Consider Michelle Obama. She is the picture of a woman who is comfortable in her skin. Now think about her straightened hair. In the late 1960s, black women's conventional practice of hair straightening began to be seen, within activist circles, as an indication of a desire to be white. That meaning has stubbornly adhered to hair straightening, even though it remains popular among black women in Britain, the US and the Caribbean. Shirley Anne Tate gives us a new way to look at this conundrum. She asks readers to drop the assumption that black women fashion themselves in relation to white beauty ideals. Black women adopt styles defined within a black aesthetic, one that includes straightened hair and weaves as recognisably black styles. That simple, yet surprisingly necessary point is the gist of the intervention made by Tate's Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics into black feminist debates regarding beauty and the politics of race.
Tate begins with a critique of the notion that beauty comes from within. Beauty, she argues, is created at the surface through practices of stylisation that necessarily involve degrees of artifice. Yet Western cultures have long had a deep ambivalence regarding surface beauty and the practices through which it is achieved. In black communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rejection of artifice articulated with feelings of black racial pride. Straightened hair became the object of a twofold scorn, doubly despised as artificial and a mark of self-hatred. One legacy of this period is the enduring associations between black hair straightening and purported black self-hatred. Paradoxically, hair straightening and the use of hair extensions have been simultaneously widely popular and roundly stigmatised within black communities. Tate suggests a pathway out of these complicated hair politics. She argues that rather than being understood as attempts to imitate whites, black women's straightened hair stylisations and creative use of hair extensions should be recognised as a visible use of artifice that seeks to mark rather than mask black racial identity.
Tate argues that black women use everyday beauty practices to disrupt two distinct beauty ideals: a white ideal that categorically defines black women as ugly, and what Tate characterises as "black anti-racist aesthetics". Black anti-racist aesthetics emerged in the late 1960s as a newly embraced appreciation of hair textures and skin shades that had long been defined as ugly throughout the black Atlantic. While this aesthetic was transformational for many black women, Tate argues that it excluded mixed-race women whose light skin shades and longer, wavier hair fit neither white nor black ideals.
However, she has less to say about how dark skin and tightly curled hair that does not grow long continue to be marginalised within black aesthetics. In one passage, a young mixed-race woman seems baffled that her peers who lengthened their hair with extensions threatened to set her naturally long hair afire. "Why are they turning against me?" she asks. "They have exactly the same length hair as me with extensions, so why are they trying to get me to cut my hair off?"
Why indeed. By presenting white and black aesthetics as two distinct and opposed ways of seeing beauty, Tate obscures the ways the two interconnect to form contradictory senses of beauty in everyday life. An anti-racist black aesthetic may celebrate "black" as beautiful and unstraightened hair as the ideal. Yet even during the height of the Black Power era, black popular aesthetics often excluded dark skin tones. Women with lighter skin tones were variously disparaged, and seen as attractive, and disparaged because they were seen as attractive. Women with medium brown skin were considered beauties and the most celebrated Afros required long hair.
The task of characterising black aesthetics is grand and complicated. Images of famously beautiful black women circulate globally, but they are viewed and judged locally. When black women see the beauty practices of black celebrities, their neighbours, and local but socially distant black women, they recognise them as black practices but also as class, sexual, geographically specific and ethnic practices, and on that basis adopt or reject them.
Here, Tate importantly centres her discussion of black beauty within black aesthetics and wisely jettisons the idea that hair straightening indicates racial shame. Certain voices rooted in specific histories of migration and reflecting the experience of living in particular bodies speak most clearly in this book. Tate describes her research method as a ten-year "mobile beauty ethnography", although it appears that the study was primarily based on interviews of black British Caribbean-heritage women aged 20-40. She provides few details regarding the social locations and physical appearance of the sample of women she interviewed. What were their class locations? How many had dark skin? What was the length of their hair? The theoretical ambitions of this book may have overreached its data.
Nonetheless, she has cleared an important theoretical pathway by encouraging us to see all black beautifying practices as ways of reinventing what black looks like, thus providing new ways to see, think about and live in racialised bodies.
Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics
By Shirley Anne Tate
Ashgate, 188pp, £55.00
Published 28 March 2009