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Sex Kitten and Psyche

Black women have had to overcome the idea that they were sexually promiscuous so, in Madame C.J. Walker’s times, they behaved and dressed in ways to negate that stereotype.This was viewed as a form of racial progress and meant that Blacks experienced a tension between respectability and sexuality in advertisement. In other words, while the Black beauty industry promoted the notion that Black women were beautiful, it did not convey overly sexualized images of Black women; rather, Black women were often presented as respectable, upright citizens.


Black women have had to overcome the idea that they were sexually promiscuous so, in Madame C.J. Walker’s times, they behaved and dressed in ways to negate that stereotype.This was viewed as a form of racial progress and meant that Blacks experienced a tension between respectability and sexuality in advertisement. In other words, while the Black beauty industry promoted the notion that Black women were beautiful, it did not convey overly sexualized images of Black women; rather, Black women were often presented as respectable, upright citizens.For example, Madame CJ Walkers Wonderful Hair Grower ad showed a “Prominent Minister’s Wife” as a model in the advertisement.There has been a dramatic change:nowadays, sex sells.This presents a convergence of issues where Black women (heck, all types of women!) are often portrayed in hypersexual ways.When this is combined with the societal view that beauty equals long, straight hair, you end up with a flood of Black sex kitten imagery complete with long mane. This magazine cover drives home the point. What does such imagery do to a woman’s psyche?

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The Call to Beauty

I continue to wonder how women in general, and Black women in particular, became so beholden to the beauty industry.Black women were attracted to the Black beauty industry of the early twentieth century for at least two key reasons.First, the Black beauty industry promoted the message that Black women were beautiful.This message refuted larger societal notions that Blacks were bestial, unclean “people” little better than animals.Participating in and using the products promoted by the black beauty industry wasn’t just about developing pretty creatures to look at, such actions helped to convey the humanity of Black people.Second, Black women could gain wealth by participating in the beauty industry.Madam C.J. Walker is an exemplar of the self-made woman entrepreneur (http://www.madamcjwalker.com/bios/madam-c-j-walker/).

One of Madam Walker’s advertisements illustrates the call to participate and encourages participants to view her beauty company as a “haven of hope for millions”.I wonder what Ms. Walker would think about the messages directed at Black women today.

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