Glamour Magazine on Women, Race, and Beauty

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

I’ve been waiting for this shoe to drop.

Last August, a former Glamour editor found herself in a hailstorm of controversy after she gave a speech to a law firm where she indicated that an afro was not an office appropriate hairstyle. Jezebel had the scoop:

[A] recent slide show by an unidentified Glamour editor on the “Dos and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion” at a New York law firm shed some light on the topic, according to this month’s American Lawyer magazine.

First slide up: an African American woman sporting an Afro. A real no-no, announced the ‘Glamour’ editor to the 40 or so lawyers in the room. As for dreadlocks: How truly dreadful! The style maven said it was ‘shocking’ that some people still think it ‘appropriate’ to wear those hairstyles at the office. ‘No offense,’ she sniffed, but those ‘political’ hairstyles really have to go.

In November of that year, Glamour tried to make amends to its readership by hosting a panel to discuss Women, Race, and Beauty. The March Issue of Glamour contains the transcript from the panel as well as some extra information about the panelists and some sidebars.

Reading the finished product, I notice I am left feeling unsatisfied. It’s kind of like when I saw The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift soundtrack advertised. DJ Shadow, Mos Def, Verbal from M-Flo, Dragon Ash, The Far*East Movement, and N.E.R.D. were all featured but after I previewed the tracks, I ended up leaving the CD in the store. How did something so right go so wrong?

I got the same feeling from this Glamour article. All the all stars are here: Farai Chideya (NPR, News & Notes), Vanessa Bush (Essence), Jami Floyd (TV Anchor), Daisy Hernandez (Colorlines), Lisa Price (Carol’s Daughter Hair Products), Venus Opal Reese (PH.D, University of Texas), Mally Roncal (Celebrity Make Up Artist/make up creator), and Barbara Trepagnier (Professor of Sociology). And yet…

The Panel

With Farai Chideya moderating, the panel got off to a quick start. The panel answered questions on the perception of natural hair in the workplace, self-acceptance, community pressure from both perspectives, and hair and identity. The audience also chimed in, lobbing questions about intra-community hair politics, adding more woman of color in the beauty business, and instilling confidence in teenage girls.

The conversation that resulted was good, but very surface level. The panelists used a lot of anecdotal evidence to make their points and generally stayed away from any topic that would seem a little too controversial.

What Was Missing

There were two comments that broke from this mold, one from Venus Opal Reese, and the other from Mally Roncal:

REESE: I’d like us to consider how we see things. When it comes to race, we’re looking from the past. When people see me with my natural hair, they don’t see Dr. Venus Opal Reese who has four degrees, they see an historical idea of what natural hair means. And that’s what it meant in the 1970s and 1960s; it equaled black nationalism and was linked to the Black Panther Party. It was considered militant. That doesn’t mean it’s true now, but that’s how it’s linked.

RONCAL: But you have to be comfortable with yourself before it can be about having fun. With my makeup line I work with everyday women, and obviously I give them tricks to enhance their own beauty. But I get a lot of Asian girls saying, “My eyes are too slanty. How do I make them look rounder?” And African American women asking, “How can I make my nose or lips look smaller?” I tell them, “We all deserve to feel as beautiful as we are. But I don’t want to hear you say, ‘I want to look more like a white girl.’”

With the exception of Roncal’s comment, the prevailing dominance of the white beauty ideal was not mentioned. Most of the discussion focused around corporate ideals of what is acceptable and what is not. Many of the panelists talk about straightening their hair to fit into a certain corporate culture or to advance. However, not much was discussed as to why certain people conform to the prevailing beauty standards and others do not. The corporate culture piece is an important one, but this panel happened because a group of lawyers thought there was something wrong with a beauty editor condemning natural hair. So there is a corporate component, but I would have liked to have seen a little more about individual attitudes.

Individual attitudes towards different kinds of beauty are immensely important in these kinds of conversations. It is quite telling that Dodai from Jezebel can post monthly articles about the lack of models of color in fashion magazine spreads, advertising, and on the runways, and still get comments like this one:

“It’s not the modelling agencies or fashion designers fault that black chicks aren’t as hot as white chicks. But this article in itself is racist. Maybe they were rebelling against these people trying to force them to diversify.”

There are institutional forces who propagate the idea that the white ideal of beauty is the only acceptable ideal of beauty. And then there are those individuals who are willing to disregard all other information to prove that the way things are is what is natural and right. I am not sure which of the two is harder to fight.

Now, I understand that there are different levels of racial conversation. Glamour is a national magazine that reaches two million women through paid circulation (subscriptions and newsstand). So a hard targeted conversation may not have played too well with their targeted readership. But their responses seem a little anemic considering the situation that sparked the panel.

Other Bits of Strange

This was Glamour’s response to their readers after a hurtful comment came from one of their staffers. (It should be mentioned that the staffer in question, Ashley Baker, says the comment was taken out of context. Her version of the story has not yet been revealed.) And Glamour has had other staffers make questionable statements that fly against their self-proclaimed belief “in the beauty of all women.” For example, touting the assumption that no one in their right mind would ever want a larger rear end.

So there is a bit of history here.

But I have to say I do find it interesting that a major article like this one wouldn’t merit a cover line. This is Glamour’s way to make amends and instead of promoting their discussion on race and beauty, they choose to go with the following cover lines:

“Pssst! Why guys love your body exactly as is”
“Sexy Hair in 10 Minutes or Less”
“99 Juicy New Secrets of Hollywood!”
“Find Your Best Birth Control”
“The Fashion, the Fun, the Dos & Don’ts”
“Spring Clothes for You”
“Naomi Watts: On the ballsy move that got her the man she loves”

Seriously? Y’all couldn’t take the corner spot you dedicated to the same old birth control article I read in every other women’s magazine and plug this panel?

I guess Sexy Hair grabs more attention than Icky Race Issues.

I also noticed some attempts at inclusiveness in the article, manifested through the sidebars. While the panel focused mostly on black women and hair issues, there were small glimpses of the experiences of others along the margins. N. Jamiyla Chislom talked about embracing the versatility of her hair, saying “Whether it’s ‘locked, Afroed, twisted, or straightened, we have the option of any and every style.” Serena Kim explains the single-fold eyelid and cultural pride. (It reminded me of Carmen’s earlier post asking if this issue was the number one concern in the Asian community. From my outsider’s view, I think this issue gets so much play in American magazines because it is (1) uniquely Asian and (2) something many Americans would find strange and exotic.) Laura Checkoway writes about wanting to trade her size zero figure for a larger frame to emulate “the two hottest black girls in my class, who had all the boys’ attention when they strutted by.” Taigi Smith writes about letting her hair be what it is. And Shirley J. Velasquez confused me with an article about facial hair and Latinas:

Latinas have two ideas about facial hair: that it makes a woman look dirty and that it’s sexy. When I was 13, my mother began taking me to a salon to get my upper lip threaded. “Now you look clean,” she’d say, and I’d feel good. I liked Frida Kahlo’s striking appearance, but I didn’t want facial hair like hers. One day, I noticed the woman attending me. She was beautiful with her facial hair, not despite it. I realized that I am too. I love the way my skin glows when it’s bare, but I know that there’s nothing embarassing about my body doing what it’s supposed to. Now, instead of continuing time-consuming waxes, I had laser hair removal. I was proud that it was less about shame and more about practicality.

Umm…I love my facial hair, so I got it permanently removed? Ok…I guess. My hair doesn’t grow that fast, so maybe she had to hit the waxer once a week? I dunno – someone please enlighten me.

At any rate, these perspectives were interesting soundbytes but not much else. I think they were intended to add some other ideas of race and identity, but left nothing substantial to hold on to.

The short segments did remind me of another piece that I had read about beauty – which accidentally brought race into the mix. Over on the Fat Acceptance blog, Shapely Prose, Kate Harding penned a piece called the Fantasy of Being Thin. Though the entire piece is excellent (and well worth the read), it can be summed up in this sentence:

Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.”

There are now 471 comments to that post, but this one knocked the air from my lungs:

Tracy, on November 27th, 2007 at 8:13 pm Said:

I have been thinking about my thin fantasies for a while and the biggest one to come to me is probably particular to women of color:

If I were thin, I would be white…well as close as possible.

That was the biggest and most heartbreaking revelation for me. I always considered myself the exception to the rule about black folks and maybe it was my way of separating myself from my peers.

And then another one:

lactose intolerant lisa, on December 6th, 2007 at 7:08 pm Said:

I had an eating disorder based on my fantasy of being thin. For me, it was completely outrageous expectations: that my mom and dad would not get divorced, that I would be popular, that I would be worthy of all of the things I wanted to do, that I could finally wear the clothes I wanted to make, and the most outrageous one: that I would be white. I’m half white, and I so internalized all the racism I’d encountered that I always fantasized that when I was thin, I would be white. Talk about impossible. I’ve come very far on beating my eating disorder, but my fantasy of being thin seems like one of the very last things to go.

We can discuss differences in hair texture.

We can discuss differences in body type.

We can discuss differences in facial features.

But this does not change the reality that “white” is considered the golden standard and that everything else is deemed unacceptable. Straightened hair, fairer skin, keener features are all considered beautiful while anything else is automatically considered unattractive. If you are a woman of color, you suddenly find yourself under enormous pressure to compensate for that you “lack.” The situation isn’t hopeless. As Afrobella writes in Black Woman, Know That You Are Beautiful, there are ample resources created by and for women of color that need our support. While most of us can and do support the endeavors of our community, does that mean we have to stop advocating for inclusion and support in mainstream publications?

Going back to the Glamour article, I find myself a bit sad. Rarely does a mainstream magazine decide to tackle race directly and so Glamour should be commended for putting the panel and article together. However, the piece feels like a wonderful beginning, a springboard to a multi-part series, the small start that leads us into a more enlightened conversation. It deserves more follow up, discussions, check-ins, maybe even a small monthly feature.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this article – as well as the conversation it sparked – ends on page 246, never to be mentioned again.

(Image taken from the Glamour website)