Tag Archives: beauty

Dispatches from Nappyville: WTF, NPR? Way to totally mischaracterize discussions about black women, hair and Michelle Obama

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

That Farai Chideya is no longer holding it down at NPR’s “News & Notes” is abundantly clear. Yesterday’s “News & Notes” segment–” The Obama Effect on Black Women’s Hair Issues–was some serious insipid nonsense. Since the dawning of the Obama era, I’ve sensed a disturbing trend in coverage of black women’s issues by mainstream media. Having a black First Lady seems to have inspired the media to take some notice of the unique lives of African American women. Good. Problem is, the gently increased coverage is shallow and inconsequential, and often has the feel of detached voyeurism–academically peering at the exotic world and strange habits of black women (oddly, this is so, even when the work is presided over by black women). A product of these travel guides to Blackchicksylvania is the “Lawd, us black wimmin’s hair sho is complicated” story, which usually includes the meme that Michelle Obama’s hair is a hot topic among black women. And so goes the “News & Notes” piece by Allison Samuels, featuring celebrity stylist Marcia Hamilton.

Listen.

Says Samuels, “We now have an African American president, with an African American wife and two African American daughters. So now we talk a lot about hair–things we probably didn’t talk about when we had First Ladies who were not African American. So, the conversation has gone from one end to the other. Should Michelle wear more natural hair? Should she cut her hair? Should she have a perm? Should she press and curl? Why do we have such an obsession, even now, in 2009, with black women and hair?”

First, I would love to know where these purported conversations about Michelle Obama’s hair are taking place. Where is this obsession with her tresses flowering? So far, I’ve seen several articles about the phenomenon (I believe Salon has peddled it, too.), but have yet to experience it among any, y’know, actual black women. As far as I can tell, in real life, no one is riding Michelle to bust out the cornrows at the next State dinner. (According to Samuels, black female bloggers are calling for Michelle and her daughters to be champions of black hair. Why’s everybody got to blame the bloggers these days? I’m plugged into the top black blogs and haven’t seen any such discussion percolating. Hmmmm.) Continue reading

I Didn’t Know My–Or Michelle’s–Ass Was That Interesting

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea Plaid

Did United Statesians electing its first president of color become an implicit invitation for liberal/progressive media outlets to talk about Black and brown behinds?

According to two of them, yep.

Salon started off the conversation with Erin Aubry Kaplan’s essay, “First Lady Got Back,” where she waxes ecstatic about First Lady Michelle Obama’s behind:

“…while it isn’t humongous, per se, it is a solid, round, black, class-A boo-tay. Try as Michelle might to cover it with those Mamie Eisenhower skirts and sheath dresses meant to reassure mainstream voters, the butt would not be denied.

As America fretted about Obama’s exoticism and he sought to calm the waters with speeches about unity and common experience, Michelle’s body was sending a different message: To hell with biracialism! Compromise, bipartisanship? Don’t think so. Here was one clear signifier of blackness that couldn’t be tamed, muted or otherwise made invisible. It emerged right before our eyes, in the midst of our growing uncertainty about everything, and we were too bogged down in the daily campaign madness to notice. The one clear predictor of success that the pundits, despite all their fancy maps, charts and holograms, missed completely? Michelle’s butt.”

As my friend Tom would say, “Stop, Miss Gurl.”

There’s more–infinitely more–to what makes our new First Lady beautiful and a challenge to the white-beauty standard than her boo-tay. If Aubry Kaplan would have delved into the beauty-brains combo she started to discuss (“She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style…”), the piece would have been sort of all right. Nope, just Michelle’s ass.

Then here comes Alternet with Myra Mendible’s “Big Booty Beauty and the New Sexual Aesthetic. Her take on the ass thang:

“We should not underestimate the symbolic value of buttocks. Butt metaphors helped European cultures categorize and describe their others, ascribing bodily differences certain moral and intellectual attributes. Gilman argues that, “Beginning with the expansion of European colonial exploration, describing the forms and size of the buttocks became a means of describing and classifying the races. The more prominent the more primitive…” (Making the Body Beautiful). British culture, in particular, identified the buttocks with primitive or debased sexuality (Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex). Non-Western women were associated with the “lower regions” of the body and characterized in terms of their abundant backside. Similarly, in American culture, the U.S.-Mexico border marked a figurative divide between Northern mind and Southern body, rationality and sensuality, domestic and foreign. This bodily trope culled associations between the lower body and the inferior, more primitive “under” developed “torrid zones” south of the border; it often served to rationalize U.S. military interventions or corporate exploitation of Latin American labor and resources.”

Analytically speaking, what Mendible wrote is what Aubry Kaplan should have written: a more nuanced reflection on the history and meaning of the colored butt in the erotic imaginations and racial and gender definitions of white people and Black men and Latinos and how that loaded image became a policy of exploitation for both groups. In other words, a little intersectionality would have helped Aubry Kaplan’s essay. 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

Mirror’s Edge: Pixilated Beauty, Race, and Stereotypes

by Latoya Peterson

I’ve been checking for the game Mirror’s Edge for a while, since the first stills dropped a few months ago. There are a lot of things that excite me about the game: tapping into the parkour experience, rolling through a first person landscape without it being a shooter, a provocative plot.

However, I would be lying if I didn’t say I was geeked about a woman of color protagonist – and one who has a character design which reflects the environment she works within.

However, I haven’t yet played Mirror’s Edge because of what I am calling the If You Give a Gamer a Cookie New Console conundrum.* So, I’ve been keeping my gaming excitement on a low simmer. Well, I was, until I clicked over to Feministe.

And as always, Hollyhas got the gaming goods.

Mirror’s Edge is at its heart a game about parkour, the athletic art of moving between two points as rapidly as possible, using nothing but your body and features of the environment. The game’s protagonist is Faith, an Asian-American courier with a knack for hurling herself into harm’s way. Like a lot of parkour enthusiasts, she spends a lot of time on rooftops, and Mirror’s Edge is largely about jumping, vaulting, climbing, pushing off of walls, rolling as Faith falls from great heights, and other almost-impossible seeming feats of gravity defiance.

I swear, I have to bite my finger from screaming at this gameplay. But Holly’s post also sheds some interesting light on a racial nuance in the conversation surrounding Mirror’s Edge:

Even when you do see her in ads, mirrors, and cutscenes, Faith has a wiry, androgynous form suited to someone who runs and climbs for a living. Her clothing is utilitarian, not decorative, and her style of movement is closer to the efficiency of parkour than the aesthetics of free running. Tom Farrer, the producer of the game, was recently quoted about her character design:

    We’ve spent time in developing Faith. And the important thing for us was that she was human, that she was more real.

    We really wanted to get away from the typical portrayal of women in games, that they’re all just kind of tits and ass in a steel bikini. We wanted her to look athletic and fit and strong [enough] that she could do the things that she’s doing.

    We wanted her to be attractive, but we didn’t want her to be a supermodel. We wanted her to be approachable and far more real. It was just kind of depressing that someone thinks it would be better if Faith was a 12-year-old with a boob job. That was kind of what that image looked to me. [...] To be honest, I found it kind of sad.

Continue reading

Salon: “First lady got back”

by Latoya Peterson


As America fretted about Obama’s exoticism and he sought to calm the waters with speeches about unity and common experience, Michelle’s body was sending a different message: To hell with biracialism! Compromise, bipartisanship? Don’t think so. Here was one clear signifier of blackness that couldn’t be tamed, muted or otherwise made invisible. It emerged right before our eyes, in the midst of our growing uncertainty about everything, and we were too bogged down in the daily campaign madness to notice. The one clear predictor of success that the pundits, despite all their fancy maps, charts and holograms, missed completely? Michelle’s butt. [...]

I can’t talk about Michelle’s butt without acknowledging her hair, another physical feature that stirs anxiety about black female difference. Let me just say that I hope that gets unleashed, too. How sad that, in order for a black family to prevail — because Michelle and the girls were all running for office, not just Barack — they had to sublimate their blackness like crazy, starting with the visuals. Michelle’s ethnic butt might have snuck under the radar, but an ethnic do wouldn’t have stood a chance.

So writes Erin Aubry Kaplan, in her piece “First lady got back” which was recently published on Salon.

Reader Virigina sent in the tip, writing:

Although Erin Kaplan does make a few decent points about how black women are viewed in this culture, most of the article just reinforces stereotypes. She is defining Michelle Obama and black women in general by their butts and hair. There are so many other traits that she could have discussed.

After reading the full piece, I’m inclined to agree. I get the semi-tongue in cheek tone of the piece, but this article just feels a bit wrong for the audience. Perhaps if it was written for a magazine like Essence or Clutch, which routinely explore the issues of black women and how a lot of our politics are wrapped up in our appearance, I would feel differently about the end result.

But it’s at Salon.

And while the commenters debate back and forth about whether or not the article is “joyful” or “disrespectful,” a large part of me wonders when Salon will publish an article on what faces Michelle Obama in the White House, or an article about racial trends in America penned by a woman of color, or a review of a book like Naked which lays all these issues bare. My problem with the article isn’t that it’s a lighthearted musing on Michelle’s attributes, as seen through the eyes of another black woman (who – according to Kaplan’s website – has also whipped out personal essays on her own butt, as well as musing on J.Lo’s.)

My problem is that articles about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe, booty, and mom duties are what is fit to publish, what is seen as relevant to a mass audience.

And everything else – like a reflection on how Michelle’s “makeover” was to make her more palatable to a certain set of Americans and what that says about race and gender in this country – seems to fall by the wayside, stuck in the niche analysis category.

Funny how that works.

L’Oréal, Beyoncé And Cultural Cluéléssnéss

by Guest Contributor Highjive, originally published at MultiCultClassics

Hadn’t planned to examine the L’Oréal/Beyoncé drama, as others have already addressed it with better perspective, better emotion and better boycotting. Besides, it’s always best to avoid touching a Black woman’s hair—even as a blog topic—unless you really know what you’re doing. Hey, this subject is so combustible, it managed to draw comments at the typically ignored Agency Spy. Anyway, here are a few thoughts from a primarily advertising-related viewpoint.

Contrary to popular protests, it’s unlikely that L’Oréal deliberately lightened Beyoncé’s skin or messed with her nose and other items. The company officially insisted, “It is categorically untrue that L’Oréal Paris altered Ms. Knowles’ features or skin tone in the campaign for Féria hair color.” The company is probably right. However, they’re still probably wrong. Bear with us for a bit.

Technically, it’s a safe bet L’Oréal did not covertly tamper with the superstar. Anyone who has ever produced fashion advertising or fashion photography will attest that lighting plays a key role. When filming hair, incredibly strong lamps are used to make each strand visible and shiny. For example, commercials for Pantene and Clairol often show the backs of women’s heads for two reasons: 1) to display every glistening follicle and; 2) to avoid having the person’s face completely “blown out” (or whitewashed) by the spotlights. Given that L’Oréal is selling a haircolor and highlights product, they undoubtedly employed a ton of lights. Think supernova.

This is not a case of L’Oréal manipulating Beyoncé via Photoshop (at least not beyond the normal ultra-retouching done for fashion shots). Quite the opposite. L’Oréal should have used Photoshop—to restore the natural skin tone removed by the lighting. Continue reading