“Damn, She’s Hot”: Standards of Beauty in a Changing World

A painting by Margaret Bowland, this features African American women in white-face, suggesting a forced ideal of the European standards of beauty on an already individual and beautiful race.

A painting by Margaret Bowland, this features African American women in white-face, suggesting a forced ideal of the European standards of beauty on an already individual and beautiful race.

Women have always been viewed as sexual beings, with their beauty put on display for all men to look at, admire and dream about.  Over the years, due to the highly visual nature of attraction, people have developed standards of beauty that are based mainly on what you look like, rather than who you are.

Traditionally, the American standard for beauty has been based off of the European standard, featuring “smooth blonde hair, light colored eyes, and fair/light skin all compiled on a thin, tall figure” (Women of Color), and even African American women are expected to live up to that, in the minds of the white person.  Unfortunately, magazines and other examples of pop culture that people see every day are out there, displaying the American standards of beauty, in directly pressuring women, especially black women, to strive for those ideals that consider an American woman beautiful.  Even magazines intended for African American women contain advertisements for hair relaxers and straighteners, or skin bleachers and lighteners, anything to help black women embrace whiteness and break out of the cultural chain mail that is their African heritage.  It also suggests a type of class mobility that can only be possible with the embracing of these “white” techniques of beauty (Women of Color).  Any way you look at it, black people are being told that the more white they look, the better chance they have in modern society.

Rihanna on the cover of Vogue.  Notice how her skin looks so light, one could almost think of her as just very tan

Rihanna on the cover of Vogue. Notice how her skin looks so light, one could almost think of her as just very tan

African American women have constantly been subjected to the pressures that come along with living in American society, especially the challenge to look "white" and blend in to the European conceived ideas of beauty.

African American women have constantly been subjected to the pressures that come along with living in American society, especially the challenge to look “white” and blend in to the European conceived ideas of beauty.

The above image displays a group of African American women displaying their African American characteristics, such as dark skin and hair, with the tagline “My Black is Beautiful.”  It calls to mind the idea of women coming together to show off their pride in their cultural heritage, and the idea that they do not have to be European to be beautiful.  It shows a confidence in where they come from that is not matched by any alteration of beauty on the market today, merely because it embraces the women’s natural skin color and hair color.  While it is not the most perfect example of pride in blackness, it is certainly one of the better examples.  Contrast this image to the one directly above it, featuring Rihanna on the cover of Vogue Magazine, where her skin has clearly been lightened to showcase a different standard of looks.  Rihanna is a beautiful woman and an internationally known pop star, and one of the things that is most recognizable about her is the darkness of her skin and features.  However, this magazine cover paints her as a light skinned woman, posing to play into the current standards of beauty placed upon American society today.

Vogue Magazine has gotten other backlash from certain critic about the fact that they do not use many black women on the cover of their magazine.  One woman, Thandie Newton, has publicly stated that she does not want to be on the cover of Vogue, because of the lack of African American women that they feature on the cover.

“Don’t get me started on black people being on the cover on big magazines. It’s so preposterous. I mean, I’ve been on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar four times; I’ve been on the cover of InStyle four times, but Vogue, not once,” she explained in an interview with Pride magazine.

“And people say to me, I mean literally, people have said to me, ‘What have you got against Vogue that you don’t want to be on their cover?’ And I just laugh.”

“They [Vogue] don’t feel the need to represent because it doesn’t make any sense to them. It’s just baffling to me, but as usual America will dictate the ways things go and a magazine like Vogue will just follow America,” she said. “But it’s like, don’t you want to trail blaze?” (Bossip)

Newton feels that Vogue magazine has not taken the chance to feature black women on the cover, and feels like they should start doing so before she will be on the cover.  As exhibited, again, by the cover photo featuring Rihanna, Vogue has sometimes found a way around displaying black women in their true colors: with skin lightening techniques and airbrush tricks.

Yet another imposition of cultural standard is the idea that black women have to have some part of their body that is bigger than another, thus adding one specific point of interest for people to look at, something memorable for other people to hold on to.  Look at celebrities like Nicki Minaj, and you will see the big butt, enhanced lips or crazy style that is meant to set black women apart from the mainstream, allowing them to be a cut above the rest, memorable in everyone’s minds for what they look like rather than who they are.  Nicki Minaj’s style has always been one of “>enhanced sexual display, and her butt has always been memorable, simply because of the sheer size of it.  People have talked about her butt for years, ever since she broke into the music industry back in 2007.  However, while she, and other starts have been known for one specific part of themselves, one memorable body part that is meant to stick out in the mind of the American public, there is still another standard of being that is prominent among black women: the full-figure.

Full figured women are also considered beautiful in the African American society.  Actresses like Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson (pre Weight Watchers), are admired in society, even revered, and act in feature films, such as Last Holiday and Dreamgirls.  Each of these women have been able to grow their acting careers, despite their size.  While white women are criticized if they gain even a little too much pregnancy weight (think Jessica Simpson or Kim Kardashian), black women are able to maintain a positive public image, as long as they stay within a reasonable full-bodied figure.  Think of the movie Hairspray, as a good way to illustrate this phenomenon.  Taking place in the early 1960’s in Baltimore (at the beginning of the integration movement), the movie’s main character is an overweight white girl who receives backlash from the white, skinny head of the hit TV dancing show she wanted to join.  Queen Latifah stars in the modern remake, playing the full figured record store owner who helps lead the integration protest.  The clip below features a hit song from the movie, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.”


As the clip suggests, this song features messages of using a full-figure as empowerment, something that is to be rejoiced rather than criticized.  Celebrating who you are is a key theme of the song, and the whole movie is an example of the double standard of beauty that exists.  The weight of the white characters is what is criticized, while the skin color of the black characters is what is noticed about them.

The full-figured tradition of black women is not always a positive thing.  There have been statistics suggesting that the full-figuredness of women is branching into unhealthiness.  Since the black community has created several “beauty biases: [a woman being] shapely, curvy and, to a majority of people on the outside looking in, fat,” many black women strive to meet these ideals because they see how those who do are revered by society (Brice).  Unfortunately, thanks to those standards, black women are more likely to be overweight, and are more susceptible to diseases that are brought about by weight, such as type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure (Brice).  “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 54 percent of black women are considered overweight and obese. Black women are 70 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white women” (Brice).  This is not to say that there are some black women who are thin and healthy and take care of themselves, for example Michelle Obama and Beyonce, but the statistics shown are what the standards of beauty are doing to the American people.

The standards of beauty for African American women to have a fuller figure have been more prominently featured lately.  Pick up certain literary works written by African American writers, and you will find the descriptions of any woman to hold true more traditional, thin, African images rather than the full figured ideals that many black women are striving for today.  Any literature written in the Post-Soul and Black Aesthetic will feature descriptions of beautiful African American women who are thin and happy and so beautiful that the main man in the novel cannot help but fall in love with either her traditional beauty, or the African beauty that she displays.

“An observer would have thought her well fitted to that framing of light and shade. A slight girl of twenty-two years, with narrow, sloping shoulders and delicate, but well-turned, arms and legs, [Helga Crane] had, none the less, an air of radiant, careless health. In vivid green and gold negligee and glistening brocaded mules, deep sunk in the big high-backed chair, against whose dark tapestry her sharply cut face, with skin like yellow satin, was distinctly outlined, she was—to use a hackneyed word—attractive. Black, very broad brows over soft, yet penetrating, dark eyes, and a pretty mouth, whose sensitive and sensuous lips had a slight questioning petulance and a tiny dissatisfied droop, were the features on which the observer’s attention would fasten; though her nose was good, her ears delicately chiseled, and her curly blue-black hair plentiful and always straying in a little wayward, delightful way. Just then it was tumbled, falling unrestrained about her face and on to her shoulders.” (Larsen 4-5)

This description of Helga Crane from Nella Larsen‘s Quicksand features the description of a beautiful girl, whom everyone would love to get to know, and every man would be lucky to date.  She is described as attractive, with a captivating mouth, something men would really admire.  While Helga Crane is a mixed race girl, she is still a thing of beauty, and described in the dark lines befitting her.  It is almost like the author truly understands the American standard of African American beauty of the time, and strives to make the reader understand that as well.

In contrast, John Oliver Killens describes his main female character Yoruba in The Cotillion as “black and princessly Yoruba, as if she’d just got off the boat from Yoruba-land in the western region of the then Nigeria.” (Killens 1)   Killens is describing his character with references to her African heritage, showcasing the beauty in her that does not come from the Americas.  This type of description also serves to the purpose of setting Yoruba apart from the other women.  By showcasing her African features rather than her American ones, Killens is telling the reader that this woman is special.

African American women have been looked at as people that need to be changed, something that needs to be altered to the European standard of beauty here in America.  Margaret Bowland’s painting featured above showcases the altered changes that the white man has tried to make to black women so that they fit in better with the standards of beauty that we hold near and dear today.


Bowland, Margaret. Murakami Wedding. N.d. Painting.

Brice, Makini. “Standards of Beauty Have Helped Keep Black Women out of Shape.” Eunoic. N.p., 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://eunoic.com/2013/02/25/standards-of-beauty-have-helped-keep-black-women-out-of-shape/&gt;.

Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion, Or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2002. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. Dover ed. Mineola: Dover, 2006. Print.

Rihanna Vogue Cover November 2012. In Vogue 1 Day. N.p., 21 Nov. 2012. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://invogueoneday.blogspot.com/2012/11/rihanna-vogue-november-issue-2012.html&gt;.

Starships (Clean). YouTube. N.p., 12 Dec. 2012. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oYp3AQqG1U&list=UUaum3Yzdl3TbBt8YUeUGZLQ&index=5&gt;.

Taborelli, Erin Nicole. My Black is Beautiful. Erin’s Media Blog. N.p., 22 July 2012. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.personal.psu.edu/ent5040/blogs/erins_media_blog/2012/07/my-black-is-beautiful.html&gt;.

“Thandie Newton Puts Vogue Magazine on Blast for Not Using More Blacks on the Cover: “It’s so Preposterous”.” Bossip. N.p., 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://bossip.com/488842/thandie-newton-gives-vogue-magazine-the-ho-sit-down30346/&gt;.

“Women of Color as Portrayed in the Media.” Ethnic Studies 147. N.p., 1 July 2008. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.prof.chicanas.com/es147/?page_id=132&gt;.

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