Wednesday, November 28, 2012
I was walking in an almost entirely black neighborhood in Chicago and there was a billboard for American Apparel. It prominently featured a white woman in her underwear. My first thought was, "Hm. An advertisement with a white woman in a black neighborhood. Is this good (breaking down racial lines, even if in the name of nothing more than our mutual love of buying underwear), or is this bad (corporately colonizing an area using a foreign, "imposed" [whatever that means] standard of beauty), or is it neither per se (it's just an ad, like millions of others)?" I don't have a lot of experience thinking through these issues, so I was surprised that I even noticed it and that it stuck in my head. One of my first thoughts was, "I bet Meghan Florian has an insight or two into this”...I figured it was pretty innocuous in and of itself, but tangentially participates in some meta-evil that makes Amy Laura Hall cry. -- University of Chicago Student
Dear University of Chicago Student,
Ah, yes. American Apparel. My first thought when I read your question was that cultural beauty norms for women are defined in terms of whiteness. So, think about things like black women chemically treating their hair to make it straight and so forth -- ways of making "bad" black hair more like "good" white hair. Or how mulatto women are considered really “hot” (maybe because they have “great hair,” or because while they have a darker skin tone they can pass as white, or many other complicated reasons). On a personal note, I think about a fifth grader I know who always wants to know how I get my hair to be so soft.
The answer, of course, is that I don’t have to do anything. That’s just how it is.
Have you read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? That book is what always comes to my mind when thinking about the power that beauty (defined in no uncertain terms by white characteristics like soft blond hair and blue eyes) holds in terms of racial formation, and the connection between beauty and certain notions of virtue. One example of the flip side, then, would be black women who go natural as a way of taking pride in their racial identity and redefining beautify.
So, in terms of the billboard, one could argue that it is selling a product that theoretically helps the consumer perform whiteness.
Then again, American Apparel could just be stupid about their billboard placement. And/or some black women might like to buy their underwear, which is fine. (Except that their advertising tends to be really sexist, but that’s a topic for another day...sweatshop free sexism, made in the U.S.A.)
All of this is, of course, way, way more complicated than I am doing justice to here, but hopefully this provides a couple of windows into beginning to think about beauty more critically. Read more Toni Morrison, and pay attention to the ways desire has been and continues to be shaped racially.
Meanwhile, I hope my fifth grade friend grows up to love her hair.