felt excluded from social groups due to her weight. It is discouraging to not have larger sizes be fully recognized, even if it is unintentional ignorance, so Mutala works for greater inclusion of larger sizes. Additionally Mutala has a young daughter who, Mutala observes, notices the differences between herself and others. As she grows older and embraces herself, Mutala hopes to convey to her that “her beauty and her value is not only about her aesthetic.”
Educating others about these beauty standards is important, but it can be draining for the educators themselves. Taryn Finley, the host of the panel, noted that “educating is so tiring, and it’s a form of emotional labor that a lot of non-black women don’t have to deal with.” While it is important to seek the perspectives of those who face the criticisms of these beauty standards firsthand, it is also important to be sensitive and considerate of their conditions. More emotional and tangible support and empowerment can go a long way to correct negative narratives and uplift overburdened Black women and minority communities.