Permed/Relaxed? Natural? What’s the Solution? The Critique of Black Hair

I Am Not My Hair by India Arie

The texture of hair is a commonly discussed topic within the Black community, especially for women. Most Black women see hair as their crown and glory; something that is worthy of pride, however there’s much critique. This critique of appearance is readily seen within the community, and even in the Black Arts and Post Soul eras.

In the song, I Am Not My Hair by India Arie, there is a portrayal of this common theme surrounding hair and its texture. The song opens open up with women laughing at Indie Arie because of what she had done to her hair. The song develops with Arie’s journey of her different hair styles, eventually going into the choir which simples states “I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am not your expectations no” her response to the fact that hair is such a determinant. The women talking and laughing continues with some women agreeing with her hair choices, while other criticizing. The second verse describes how the writer feels about society’s view of hair and about a woman who has lost all of her hair because of chemotherapy, but performing in front of the camera confidently.

Growing up with my mom and grandma owning a hair salon, I can really say that I understand the views of women regarding their hair. Hair within the African-American (especially Black Women) community can also be linked with privilege. Regarding Arie’s song, women are very critical about their hair, no matter how it looks. Being nappy or natural to some is very unappealing to many because of the amount of work it takes to maintain.  India Arie’s own journey travels not only through time but also through hairstyles and stages in a female’s life. Within the transitioning of this song the author realizes that it is not the importance of the way the hair looks, but about what is beneath; what lies within. She speaks of a woman who has lost all of her hair, yet performing in front of thousands on television. This type of confidence deters from physical appearance, and moves to the whole individuals.

Within John Killens’ book, The Cotillion, the main character Yoruba is seen being put through very crazy practices in order for her to be the perfect black woman in her mother’s eyes. Her mother is very infatuated with not only “keeping up with the Jones’” but being better than many of her “lower” counterparts. Yoruba’s mother portrays this societal view that appearance is everything, which is true to an extent. Her mother leaves no room for Yoruba to actually embrace the fact that she is black, and to embrace all of being black, and being one with her people, which at times she struggles with.

From hearing India Arie’s I Am Not My Hair, it can be noticed that black women can wear their hair in an array of fashions: straight, curly, an afro, or natural. There’re varying views regarding hair and exactly what “Good hair” is. There are individuals who feel that those who use perms to straighten their hair have “good hair.” Others also think that individuals who wear their hair in its natural state have “good hair.” Having naturally good hair within the Black community is something that most want; hair free of tangles and nappyness. Urban Dictionary states that good hair is “A popular term in the African-American community, used to describe a black person’s hair that closely resembles the hair of a typical white person (i.e. soft, manageable, long, as opposed to “nappy” or “bad” hair). The closer your hair is to a white person’s, the “better” your hair is.”

In 2009, model Tyra Banks aired an episode called “What is Good Hair?” on the Tyra Banks Show. This episode featured many different Black women and children and their differing views on what it means to have “good hair.” She episode shows the critique that African-American women have for their own hair. Along with the critique, there seems to be so much controversy within the African-American community about women wearing their natural hair, as previously stated. View the videos below as they show some very important facts and startling information behind children’s perception of their own hair and the history of black hair within the African-American community.

Video clip from the Tyra Banks Show, episode: What is Good Hair?

The history relating to African-Americans texture of hair is actually quite startling. Not only were the roots of the situation regarding heritage, but it was about survival and opportunity for many African-Americans with the 19th and early to mid 20th century. Tyra Banks also invited the Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair, who gave some historical insight on the way that African-American men and women.

The term “good hair” did not originate as a term of beauty, contrary to popular belief; it was a term that was derived as hope for survival. This term, good hair, evolved out of slavery, women and men who had silkier hair, like that of the master’s were more likely to end up in better situations. These individuals were more likely to be freed upon their master dying or being a house slave, which gave them more opportunities to better resources and things that they weren’t permitted to do such as education. Byrd and Tharps remark in their closing that once slavery ended, these terms and behaviors were still embedded within our cultural psyches and reason there is a lot of controversy today.

Video clip from the Tyra Banks Show, episode: What is Good Hair?

In this link above, we hear some startling information. Tyra brought children and their mothers which proved to be very interesting conversation. (For the whole episode, click HERE) All of these children were beautiful and arguably have “good hair” however there was once child who preferred to wear here Hannah Montana wig because she felt as though people liked her better with it on. Prior to this clip, the mother’s were on the stage, and her mother talked about how she tells her daughter that she is beautiful, and that she does not need to get her hair relaxed. She has a tighter curl in her hair, though when straightened is very long.

Video clip from the Tyra Banks Show, episode: What is Good Hair?

This issue of hair may seem very simple and unimportant to people that are not of cover, but like aforementioned, it is something that is embedded into our psyches, and passed down through many generations. It appears that this, the struggle of black hair, and the critique that African-Americans specifically women, are affecting them psychologically from early ages.

One of the children, Malia (who is half African-American and half Latino), said that when she sees someone with hair like that (pointing to an afro wig) it makes her think of someone of lower class. This is extremely startling, no child that is 5 years old should hear anything like that! It indeed has a great psychological contribution because her mother made up at the age of 11 that she would have a child with a man of another race, due to hair. Her reasoning behind this was the fact that she was teased, picked on and called names such as “bald headed” and “nappy headed.”

Though we see that there is a lot of critique regarding natural hair, having “good hair” is not always a great thing. Kalayshia, age 5, appeared saying that she wants her mother to cut her hair off so that the children at school will stop teasing her. By just looking at her hair, you can notice that it is very long, to her waist and not seemingly course. Her mother even professed the fact that not only does her daughter come home from school crying because of being picked on, but she has also had other students to pull out handfuls of her hair.

In Danzy Senna’s, Caucasia, the two sisters, Birdie and Cole are completely different. Cole is of a brown complexion with courser in comparison to Birdie’s light complexion and “good hair.” Birdie and Cole were of mixed race, and due to complications the family split up, with each parent taking the child that looked like themselves. The mother had no knowledge of black hair and the daughter walked around looking like a mockery because of the mother’s lack of knowledge. However, there is an emphasis that is put on the connection between hair and race. Hair is also a form of identity, as can be determined through my various resources, even Caucasia. Birdie resents her father because of having to pass as a Jewish girl with her mother. She strongly embraced her roots, both White and Black, because they were apart of whom she was holistically.

When typing in the term “African-American hair” there are many results that come up. Some individuals with straightened hair, some chemically others heat, there are individuals who have natural hair exposed. All of these women are smiling or have a fierce countenance. The pride of being African-American and black exhumes from them, also the freedom of choice. These women look happy that they are able to take pride within themselves. As seen in the previous media, we are now in an age where African-American women are allowed to express their own unique beauty, instead of conforming to the Eurocentric hairstyles.

Trailer for Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair

There is no way that I can begin to even speak on the topic of hair, without mentioning Chris Rock’s famous documentary, Good Hair. Chris Rock travels all over the United States interviews individuals about what it means to have “good hair.” An interesting thing about this trailer is that not only does Rock interview everyday people, but also celebrities. Famous individuals such as Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Maya Angelou, Raven Symone, and others help him along his journey of discovery regarding hair. This document speaks of the many processes that African-American women undergo in order to get “good hair.” There is also critique within this documentary as Rock goes around California trying to sell individuals natural, African-American hair with no success. There were even beauty supply storeowners that mentioned how no one wants nappy hair; it is all about the straightened, processed hair.

Throughout history and time, the Black Arts Movement and Post-Soul, there is a steady critique of African-American regarding their hair. It seems to be very questionable whether or not this natural hair is the glory of a crown or worthy of a perm.


Works Cited

Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion; Or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. New York: Trident, 1971. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.





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What is the impact of searching your true identity when society labels you based on stereotypes?



Finding one’s true identity can be difficult when exposed to stereotypes that define their ethnicity and being a mixed child. This has to do with society focusing on the criticism on an individual’s appearance. He or she is forced to act differently based on stereotypes and someone’s perception of that person.

In the Invisible Man, the narrator describes the meaning behind his invisibility. “The invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” (Invisible Man, 3) In other words he is saying that people are classifying him as someone who is not important because he’s black and looking at him as if he was in a dream where he didn’t exist. In connection to invisibility, the narrator discusses a time where he bumped into a tall blond man who insulted him. This resulted in the narrator wanting to slit his throat with a knife only to find out he’s blind.  “Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!” (Invisible Man, 4)

In the article, American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ at 60, Ellison provides some background on the imagery of invisibility. “I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass…you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare …”

In an attempt to find his true identity, in the Invisible Man the narrator ultimately struggles with stereotypes such as social prejudice. “It was the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community” (Invisible Man, 46) Black people who were in a higher social standing decided to disown Jim Trueblood in order to conform to the example of a model black citizen that was expected by the white board of trustees. The narrator was forced to see that even among black people there was tension between those in the upper class and those in the lower class. This symbolizes an instance where the Invisible Man had difficulty finding his identity because he knows that he’s black, but where does he belong in terms of social standing? Most importantly, he wonders why there’s so much tension between black social classes when they are fighting oppression.

Stereotypes go beyond social prejudice and The Invisible Man also experiences racism when he arrives at Liberty Paints to work. “Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove that it wasn’t white clear enough” (Invisible Man, 217) This quote exemplifies Ellison’s use of the Liberty Paints plant as a metaphor.. The main property of Optic White, Brockway notes, is its ability to cover up blackness. This dynamic evokes the larger notion that the white power structure in America, like the white paint, tries to subvert and smother black identity. Prejudice forces black men like the Invisible Man and women to assimilate to white culture, to mask their true thoughts and feelings in an effort to gain acceptance and tolerance. It forces the narrator to remain invisible and adapt an identity that society creates.

According to American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ at 60 the synopsis that summarized the main idea of Invisible Man came from Ellison in a letter sent to his literary agent in 1946 as he was beginning to write the novel. “The invisible man will move upward through Negro life, coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class, in the leftwing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people, and to democracy … He is also to be a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.

In order to combat the labels of racism that society placed on the narrator, his identity was completely transformed into a clean slate. “But what of his psychology”? “Absolutely no importance!” the voice said. “The patient will live as he has to live, and with absolute integrity. Who could ask for more? He’ll experience no major conflict of motives, and what is even better, society will suffer no traumata on his account.” (Invisible Man, 236)  Ellison uses imagery that compares the narrator with a newborn child. He wakes with no memory, an inability to understand speech, and a wholly unformed identity.  This rebirth, doesn’t include any recollection of his parents. The lack of mother or father recalls the veteran’s advice that the narrator should be his own father that is, create his own identity rather than accept an identity imposed on him from the outside.

In the following YouTube video The Invisible Man and its Impact on the American Lexicon it explains how Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man provided the foundation for the beginning of black identity. This was expressed through the progress of World War II and how African American’s were returning to a society infested in Jim Crow laws. Something Ralph Ellison capitalized on was the fact that in Europe many famous African American artists such as Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker saw for the first time equal treatment among them. This was Ellison’s inspiration for writing the novel as he was on leave from the Coast Guard in 1946. Most importantly, Ellison saw that writers during the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston laid the mental seeds for change in the minds of the Negro.

Ellison’s novel influence gave rise to many political and social organizations in Harlem for the attention and vibe of the black community. Among these groups were the Nation of Islam, Communist Party affiliate groups, the NAACP, and militant Civil Rights organizations which brought a change in the Lexicon of America and provided a voice for all African Americans who felt that they had no identity. In addition, the nomenclature of black changed thanks to the influence of the novel. Ellison addressed how he transitioned from Nigga to Negro to Black Man as a representation of the changing times. During the 1930’s it was not accepted for an African American to be called black it was considered a “slap in the mouth.” civil rights groups such as the NAACP used the word Negro while more radical civil rights groups like the Black Panthers used the term Black to promote “Black Power”

A search for someone’s true identity can be seen in a person who was born a mixed child. For example someone who is of mixed decent often times struggle with knowing where they would be accepted in society. In other words, its understanding whether or not to embrace both races equally or have a stronger connection with one race over the other. For many individuals who are mixed it all depends upon how they are raised by their parents and the any customs or the culture that was influenced on them the most. Beyond the scope of learning whether or not to embrace both races or have a stronger connection there’s a difficulty with people questioning mixed race people about how they should identify themselves. Overall, it’s those challenges that mixed race people face that makes it a lot more complicated to search for their true identity.

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In the novel, Caucasia Birdie has no name, her identity is shaped and formed by how others see her. The confusion Birdie feels with her identity is not only due to the shame she feels between her body image and her physical body which most adolescent girls deal with, but she also feels confusion regarding the mixed messages she receives from the “white” and “black” communities because of her white skin. The characters of Birdie and Cole are both bi-racial, however others including their own parents see Birdie as “white” and Cole as “black”. It was because of her childhood being raised in the strong black identity that she felt out of place and not fitting the black image because of the color of her skin. To make me feel that the differences were deeper than skin” (Senna,91). Birdie begins her identity quest by attempting to disappear, to become invisible.

In order for her to try to find an identity, Birdie goes through a series of events that involved many stereotypes that forced her to become someone she’s not.  The hostility of the other children toward Birdie in particular, at the all “black” school forces Birdie to “wear the mask” and put on a racial performance for her schoolmates in Nkrumah and she even begins to learn to speak in slang to better fit in. The character of Birdie resembles that of a chameleon, constantly taking on the color of those around her in an attempt to become invisible. This racial performance shifts through Birdie’s journey as she attempts to fit in with the “white” teenagers in New Hampshire. Birdie begins to act, talk, and dress like the New Hampshire teens and as a consequence begins to disappear into “Caucasia” the white nation and her falsified identity of Jesse Goldman.

In conjunction with the book Caucasia, the YouTube video above  called Racial Documentary “Other” Mixed Identity goes into detail on a few individuals who were born mixed and the challenges that they have to go through on a daily basis with identity. In many cases these individuals understand the misconceptions that many people including their friends have made as a result of being mixed. For example when it comes to the question of what race do these individuals most identify with they automatically assume that based on the color of the individual’s skin that defines what race they associate with the most. While parts of this argument may be true, most of the individuals in the video do acknowledge that it made them feel very uncomfortable and felt as if they were forced to be defined based on appearance. Phrases such as, “you’re not black enough” are a great example.

Furthermore, the individuals in the video do appreciate many aspects of their mixed cultures. For example, there was one individual whose mother is a full German and his father is half Brazilian and half Italian. He mentions that he has a strong appreciation for his father’s Brazilian heritage, but not as much as his mother’s heritage only because he spends more time with his mother rather than his father. In terms of referencing themselves, some identify themselves as just black or just white. The individuals in the video stressed the fact that at one point, they wanted to fit into a specific race when they were younger, but as they got older they learned to embrace bi-raciality and the great things that each heritage has to offer. Although the individuals in the video did say that they felt forced when checking off being a minority for scholarships and other opportunities.

Not only did the individuals discuss the challenges of being mixed, but they also shed some light on the positive aspects. All of the individuals said that they didn’t allow their friends to make their identity for them, instead they expressed their optimism for being mixed. Expressing that there is nothing wrong with being mixed and that does not make anyone different from the rest. The individuals in the video attributed their parents as the main sources of inspiration and guidance when it came to identity. From their parents’ guidance, they learned very quickly that being mixed should not define them as souls wandering their lives for acceptance or their identity. It is based upon being proud of where you come from, as well as the appreciation for diversity.

In conclusion, finding one’s true identity can be difficult when exposed to stereotypes that define their ethnicity and being a mixed child. It forces individuals to hide behind a mask and assimilate to a formulated culture. Through proper guidance, culture, and appreciation of heritage is the formula for identity.

Works Cited

Invisible Man. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2013, from Spark Notes: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/invisibleman/section7.rhtml

kash, T. (2012, February 3). Hub Pages. Retrieved May 13, 2013, from “Lost in Caucasia”: an essay on the novel Caucasia by Danzy Senna: http://thriftykash.hubpages.com/hub/Lost-in-Caucasia-an-essay-on-the-novel-Caucasia-by-Danzy-Senna-1998

Rich, N. (2012, June 28). The Daily Beast . Retrieved May 13, 2013, from American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ at 60: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/28/american-nightmare-ralph-ellison-s-invisible-man-at-60.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_nZnPor4dg The Invisible Man and its Impact on the American Lexicon

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5j4LkOz9C8U Racial Documentary “Other” Mixed Identity


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The Mask: A man, a culture, a people


In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the main character is described as invisible. Not invisible as in impossible to see, but invisible in the sense that people chose not to see him. The motif of the mask is used throughout Ellison’s masterpiece.

The primary source that I am using is Jim Carrey in the Hollywood film, The MaskIn the film, Jim Carrey portrays a character named Stanley Ipkiss. The name Ipkiss somewhat symbolizes the “butt-kisser” that Stanley is. He is too nice. He is invisible to those around him. Ipkiss is so non-confrontational that he gets overlooked by everyone in his life.

Stanley Ipkiss finds a mask of Loki, the Norse god of mischief. When he puts it on, Stanley takes off his mask of meagerness and his real character comes out. This character is wildly confident and does not shy away from excitement.

The reason that I chose this primary source was because of the dichotomy between this Hollywood version of a mask for a timid white man vs. Ellison’s depiction of the black youth having a mask from the beginning.

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. – IM (Ellison, 3)

This dichotomy intrigued me because of the clear difference of what a mask would be for a white man as opposed to our black protagonist in Invisible Man.

On one hand, we have Ellison’s use of the mask as a protective tool. Whether it be Dr. Bledsoe putting on his mask for protection within the school or the mask that is innately on IM throughout the novel, the mask is used as a tool of blending in. It is a mask of innocence, worn because of the thought that the world would not need to look at him anyway.

And then we have the mask of Ikpiss. The Loki mask gives Stanley the ability to become seen. He is lost in the mundane working world and his life is getting swept away. From getting noticed to getting the girl, Stanley is using the mask to get away from the self that he feels is a pathetic being. Not only does he indulge the wacky being inside of Jim Carrey, he realizes that even though the mask gives him magical powers, he has most of the power within him the entire time.

The mask is an escape in both cases. For IM, it is an opportunity to pass without being antagonized by a society that does not fully understand who he is. It is a crutch that is needed because of the years of turmoil that his people have been through. It is not something that IM wants to wear; it protects him from a world that often jumps to drastic conclusions.

For Ikpiss it is a release. It is an escape from the dreadful dreary days of being unnoticed. Being an average white man with an average job, an average apartment and a less-than appealing lifestyle, Stanley uses the mask to show the world what is really inside of him. Outside of the super powers and preposterous stunts, the mask gives him the opportunity to create himself again.

While both characters are sporting masks, the fact that one is beneficial and one is detrimental speaks volumes to the realities of the times.

“The Mask – 1994.” The Mask 1994. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2013.
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“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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Black’s Identity through fashion and appearance

AANovels Digital Essay

Three African American men proudly showing off their Dashiki’s.

Throughout the history of time, cultures have used tons of  avenues to express themselves. Whether through food, dance or music their uniqueness has been used to help form their cultural identity. One way in which African American’s  express their culture is through fashion and appearance.

In the above picture we have three brown skinned men who appear to be between the ages of 35 to 50. Two of the men have on leather sandals while the other has on black leather dress shoes. Even though the three men have differing qualities they seem have one thing in common, their garments. Their garments seem to be more neutral and earth tone colors and also contains beautiful embroidery and pattern. These garments  are known throughout the African American community as Dashikis. A Dashiki is a loose fitting shirt that originates and has roots from the regions of West and East Africa. They all also have on caps known as Kufi’s and Sokoto’s also known as pants.

By wearing this African attire the men in the above picture are trying to be representative of their culture. Just like the men in the above picture, men in John KillensThe Cotillion used fashion to identify with their “blackness”. John Killens gives us an example of how narrow minded some blacks were during these times. Back in this time period, blackness was measured by how Afrocentric you appeared to be. If you didn’t constantly express your culture through your dress or attire your blackness came into question. An example of this can be seen through one of Killen’s main male characters.

Lumumba is known throughout Harlem as an established poet and is highly respected within the community. Lumumba is one of the leaders within the community and is known for his African fashion sense and scruffy beard.  Even though Lumumba is well respected for his activism, the change in his appearance causes people to question his blackness,” Who in the hell? Do I know you Then recognition lit his face. He was himself already lit.Brother! That ain’t you! Is it? What happened to you, baby” ( Killens, 153).

Once the man recognizes Lumumba he proceeds to tell him about his new look,”It’s them skinny skimpy-ass clothes you got on, Black beard told him, oblivious to Yoruba’s laughter and the staring people. You look like you turning white or something, you look absolutely decadent. I mean, you look like you broke into Uncle Jacke’s pawnshop or something. And Man! What happened to your face? It looks like a naked pussycat, I mean you tryna pass or something?” ( Killens, 154).  Due to Lumumba changing his appearance his identity of being a true black man was questioned. This example helps to further prove how important appearance was to people who were involved in the black arts movement.

Like back in the day, clothing is still used as an avenue in which a person can individually express themselves. From a young college man wearing the newest Air Jordan 3 retros, to 5 year old  elementary school girl wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt, to the 38 year old middle age woman strutting down the hallways of her workplace in her new business suit they all are making some type of statement. The type of clothing you wear is a way to identify a person’s style and offer slight  insight into a person’s beliefs.

Fashion is defined as a popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament or manners of behavior. Fashion in a way has taken on an art form. Before putting on any clothes your body essentially acts a blank canvas. Once you begin to put on each article of clothing you add color to the once blank canvas. The addition of color allows you to make more of a statement and express your style.  to The type of clothing you wear is a way to identify a person’s style and offer’s slight insight into a person’s beliefs. Just as girls make fashion statements today by wearing spiked shoes, or 5 inch heels females back in the mid 1900s also had ways of expressing themselves.

One way that females expressed their blackness was through the appearance their hair. Hair appearance is very important to African’s American males but not nearly as important to the females. Hair acts as a creative outlet to allow women to express themselves in many ways. With the unlimited ways a woman could style her hair she essentially becomes  a walking billboard. Whatever hairstyle a woman possessed acted as a endorsement. For instance if a African American woman possessed straight hair or relaxed hair she may be criticized. The main critics would argue that the female is abandoning her natural black hair in order to look more European or White. Even though some girls received criticism they also received praise. Good hair or relaxed hair as some call it can seem to trump other physical flaws and can totally account for beauty.

In The Cotillion, we have a prime example of how good hair is considered the ultimate trait to posses,”I’m so happy you making friends with Brenda Brasswork. She’s such a lovely girl. Her skin’s so smooth, Yoruba said, Actually, Brenda’s face is as pimply as a pomegranate. She’s got a terrible case of acne. And she could almost pass for white, her mother said. And she’s got good hair too. It’s even better’n mine.Good hair, Mother? Yes, she’s got good hair. Admit it. Giver her credit. Everybody’s got good hair, Mother, excepting those who hair is falling out. Don’t cross-talk me, girl. You know what I mean. Okay, I know, Mother. You mean Brenda’s got hair like white folks.Yes, her mother answered. That’s what I said at first, she’s got good stuff up on her head.” (Killens, 165).

The idea of  having good hair has taken over the black community and some of the people that were once proud to wear their natural nappy hair are now somewhat addicted to the relaxer or  the creamy crack as its often called. Whether its exposing your hair and skin to toxic chemicals or spending thousands of dollars on weave and hair extensions,women are willing to go to extreme lengths to make sure their hair looks good.

The above video is a trailer from a movie called Good Hair featuring Chris Rock. In this movie, Chris Rock goes on a journey to learn more about the significance of hair and its importance in the black community. The trailer shows how people in today’s society define good hair and even some of the lengths they go through obtain it. From the opening scene in the trailer, Chris Rock asks a customer in a salon to define good hair. She answers by saying something that is relaxed and nice. This attitude is shared by some of the folks in the movie and only supports the notion that Lady Daphne introduces claiming that relaxed or white like hair is beautiful. The worst part of creamy crack addiction may not be its physical damage but maybe in its psychological damage.

Its psychologically damaging because if good hair is only associated with beauty then it limits the amount of people that can be considered beautiful. People who do not have relaxed hair may often feel inferior or not as pretty as a girl who has relaxed hair. The media has had an active hand in not only polluting the minds of young women but young girls only in elementary school. Chris Rock exposes the viewer to this mindset when his elementary school daughter comes and asks him daddy why don’t I have good hair? This type of insecurity at such a young age is extremely alarming and African American’s should seek to destroy this type of mindset by educating their children on all types of beauty and not limit it to a single thing.

Another way in which females have looked to express their black identity is through clothing as well. In the past women were pressured to dress conservatively and in neutral dull colors. This was very apparent in first pages of Larsen’s , Quicksand when the author described the attire of the women,” Turning from the window, her gaze wandered contemptuously over the dull attire of the women workers. Drab colors, mostly navy blue, black, brown, unrelieved save for scrap of white or tan about the hands and necks. Fragments of a speech made by the dean of women floated through her thoughts-Bright colors are vulgar- Black, gray, brown and navy blue are the most becoming colors for colored people.”(Larsen,16). This mindset was used to help African Americans assimilate into the white culture that had surrounded them.

One way in particular men have tried to identify their blackness is through the particular types of clothes they wear. Urban wear has been a very lucrative business since the early 1990s and was heavily influenced and driven by the taking off hip hop as a musical genre. Media outlets like MTV and BET were able to broadcast rap videos and award shows to hundreds of millions across the nation. With their broad reach, people around the world associated blackness from what they were exposed to in the rap videos.

They were exposed to African American’s cursing , drinking,  and smoking amongst other things but the thing I want to focus mainly on is the fashion aspect. In rap videos the clothing at times was predictable and soon became infections. Rappers would often wear baggy pants or shorts, a snap back cap or baseball hat along with either a matching sports jersey, an over sized t-shirt, some Jordan’s, Adidas  or Nike sneakers. This look soon caught on and became a way for African Americans to show off their blackness. Over the years young black boys looked at these men as role models and soon began to copy their fashion sense. With baggy jeans, jerseys and snap backs being associated with blackness, young boys soon began to associate other particular styles with whiteness. Blacks would often times criticize other blacks who didn’t dress like the norm and heckle them.

Here is a picture of two cousins. Carlton on the right would be considered white due to his appearance. While on the left you have Will Smith who identifies with his blackness whole heartedly

Here is a picture of two cousins. Carlton on the right would be considered white due to his appearance. While on the left you have Will Smith who identifies with his blackness whole heartily.

Will Carlton

Whose expressing their blackness?

For instance in The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air Carlton would be looked upon as a sellout or an Oreo.  An Oreo is a slang term that African American’s often use to describe another African American who physical appears black on the outside but on the inside he acts white. In the nearby picture we have Will and Carlton. Carlton is on the left and is dressed in a preppier fashion. He has on a white sweater vest,  white polo shirt and black pants. Based on Carlton’s appearance he would not be able to identify with other blacks around him simply because they would look at his appearance and label him as dressing white.

Carlton’s cousin Will Smith on the other hand would be welcomed into the black community due to his attire. He has a high top fade, a black t-shirt, a sports team jacket and some Levi jeans. All these elements  put together would scream blackness back in the day. Due to their dressing styles they would experience different sides of the black community.

Throughout this essay I have given examples of how African American’s have used fashion to identify with their blackness. They have used it uplift certain blacks while unfortunately also trampling on other blacks and putting them down. This type of behavior is appalling and in some ways very limiting to blackness. This was the main critique of people involved in the Post soul movement. By limiting blackness you constantly narrow people’s images of what black is and what black isn’t. Blackness shouldn’t a dividing factor solely be defined by the music you listen to or the clothes you wear. Blackness should be a unifying force bringing people together and also empowering them.



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Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. VA: Wilder Publications, 2010. Print.

Men’s Dashiki Pant set w/ Cap. http://www.hebrewinspirations.com/Mens-Clothing.html , n.p. , n.d., 13 May 2013.

MY ADIDAS – The Music Video by RUN DMC, youtube.com, 29,  August 2009. n.d. 13 May 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dA8DsUN6g_k

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Season 1 Funny Moments. http://www.youtube.com. n.p. 22 , December 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAXaxjUreGk

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