This image does speak volumes. White skin, blonde, hair and blue eyes has always been seen a sign of dominance, power, and beauty. As Maxine Leeds Craig outlines in her book “Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?”, African American women have a long history of working towards achieving the “white” standard of beauty in order to gain respect within society. Straightening hair and lightening skin is a way to gain respect, not only from the dominate culture, but from their own. Though within white culture, beauty has taken shifts towards predominantly African American traits, such as fuller lips, larger bottoms, curly hair and darker skin. We can see this through popular media icons, such as the Kardashians or Iggy Azalea, who work hard to achieve so many of the traits that African American women have been told for years are not beautiful.
I have seen multiple images like this pop up in the news lately and honestly it’s infuriating. Photos of teachers, always those of color, dressed in business wear needed for their profession, are being deemed “too sexy” and inappropriate for learning environments. The hypersexualizing of women’s bodies, particularly bodies of color, is very much portrayed in these debates, as many commenters usually point to the women’s outfit as being too revealing or tight and highlighting their butt/chest. The first comment in the photo sums up my argument perfectly; if this women had a smaller or flatter butt this would not be an issue. Simply because she has a butt and her skirt is tighter and on trend does not mean she is less professional or harming the children she works with. What should she wear, a shapeless frock or baggy layers? Just a simple google search of “teacher with too many curves” produces dozens of articles debating if teachers, mainly those of color, should wear tight fitting, stylish clothes if they have curves, even if their attire is within school dress codes (1). The arguments never really focus on the clothes though, more so on the actual shape of a woman, who like almost every other woman, has curves.
This image is powerful. As a white woman, I have always had the privilege and power that my skin, hair, and eye color bring. When shopping for makeup, I can always find my shade. When getting ready in the morning, I don’t have to straighten my hair to look presentable, a bun is just fine. No one ever second guesses my skill or social class just by the way I dress. I was born the winner of a genetic lottery that affords me the luxury of simply being myself without judgement. This is not the case for any other person of color. Simply being themselves has never been okay, as the dominant (white) culture has pushed it’s ideas of beauty and respect onto them. In her book, “Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?” Maxine Leeds Craig talks about the complicated history African American women have has with image and beauty. Portrayals of black men and women have been used throughout history to create a social hierarchy based upon appearance. African Americans have been stigmatized for all the things that give me power: their skin color, hair texture, and facial features. Blacks have been forced to straighten their hair, discriminate on the lightness of their skin, and to continuously police themselves and their children. I have heard many black women say that they learned from a very young age that being “nappy” is not okay and that their families repeatedly pushed them to fit into the idea of blackness that was created to make them more acceptable to whites. To counter this, there has been a large moment of young women taking back the power given to them. Many are embracing their natural hair, kinks and all, and cosmetic brands are becoming more and more inclusive, adding a wide range of darker shades. Image is powerful, but it can also be changed and manipulated. I think time for change is upon us now, and boy is it powerful.
(1) Franklin, Krystal. 2016. “Sexy ‘Teacher’ Not Quite A Teacher – Reprimanded About Attire And Social Media.” Black America Web. (https://blackamericaweb.com/2016/09/15/sexy-teacher-not-quite-a-teacher-reprimanded-about-attire-and-social-media/).
(2) Craig, Maxine Leeds. 2006. Aint I a beauty queen?: black women, beauty, and the politics of race. New York: Oxford University Press.
Angel Kearns is a graduate student in the Applied Sociology program at Old Dominion University. Serving as the current coordinator of the M-Power Peer Education Network, a peer education program out of the ODU Women’s Center, she is dedicated to educating others on issues related to interpersonal violence, gender roles, diversity and discrimination, and leadership development. She enjoys cats, coffee, and Netflix marathons.