The Politics of Beauty: White is Right

This is an advertisement from Lucky Brown Cosmetics (manufactured by Valmor Products, Co. of Chicago) which marketed products such as bleaching creams and face powders to African American women in the early twentieth century.

This is an advertisement from Lucky Brown Cosmetics (manufactured by Valmor Products, Co. of Chicago) which marketed products such as bleaching creams and face powders to African American women in the early twentieth century.

Advertisements for skin whitening creams reveal the Eurocentric view of beauty in American society and the privilege connected with fair skin. One of the aims of the Black Arts Movement (sister to the Black Power Movement) was to eliminate the idea that African American features (skin color, hair, and facial structure) are innately unattractive and valueless.

The above advertisement depicts the face of an African American woman. This woman has sleek, black, chin-length hair, which is smooth and straight with a slight curl at the ends. The woman has shapely eyebrows, a thin nose, full lips, and large eyes. Her makeup serves to accentuate these facial features—red lipstick enhances the fullness of her lips while mascara and eyeliner draw attention to her large, dark eyes.

The woman’s face in the advertisement is split down the middle. On the left side, her complexion is darker—typical of an African American woman. On the right, the woman’s complexion is much lighter and she could almost “pass” for being white. On either side of the divide, the woman’s features are identical; skin color is the only feature that is changed. The text for the advertisement reads, “Lucky Brown Instant Brown Brighten Cream.”

The woman of this Lucky Brown advertisement would be considered attractive by Western standards, which essentially means her features are Eurocentric, and thus, beautiful; White features are the ideal (from a systematic standpoint). Although this woman is not actually White, she is the “right type” of Blackness to be considered attractive; this advertisement says Black women can be beautiful if they’re a particular kind of Black woman (i.e. one who subscribes to Eurocentric beauty ideals of smooth, straight hair, narrow nose, and lighter skin). With bleaching cream, this woman’s skin will still be considered Black but it’s no longer “too dark.”

Advertisements do not exist in a vacuum; they are cultural products and reflect cultural values. The message of this ad is that a fair complexion is equated with beauty and privilege (social mobility, economic success, better marriage prospects, etc.). African American women (individually and collectively) face enormous pressure to fit that beauty mold. Like the politics of hair, skin-bleaching is a practice pressuring minority women to be more White. All in all, these politics of beauty exclude or alter the Black body and culture.

The Black Power Movement, while criticized for much of its ideology and practices, was one of the first cultural movements to overtly value Blackness, which flies directly in the face of this advertisement. Challenging the Eurocentric view of beauty in America challenges the whole hierarchy. Ben Ali Lumumba of John KillensThe Cotillion (1971) understands this and says to his girlfriend Yoruba Lovejoy, “We are never going to be liberated as long as we mimic the white boy’s juju and his cultural symbols” (Killens, 139). Ben Ali recognizes that this conformity is harmful and only functions to instruct minorities: “You don’t need no power. You don’t need no peoplehood. You don’t need to be no nation. You going to be integrated. You going to be just like white folks” (Killens, 140).

The above advertisement for skin-bleaching cream serves to reinforce Eurocentric standards of beauty, while presenting deviant features as ugly; Black Aesthetics, and the notion “Black is Beautiful,” which was an outgrowth of both the Black Arts Movement, was one of the first voices to combat this standard by valuing Blackness.

Source:

Lucky Brown Brighten Cream. BlackBettyPosters.com. Web. 21 Mar 2013.

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