In the Land of the Unmarked Case

Cosmetics and beauty retailer, Ulta, is promoting a sweepstakes for which the grand prize is a $1,000 Ulta shopping spree.  Okay.  That’s fine.  But the tagline for this promotion is “The world of beauty is evolving.”  Okay.  That’s fine … or is it?  The tagline sounds so inclusive, so multicultural, so accepting of multiple conceptions of beauty.  In theory, at least.

But, in practice, not so much. 

The main promotional feature is a brief retrospective on styles from the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (obviously, ain’t nothing chic about the Great Depression), complemented by contemporary photographs of models with their hair and makeup styled to represent each decade.  I’d like to share them with you.

This first decade highlights what I find reprehensible about the entire layout: the assumption that white looks were and are the most important, and that women of color (be they African American or any other nationality, ethnicity, or race other than white American) mattered only as second thoughts and only during rare periods.  “Ghostly pale skin” not only does not work as a description for women of color, but it also excludes immigrant and second generation women of the period — from places such as Eastern and Southern Europe and the Far East.

“Skin was powdered and pink”?!  Whose skin was powdered and pink?  Does this look a pink woman to you?

Once, again, the assertion of pale skin as the marker of a decade’s beauty ideal excludes the most women.

Well, in any decade, I love my bronze skin.  Maybe that’s what they mean … right?  Nah.

I wasn’t blond in the 1990s.  And it wasn’t just because I was in my teens. 

So, apparently we are finally allowed to accept our face shapes, skin tones, and hair textures.  Thank goodness for progress, for this magnificent evolution of beauty. 

And thank you, Ulta, for once again proving that white privilege is deeply and horribly engrained in the American social landscape.


Jena 6 National Week of Solidarity & Action — Sept. 16-21, 2007

Remember to wear black today in support of the Jena 6!

Some days I love my job!

Today I am reading Maxine Leeds Craig’s Aint’ I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. I am enjoying it as much as I enjoyed Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. One reason — among many — that I like these two works so much is that the authors have an astounding knack for plainly stating why it sucks so very much to be (and to have been, in other times in American history) a black woman facing the daily struggle to define herself not only through what she thinks, what she has accomplished, and what she has the potential to do, but also through her body and how she presents it. 

While self-presentation and beauty standards may sound mundane, it is important to remember how central beauty is, not only for black women, but in American culture as a whole.  The thing is, though, that for black women, beauty is not must a matter of meeting one’s own community’s standards, but it is a matter of navigating a very loaded landscape of multi-layered and often conflicting standards.  In addition, black women have historically been put in the position of defending their very womanhood and femininity as well as finding a way to assert their beauty in a society dominated by people who deny that they can be beautiful at all. And this is where Craig is just spot on! Peep this:

The degradation of black bodies was particularly painful for African American women. In a male supremacist society in which women were valued as much for beauty as men were for their accomplishments, an ugly woman was a failure. The cosmetics industry magnate Helena Rubenstein once declared that ‘there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.’ Rubenstein expressed what historian Lois Banner described as the ideology of the democracy of beauty. According to this belief, beauty was available to any woman who worked to achieve it. However, as long as dominant standards of beauty excluded brown skin and short, tightly curled hair, beauty status was unavailable to most black women. Mass media images of black women may have been produced for the amusements of whites, but blacks could not avoid seeing them. Added to the burden of suffering unequal access to education, housing, employment, and justice, black women bore the shame of being women in unacceptable bodies.

I was supposed to be finishing up Mark Anthony Neal’s Soul Babies today, too; but Craig is so f—ing brilliant, I can’t read it quickly, so I probably won’t be getting to the Neal today (although it looks crazy good, too!).  I continually linger on great passages and find myself spending as much time writing out my own brain farts as reading.

So, anyway…  That’s the reason that some days I really love my job.