What can we say is generally seen as being beautiful to other people? Could it be black, mixed or very dark-skinned women?
It is a question that still circulates our thoughts today, and the worry of how positive the representations of black female models actually are or have been, within popular culture. As beauty itself is constructed, and is central to how we think about sexuality, it is a very important topic to me, as the idea of being beautiful expands beyond aesthetics, and is central to ethics and politics.
What is seen as being beautiful is linked up with discourses connected with sexuality, and what is desirable. The desirable then is seen as being the normal, the respectable and the, ‘good’. This brings me to state that what is seen as being the beautiful body is the white European one. The hierarchy of the white body is depicted in much popular culture, past and present, from the white marble statues of the Greek revival and the neo-classical movement, to the front cover of Glamour and Elle.
Black beauty was originally graded into the hierarchical routes of slavery, which produced a socio-economic caste system, which is described by Kobena Mercer as being based on skin-tone. According to this method of, ‘pigmentocracy’, “lightness acquired a value that effectively relegated the physiognomic components considered most African- i.e. darkness of skin, ethnic features and Afro hair- to a lower beauty rating. Mixed-race slaves, with their more European-type features, were favoured by whites as being the closer approximation to their own beauty ideal”.
Mixed or mulatto females were favoured more over their black counterparts, where they could easily pass as being more white than females who were full black. However, as many black females had their own problems of being cast as mere workers, the mulatto beauty had her own dilemma, she would be seen as being too white for her, ‘genuine’, black folks or being rejected by white people for the black identity in her. Many mixed and black females during the 1700s and onwards were often sexualised, and seen as being sexually deviant, according to a saying from colonial Brazil, “White women are for marriage, mulattoes for fornication and Negresses for work”.
The idealisation of whiteness corresponds with a pathologisation of blackness, in this case the white subjects are desexualised and the black subjects are over sexualised. In the past, the representations of black females was depicted through the images of the, ‘Hottentot’, female, and the icon of the prostitute in the nineteenth century. As long as many can remember, the representation of black females and white females has differed, with there being a large gap in between the two.
Ain’t I A Woman, Black Women and Feminism by Bell Hooks, picks up on the representation of black females in her book, within black women and feminism, by describing the ways in which black women were forced to prove their sexuality and that they were physically and biologically the same as white women, “More than a hundred years have passed since the day Sojourner Truth stood before an assembled body of white women and men at an anti-slavery rally in Indiana and bared her breast to prove that she was indeed a woman”.
Within this article, I hope to introduce the representations of many black female models in the popular culture, where I will not only bring in present representations but go back to the core of where the black female model began her journey.
With an image like the, ‘Hottentot’, female, how could any black females contend? From as early as the eighteenth century, black females have been represented as being different to their white female counterpart.
With an exaggerated backside, and sexual organs, the, ‘Hottentot’, Venus was far from being close to the truth. The, ‘Hotttentot’, a Quena woman, known as Saartje Baartman, was exhibited in a freak show, among hairy women, vitiligo sufferers and obese people. This early representation of black females was not only depicted as being negative, but abnormal, ugly and far from being seen as beautiful. From as early as this, the black female was modelled as something of an alien, and that which was not natural or acceptable.
Black beauty by Ben Arogundade, features an article, black is (not) beautiful, which goes on to describe the 1810 caged body of Saartje Baartman, who as a twenty-five year old slave from the Cape Colony, was placed in an exhibition in London and Paris. Her body was, “paraded as a typical example of the anatomy of the African female, and people came from miles around to ogle at her. She was presented as a biological curiosity- a black equivalent of the Elephant Man- exploited to support the contention that blacks were aliens, unrelated to humankind. She epitomized the Euro-notion of ‘the beast from the dark continent’, brought back to civilization for the world to behold”.
Throughout the centuries, the black look has been derided and eulogized, where, “there were days when black beauties graced the courts of Kings and the look was extolled within fine art and literature; days when blackface Madonnas and Venuses were exalted on high and European society lusted after black beauty. There were other days when the black look was mocked, criminalized and uglified; days when people of colour were equated with prostitutes, devils and animals”, these are the days that stand out for many black females.
According to Arogundade, the earliest representations of the colour black can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians, a time when being black was seen as being positive and being connected with nature, the earth and fertility. The colour black first took on negative connotations when it was connected to sin and darkness in the third century, from the writings of early Christian Fathers.
In his book, Sam Arogundade describes the icons that may have helped to cause the representations of black females being shown in a negative light. Evidence can be taken from the era of the Islamic dominance, according to Arogundade, “the image of the black demon was used by Christians to mark Muslims as enemies. In early medieval paintings black devils are shown as Christ’s tormentors during the Passion. Blackness represented not only the anti-aesthetic, but also the anti-Christ”.
What was seen as positive from here on, was not the black female but the white female, who represented what was pure, normal and beautiful, take for example the images of white women during the period of the, ‘Hottentot’, which were pure, almost angelic and seen as being beautiful. When compared against images such as the, ‘Hottentot’, Venus, black women appear like monsters, alienated against from society.
The perceptions of black and white have gone into opposite directions ever since, where it is still evident in society today how, “black skin represented sinfulness, dirtiness, the devil, ugliness and deviancy, while white stood for goodness, cleanliness, godliness, beauty and chastity”.
If you think back to the 1889 advert with Nancy Green, the first black model, who appeared as Aunt Jemima on packets of pancake mix, she is depicted as a larger than life character, where it shows how the earliest black female models conformed to slavery’s servile stereotypes. The earliest representations of black models began to appear in the 1850s, where they reflected slavery’s established stereotypes, women of colour were not depicted as being beautiful, but as mere entertainers, and almost a, “decorative element”, to behold.
Even the images of the female black models were exaggerated, like that of Saartje Baartman, in the sense that their facial characteristics were caricatured. Their images were made to have swollen-lips, huge eyes and were uglified, where only the sexualized Creole beauties were placed on the labels of liquor bottles. The black and dark-skinned models only available source of advertisement were, ‘colonial products’, such as coffee, rum, cocoa and chocolate. Nancy Green herself was an ex-slave who derived from Kentucky, where her exaggerated grin, apron and cuddly figure rendered her, ‘the first Aunt Jemima’, of the pancake mix.
However, black slavery was only a temporary barrier, and its abolition was the beginning for the real black female’s introduction. Black females, among their males, were now, “free to exercise their own aesthetic prerogatives, which would effectively stimulate the development of a black cosmetics industry. They were also able to lobby for aesthetic representation within society’s new order”.
This was the beginning of the new black female model, this was the beginning of the black female model we now recognise today.
Who would have thought that dark skin would be, “the subject of aesthetic transfer”, when Coco Chanel first popularized the skin being suntanned in 1923?
Centuries before, the whiter, almost porcelain, skin of white females was lusted and sought after, where it was frowned upon if you were tanned as it was connected with poverty, labour and working outdoors.
However, as an active person, Coco Chanel’s tanned skin was envied by others, as it represented wealth, and a healthy lifestyle.
Soon, many white people were flocking to areas like the South of France and the French Riviera to tan their pale skins, and by 1927 sun tan oil was introduced on many beauty shelves. Although this was seen as being popular on white faces only, this was still a major turning point in black being seen as beautiful.
One of the first black African-American model’s to grace the front cover of Vogue was Helen William’s, which broke the negative conventions of, ‘dark’, being depicted as ugly.
Shortly after her, came Donyale Luna who in 1966 featured on the front cover of British Vogue, Marsha Hunt who was photographed on the front cover of British Vogue in 1969 with an exaggerated afro, and Beverly Johnson who featured on American Vogue in 1974, then Elle a year later. Donyale Luna, who descended from Detroit, New York, was a mix of Afro-American, Mexican, French and Irish, who was linked to appearing like, “a Masai warrior, a panther, an exotic bird and a swan”.
In 1965 she was the first black model to be photographed in Harper’s Bazaar, where it was found to be a mainstream American Fashion magazine. However, her skin was made to appear lighter, and tribal wear was exaggerated with her own hand hiding her face. It was not a full-frontal image you received of a black female model, but distractions that were in the way of making you realise that this was a black female.
Soon after Luna’s introduction, came Naomi Sims, who featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1969. Her dark skin celebrated the beauty of the black female, but also brought with it negativity. Her profoundly dark skin meant that models who were of mixed-race and lighter, were considered not, “black enough” and found it hard to find jobs.
In the period of Naomi Sims, they wanted dark-skinned models, which was the reverse effect of wanting light-skinned models. In a time where it was once the black models that used bleach as a means to lighten their skin, and chemicals to straighten their hair, it was now dark skin and afro that seemed to be in demand. In the, “supercharged atmosphere of Civil Rights and the new vogue for all things black and African, the industry used Sims to justify that it was doing its bit, discriminating in favour of darker-skinned models was its way of making its concessions obvious”.
The model circuit went from being largely white, to now mainly dark-skinned, the media was in love with the black female who was made to represent tribal fantasy, and Cleopatra beauty that seemed to outshine the fact that these images were far from the truth. Black female models were also lusted upon for their structural beauty, where their bodies moved in a way others did not. Former model, Toukie Smith is evidence where she was the first African-American model to have a mannequin designed that matched her physical features. This was a far cry from the, ‘Hottentot’, Venus, although her partner at the time, Jean-Paul Goude did model a twelve inch doll of Toukie Smith, that was exaggerated by, “chopping the replica…elongating limbs and widening shoulders. Toukie’s tits looked unnatural…So I chopped them off and made them more natural with big prune-like nipples”, Goude also followed in the footsteps of the, ‘Hottentot’, by explaining how, “Toukie’s backside was voluptuous enough, but nowhere near a racehorse’s ass, so I gave her one”. It seemed that many were still concerned with the black female model as an object, where they were focused on exaggerating or masking her colour and reforming her body. However, the black women’s style and beauty was slowly being celebrated.
It was not just the colour of magazines that were changing, but the colour of the make-up industry, thanks to the rise of the female black model. Where make-up shades were once basic and limited, Revlon began to make shades to accommodate the black female.
All of this was positive improvement, for the dark-skinned model, but there still seemed to be a fantasy attached to the black female. Her background was always considered, as well as her ethnic roots, and who she was and where she came from seemed more important than the clothes she was simply modelling.
However, this did not push down the long line of black female models that were slowly being introduced to the modelling circuit.
Iman, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Veronica Webb, Oluchi, Karen Alexander, Tyra Banks, Chrystelle, Kiara and Claudia Mason were among the army of black or mixed-race female model’s that were introducing a new face to the modelling industry.
Iman began her story as being introduced as an, “illiterate 16-year-old chocolate-skinned tribeswoman, discovered while tending her family’s herd on the plains of Kenya’s northern frontier”. This story was created by Peter Beard, when the real essence of the truth was that Iman was a multilingual diplomat’s daughter and had a university major in political science, who was first spotted on the streets of Nairobi. This tactic gave the world what they wanted to hear, “In the ensuing role play Iman was cast as ‘trophy’, and Beard as the ‘safari-suited big-game hunter’ who had captured his prey and transported it to civilization for all to behold”.
Iman, in a later interview with Vogue magazine, explained this was the only way the media would have accepted her for what she is, and was unsatisfied with the representation the media, and Beard, had initially given her. This caused the media to accept the Somalian-female for what she was, but there still seemed to be stigma lurking in every corner. Many told her that she was beautiful, and later asked if she was mixed-race, where if she were to have been fully black then she could not possibly be beautiful.
After Iman’s major introduction to the modelling industry, there came, “an exotic regal queen; Naomi Campbell, the chameleon-like temptress and ultimate fashion diva; Tyra Banks, the body-beautiful All-American girl who turned lust into lucre; Veronica Webb, the class act with the brains to match the beauty; Beverly Peele, the gorgeous Lolita of her day; Roshumba, the hip-swinging downtown girl, Kiara, the elegant patrician princess; and, last, Alek Wek”.
Although each had their own label which described them, these labels were the best and most positive that could have been. Alek Wek, whose roots can be traced to Africa, beholds strong African features that have helped in changing our attitudes into how models should look. No longer placed behind white female models, but placed next to, more black females were being given a chance to show the world that they were truly as beautiful as any other female.
The Sudanese supermodel’s achievements include gracing the catwalks for Christian Dior, Chanel couture and Valentino, among the front cover of Elle. Where once black females were paraded along freak shows, they were now paraded down catwalks, where the world’s media could take their photographs. These new line of supermodels shown the world that being and looking different to what was considered beautiful was still okay, even though many still tried to cover up the roots of many supermodels by making them appear anything but black.
Although many black female models are still out numbered by their white female counterparts, a change has been witnessed, compared to the 1970s where, “black models were almost exclusively on the pages of Black publications in fashion spreads and ads for Black products. And if one wanted to see a Black model in a fashion show, well, it was in a how whipped up by your local church or a Black women’s social organization”.
These days, you only need to look through a magazine to see pictures of Naomi Campbell or Tyra Banks, however, you cannot help but think whether these are the only black supermodels that stick in our minds within our century today?
You cannot help but see that Naomi was the only black female among Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz.
Is it still the case that white female models still rule over black female models, and black females have only come a small distance?
Even today, although many black females front campaigns, sway on the catwalks and put their own stamp on modelling, is it still the white female models we still remember? Among them are Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, and the new faces that are Gemma Ward and Lily Cole. Although black female models have come along way since the days of Nancy Greene, the problem that is being the only, “token black model in their semiannual catwalk collections” still exists, threatening black females even today.