Alvarado: The Appropriation of Black Women’s Beauty

By Andrea Alvarado


Colonization has imposed the Western standard of beauty as an international norm, and popular culture has continued to perpetuate this trend. The world’s population is increasing in its diversity and hosts an extensive range of skin colors and facial features. Yet, despite such variation, there is an overwhelming consensus on which physical traits are the most desirable in women. While these images of beauty and perfection continue to adjust within our society, they remain rather exclusive to certain people. The United States has gone from idolizing traditionally Eurocentric beauty (such as Marilyn Monroe) to more ethnically ambiguous (such as Kim Kardashian) preferences. While the rising popularity of non-white aesthetics might indicate that some progress has been made in today’s culture, female beauty is still often white-washed and fetishized. These standards particularly harm a group that continues to be overlooked and dismissed in the U.S. despite being an essential and powerful force within the nation: black women.

It is true that women of color are more visible in popular culture today than they have been in our past. They garner success and worldwide fame, with cultural icons enjoying prominent status. Nevertheless, successful black women are not always given the same cultural platform as powerful white women, and building such a platform seems to require that they compromise their “blackness.” They are held to a higher standard where they must alter their hair, skin color, bodies and general demeanor to adhere to western ideals. This is the way they attempt to appeal to mainstream, majority white audiences. Anything deviating from western standards is deemed “ratchet” or “ghetto.” Black women are expected to be models to their communities and to embody the fantasy of a post-racial America, even if this results in the erasure of their own blackness.

Revered artists such as Beyoncé and Rihanna are forced to tip-toe their black identities in order to appeal to the “white” audience. Only until recently have they become more politically involved, giving voice to the many struggles black women experience in America. It was not a feasible act until after they ensured their place among Hollywood royalty. If they had attempted such expression earlier in their careers, these artists would have risked receiving the label of the “angry black woman” before vanishing into oblivion.

Black women receive societal punishments on a daily basis due to different aspects of their identities, which is the primary reason why cultural appropriation — the commodification of aspects of a minority culture by a non-affiliated dominant culture — is not acceptable. Dreadlocks, braids, cornrows and afros on black women are deemed unclean and unprofessional. Yet, once they are donned by Kylie Jenner, these same hairstyles are admired and imitated throughout a massive fan base. Some would argue this is a case of “cultural appreciation,” but the argument is irrelevant until black women are the ones receiving the praise for wearing these hairstyles rather than losing job opportunities over them. For black women, their hair is a part of their identity that centuries of colonization and racism have sought to suppress.

However, the erasure of black women from their own culture is not limited to hair. Elements of their bodies have been adopted and exploited by white female celebrities. Lip-fillers, fat transfers to the buttocks and breast augmentation have helped white public figures attain an exaggerated silhouette, one often perceived as “grotesque” on black women. The hyper-sexualization of black bodies established a historical misconception of promiscuity. Enter white women, who adopt it as they navigate the entertainment industry and convert it into profit under the title of “Sex Symbol.”

“Cultural appropriation” would be more acceptable if black women were to appear on the same magazines and movies as white women. Nowadays, it is not enough to be informed of the significance behind Fulani braids. Our privilege allows us to wear culture and share physical features with black women without repercussions and humiliation. Women desiring to appreciate the culture should focus their efforts on racial equality instead of cute braids.

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