Category Archives: On Beauty

Are curls the new straight hair? [The Germany Files]

by Carolina Asuquo-Brown

Just a few weeks ago I was flipping through the pages of a fashion mag with a friend.

An editorial featuring an obviously biracial black/white model sporting a huge curly ‘fro caught our eye and that I have to say – I just loved the style.

I have been natural most of my life (not necessarily out of conviction but due to the chronic and persisting shortage of German hairstylists who can deal with wild biracial hair more on the afro side-or with any kind of biracial or black hair) save a few relaxed spells every few years after which I desperately longed for my kinks and curls to come back.

Anyway, my style of the moment is natural and the model’s medium-length curls were something I really considered desirable. The hairstyle did strike a chord with me, but my friend Jen, who has two African parents, is many a shade darker than I am and has shiny and fantastically healthy-looking relaxed tresses (which I have never managed to obtain) was a lot less enthusiastic about the model’s look.

“That’s something mixed girls get away with” she said, “They can get their hair to look like that – I couldn’t. I feel that curls are something like the latest fetish – it’s like there are black girls with great curls all around, advertisement, movies, magazines. And lately it has become a bit like what straight hair used to be-you’ve got to have it.”

It had never occurred to me, but speaking to Jen, I realised that she might be right. Over the next weeks everywhere I looked, be it the streets of my city or most of he few female black German TV-presenters – it really seemed that nowadays the fly mixed or black girl hast to have curls. Generous, semi-loose curls that is, tight enough to give you the volume but loose enough to be considered beautiful in a more mainstream way. Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 2 – On Class

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Continued from “Bela or Bust: Part 1: On Gender” . . .

Author’s note: My apologies for the delay between part one and part two! I have recently moved back to the United States and in between re-adjusting and job hunting, I had not had the chance or the mental clarity to sit down and actually write!

The popular anecdote goes “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” If I were to rephrase this expression to fit Brazil, I’d say “Beauty is next to Wealth.” Though Brazil has grown considerably with tourism, natural resources, and factory-based goods as its largest sectors of revenue, on the ground, the class divide is evident and going strong. One ironic way to overcome class and bridge the class divide, at least superficially, is through a well-kept appearance. I say ironic here because in order to appear a social or economic equal, one must continue to consume, thus depleting one’s income, even if it is far from disposable.

Luckily for many Brazilian women, maintaining one’s physical appearance is not so heavy a financial task. Even in large cities, one can get an amazing manicure/pedicure for less than $20 reais ($10 USD), a facial for $50 reais ($25 USD), a “Brazilian” wax for $15 reais (known there as “depilação de virilha”; $7 USD) and multiple sessions of lymphatic massage for $100 reais a month ($50 USD). In comparison to the cost of aesthetic maintenance in the United States, Brazilian women are the fortunate ones. In some ways, the cheap costs, even for the average Brazilian, allow for a democratization of access to beauty, whereas in the U.S., this is not so much the case. And when one can find cheap beauty related services in the U.S., the question of service, quality, and even employee rights follows the far too reasonable price tag.

With relatively equal access to stellar services, many women have access to maintaining an image that puts them physically on par with their wealthier counterparts. In other words, she may not be rich, but at least her looks are equal to if not superior to someone with greater material wealth. In the United States, this “phenomenon” of sorts, democratization and equality by way of the physical, can be witnessed in the purchase of clothing and vehicles by those of a lower income. As quality attire is not nearly as expensive in the States as it is in Brazil (due mainly to import taxation and trade issues) and the intellectual property rights of high end designers are often violated by chain stores like H&M and Forever 21, people of the working and lower middle classes have greater access to some of the same clothing styles worn by the rich. As wealth, at least in the past, seemed less of a precarious state in the U.S., the preoccupation with “looking rich” was not evident. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that in many cases, the wealthy in the States can be indistinguishable from the general public (look at stores like Urban Outfitters, which peddles the image of tattered, vintage, and reconstructed clothing at a high price). This is not the case in Brazil, where the wealthy can be spotted from miles away. Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 1 – On Gender

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse 

Continued from “Bela or Bust (Introduction)” . . .

Author’s note:
I recognize that to say that the preoccupation with being beautiful for women in Brazil boils down to three separate entities is oversimplifying. Gender, class, and race obviously intersect constantly and are difficult to consider beyond their Venn diagram-like existence. Yet for the sake of clarity and hopefully accessibility, I have decided to discuss this topic in three parts: 1) gender, 2) class, and 3) race.

Despite Brazil being one of the most powerful countries in Latin America, it is still working to develop an image that coincides with the nations with which it frequently interacts for diplomatic purposes and international recognition. While issues surrounding class are certainly a cause for shame to the Brazilian national identity, one of the other issues on its pulse for change is gender. Brazil has undergone rapid change in the last few decades in terms of women’s equality, with women moving from predominately domestic roles to working beyond the home and holding positions of power. Yet even with these achievements, the obsession with physical perfection has not dwindled, though in Brazil’s case, advances in women’s rights and an extensive beauty regimen are not necessarily at odds. In fact, in an ironic twist, what some women in the United States may find as a sign of oppression has become a mark of power and success.

Having grown up in the South, I’m accustomed to seeing women spend hundreds of dollars a month on their appearance and hours on maintaining it, but when I moved to Brazil, I was sincerely shocked to see that in both small towns and big cities, full-service beauty salons were everywhere, including people’s homes. Many Brazilians know someone who knows someone who does waxing, hair straightening, and nails in the back of her house. As Brazil has one of the largest informal labor sectors in the world, beauty certainly makes up a large part of this statistic, mean that many women have additional job opportunities even when they remain in the home. From Avon, Racco, and Mary Kay sales to nail care and lymphatic massage, the opportunities for a supplemental income are endless and easily accessible for women of all walks of life.

An intense focus on beauty has also been a mark of pride for women, especially as they climb socially. With more women each year entering the workforce in Brazil, peer recognition and respect are contingent on appearance. As more women hold positions of power, the pressure to remain beautiful only grows, as it can sometimes guarantee a better position and internal advancement within a company. However, this is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to Brazil, as this situation is often repeated in the United States, yet to a less obvious degree.

At this point, some of you may be asking what exactly I am implying when I say things like “intense focus on beauty” or “extensive beauty regiment.” When I say this, I am talking about what we would consider “high maintenance” in the United States as the accepted norm for women’s appearance. A woman must always be “bem arrumada.” This means that even when one goes grocery shopping, heels, nice clothes, and styled hair is the norm. One of my students once told me that she felt absolutely dirty when her nails were not done, and another informed me she would never leave the house with wet hair because that was super “pobre” (“ghetto”). Sure, some of the beauty norms make total sense, particularly those related to hygiene and personal maintenance (i.e. frequent waxing) considering the heat and beach cultures of some regions of Brazil. There is also a cultural connection in that just as many Americans obsess over cleanliness, Brazilians often obsess about neatness. This desire to be neat and clean goes beyond the household and can be easily observed in people’s overall appearance. But in terms of the daily need to be basically perfect, a pressure that is placed disproportionately on women, there is certainly room for questioning and criticism.

Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Bela* or Bust (Introduction)

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

“So, are the girls hot?”

This is the most common question I receive from American men when I explain that I have been living in Brazil. These men come from all walks of life, are of various racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, and of varying levels of education, exposure to other countries, etc. Long story short, this question seems to be on the minds of many men. It is, for better or for worse, a universal curiosity.

But in my response, I quickly put things in perspective.

“Well, for one, Ugly travels. I see just as many unattractive people in Brazil as I do in the States, and equally as many beautiful people on both sides as well. But I can safely say that the majority of women in Brazil work really hard to be beautiful, more so than the majority of American women.”

There are usually follow-up questions about body types (butts being the primary focus, of course) and clothing styles (are the clothes all skimpy?) and I handle those accordingly. The preoccupation with appearance in Brazil-related questions is to be expected considering that one of the primary portrayals of Brazil in the United States relates to beach culture, scantily-clad women, and sex. But when one takes the time to consider the reasons behind the high standards of beauty in Brazil, it is obvious that there is more to being beautiful and participating in the process of achieving that than just a bikini wax or the perfect nails. Beauty in Brazil is a complex matter involving gender, race and, most certainly, class. Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Race & the Runway – São Paulo Fashion Week Dabbles in Color

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

models Joseph Ackon, Samira Carvalho and Ronaldo Martins for Osklen

Yesterday afternoon, I was talking to one of my colleagues when I noticed one of the most beautiful black women I had ever seen in my life walk through the door. Despite the young students running around at her feet, she remained calm. She stood out among all the other parents awaiting their children as she was the youngest, the one with the most poise, and the darkest. Amid all the other white parents, this young woman, despite the simplicity of her white canvas jacket and jeans, called for the most attention. She was simply arresting. My first thought was, “wow, she could be a model.”

Yet this moment of wandering imagination was quickly squelched by the loud voices of two young and rambunctious pupils approaching from behind. I continued to watch as the two pale, fair-haired children ran to join hands with the woman who could give Iman and Naomi Campbell a serious run for their money, the contrast of their skin colors and body language putting everything in perspective. She was the children’s caretaker, their nanny, possibly the family maid. And that is exactly the social order in which she would most likely remain, for no matter the intensity of her beauty, in Brazil, her color would be a disadvantage –  the mark of Cain, if you will. She was the color that I had heard some pray their children would not be. She was the color that stood as shorthand for crime and poverty. But in my eyes, she possessed a color that I quite frankly missed. Continue reading

Hair’s To Freedom

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger, originally published at Neesha Meminger

This weekend, I was interviewed for a magazine article. Nothing to do with my book, or even writing, for that matter. The topic of the hour was body image. This is a topic I could go on and on and ON about (and have, on several occasions), but I’ll refrain just this once.

Before the interview, all sorts of thoughts went through my head about what I might talk about — will I do the usual issue of weight and body size/shape? Would I go to the more familiar topic of areas of my body I’ve waged war with? Or would I go into the skin shade territory? So many areas to cover (no pun intended), not enough interview time . . .

So, when the lovely interviewer called me, we had a fantastic, lively, friendly discussion. It was fun and hilarious. We were about forty-five minutes through when I realized all I’d talked about was my hair. My hair. Not the usual trilogy: butt, boobs, belly. Not flab, sag, and lumps. Hair. And not body hair, either.

I had no idea what a huge issue hair has been all through my life. But as I talked to Ms. Lovely Interviewer, I realized that as a Sikh girl-child, then young woman, so many battles over control and power in my house were fought around the territory of my hair. I was not allowed to cut it, there were certain hairstyles I could not wear, and there was just so much IMPORTANCE placed on what I did or did not do with my hair. Continue reading

Assimilated Beauty

by Guest Contributor Lisa Leong, originally published on the AZN Television blog

“That’s colonialism all over your face!”

The quote is from one of my favorite Asian American Studies professors on eyelid surgery, nose bridge implants, and any other kind of cosmetic surgery that transforms Asians physical features into more Caucasian ones. She meant that there is one standard of beauty—the Western one—that gets imprinted on our faces, our bodies, and our senses of self.

It’s easy to see that the Western ideal of blond-haired, blue-eyed, All-American (or Ayran, if you’re more sinister) beauty is the dominant standard. Look no further than the all-present world of popular media. Advertisements, TV, and movies glorify beautiful faces, but these beautiful faces don’t look anything like me—or you, probably. Every billboard says, “This is Beauty, and you are not quite it. Envy my bag, my hair, my look and my, uh, eyelids.”

Racialized plastic surgery is a popular topic on talk shows like Tyra and Montel. They raise the question: does eyelid surgery erase or enhance race? The audience nods along in agreement that eyelid surgery is a way for Asians to conform to white prettiness. The plastic surgeon and his patients say that they are just enhancing Asian looks. I may not have big, round eyes, but I can see perfectly well what’s going on here. Continue reading

Nappily Ever After? Not Quite…

by Latoya Peterson

*Warning: Strong Language*

Regular readers might remember a piece I wrote a year or so ago, called Hair, Apparently. In the piece I wrote about an incident where I felt like someone had insinuated I was a “house nigga” because my hair was straightened with a chemical relaxer.

The piece sparked an interesting conversation in the comments and I was comforted by the reactions by most of the readers – do you and let it be done. The overwhelming consensus was your hair is your hair and you should be able to do with it what you please. (Should is the operative word, but more on that later.)

However, a lot of time has passed since then. In the interim, I read Tami’s piece (the original version of the piece posted here), started reading Afrobella’s blog regularly, and watched as my friend Spiffany transitioned from chemical relaxers to a beautiful and natural do. I admired what people could do with their naturals, but never felt motivated to do it myself.

Yet, Tami posed a little question in her original piece that always stuck in my mind.

Earlier this year, a fellow blogger very smartly observed that black women may be the only race of women who live their whole lives never knowing what their real hair looks and feels like. Think about that.

I was one of those women. Aside from a happy little puffball photo from the fifth grade* and a couple of shots of me with pressed hair, I had a relaxer for as long as I could remember. And that question stayed with me, for the next six or so months until I had my third Catastrophic Relaxer DisasterTM and found myself bald at my temples and missing a big chunk of hair from the back of my head.

From that day on, I was like “Fuck it – I’m letting it grow.”

And so it has. Today, I’ve been relaxer free for more than a year. My hair is fully natural – I cut out the last of the chemically straightened hair six months ago and haven’t really looked back. I love my hair now, love everything it does, how it looks, all that.

But it occurs to me that this was strange journey for me. Navigating transitioning my hair out was never really about my hair – it was about notions of societal influence, beauty, intra-group standards, cultural conditioning, and asserting my own personality. It was about my hair as a political battleground – where people read the pattern of my stands like tea leaves, trying to divine my personality and political views. It was about everything except what I actually wanted to do – which was stop relaxing my hair and wear a new style.

While I scoured all the pro-natural sites on the net for advice, all I learned were new styles. No one told me how to cope with the transition itself. Everyone cuts to the happy – “You’ll love yourself! You’re free from chemicals!” speech, but no one really talks about how tough that road is to walk. So, let’s look at a few of the things we tend to gloss over when we talk about natural hair.


The Influence of Men and the Perception of Attractiveness

Let’s start with the outside influence aspect of things. About two weeks out from the Catastrophic Relaxer Disaster,TM I was hanging out with my friend KJ, the natural haired friend I referred to in the first piece. Artfully rocking a cap and a long bang to cover my bald spot, I excitedly told her my decision – I was switching to natural hair.

She stopped fumbling through earrings and looked up at me, face locked in a hesitant expression.

“What did your boyfriend say?” she asked carefully. Continue reading