Obsessing About Black Beauty Never Goes Out of Fashion

by Mark Reynolds

14 January 2010

The year 2009 saw no shortage of jumping-off points for wrestling with how black folks regard their visages, how everyone else regards black visages, and how we all negotiate the distance between the two.
Photo from the cover of Posing Beauty 

The first year of the Obama presidency, clearly, has been marked by one long, hard slog after the next: Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, the economy, global energy, social climbing party crashers. No one said any of it would be easy, and so far that’s been exactly the case. Why, he hasn’t even gotten a pass on what would seem to be much lower-hanging fruit.

After basking in the post-inaugural glow of history, black folk rubbed the stars out of their eyes and began to take a hard look at things. Yes, there was a black fam in the White House, but most other black families were still struggling. Foreclosures and joblessness hit black communities harder than many other segments of the country. A long-running youth turf war in his hometown Chicago turned deadly, and then went viral, forcing the Obama administration to spend a day or so reconnecting to its urban policy platitudes. 

And black lawmakers became increasingly impatient with Obama’s rising-tide-lifting-all-boats approach to addressing black economic inequality, demanding that he, in effect, remember where he came from (one could argue that the left wing made similar demands). Black approval ratings for his performance are still much higher than the country’s view of him, but the unconditional love train left the station months ago and shows no sign of returning.

Obama’s year-one report card shows mixed results on softer issues, as well. One of the by-products many foresaw from his election was increased black pride and self-esteem. Now that a black man had obtained the most powerful and (for blacks) unattainable office in the land, this line of reasoning went, black people would walk through their days with heads held higher, steps more confident, eyes more firmly fixed on whatever their prize might be. Indeed, social scientists have already begun to track how much the swell of pride in his election has trickled down through our lives. (“‘Obama Effect’ at school: Black parents volunteer, expect more” by Greg Toppo, USA Today, 6 August 2009)

But anyone who thought that his triumph would automatically erase generations of nagging ticks, doubts, isms and schisms within the collective black psyche underestimated how deep-rooted all that is. When it came to questions of black imagery, 2009 saw no shortage of jumping-off points for wrestling with a most confounding three-headed beast: how black folks regard their visages; how everyone else regards black visages; and how we all negotiate the distance between the two perspectives.

The year began with discussion of the impact of having a black woman as First Lady – and Michelle Obama in particular – on issues of style and fashion. Erin Aubry Kaplan framed the question in her 3 February Salon column, “The Michelle Obama hair challenge:” 

But black images – indeed, the very idea of beauty – are still inherently political, mirrors of our national mood about race and ancient tensions between reality and what we prefer to see… We applaud the sparkling new role models in the White House.  But do we expect the Obamas to define a new black mainstream or to hew to an idealized model created by a white mainstream that blacks internalized long ago?

Michelle’s most-dissected fashion choice became her sleeveless look, not whatever she did or didn’t do with her hair, the specific subject of Kaplan’s piece. Those bare arms sent women scurrying off to the gym to tone up ill-defined biceps and triceps. (“How to Get Michelle Obama’s Arms: The Workout Plan” by Donna Raskin, Fitness, Beyond that, Michelle seemed to handle her unofficial duties as First Signifier of Fashion with good taste, good humor and, well, a degree of personal style.

Notions about how black folks present themselves to the world popped up in the most surprising places.  For example, take the cover of ESPN The Magazine—specifically, the cover of the 19 October 2009 issue featuring a nude Serena Williams. This was one of six covers for its Body Issue, and although not the only one to feature an unclothed woman, probably the most discussed in the blogosphere (and quite likely, various locker rooms and barber shops). 

For many, it was just short of scandalous that Serena would pose au natural for all to see—there are many black people who have not decoupled racy images of a black female body from the historic degradation of black women. Never mind that nothing more prurient than her smile, glowing skin and full, curvy legs – pretty much what we see every time she plays tennis – is exposed.  It’s not her fault that she’s a gorgeous woman, and it’s completely within her right to celebrate that gorgeousness as she chooses. But Obamas be dammed, we apparently have yet to reach the point where a picture of a naked black woman is simply that, and not laden with the power to trigger age-old signifiers. 

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