Beauty Ideals

Historians of African American women have also explored the impact of the beauty industry on black women throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this way, these women’s historians question the concept of a universal womanhood.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham observes that African American women historically lived in communities whose behavior resulted not only from learned African American traditions, but also from the values and behaviors of the dominant white society.

Free essays Resource states that black studies focusing on beauty culture highlight the unique relationship of cosmetics and hair care in African American women’s culture. Other authors focus on the racial and political meanings behind the American beauty industry, especially attaching it to Black Power and Black Nationalism. Even by the middle of the twentieth century, beauty ideals depicted in advertisements and magazine articles in black periodicals continued to favor lighter complexions and hairstyles similar to those that were fashionable among white women.

Dorothea Towles, one of the most successful African American models of the 1950s and 1960s, was light skinned and eventually dyed her hair blonde. Important black actresses such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were similarly light complexioned. Straightening one’s hair was so common in the twentieth century that the procedure was treated as a coming-of-age ritual for young women. Straight hair was not just a beauty standard, moreover, but also a marker of one’s economic and social standing. Despite the attention given to African American women’s historical connections to and relationship with cosmetics, hair, and skin color, ideas regarding black women’s body image remain unstudied.

This dissertation vaults itself into unexplored territory by identifying and analyzing the breadth of body types celebrated by both men and women in the African American community. Another demographic to be addressed in this project is the postwar lesbian community. Historians have done much work in recent years to prove the presence of a dynamic queer community prior to the Stonewall rebellions of 1969. Works addressing class reveal the widely different experiences of middle-class and working-class lesbians. With more at risk financially, middle-class professionals remained far more closeted than their working-class equivalents.

A distinct bar culture emerged among the working-class population where butch and femme lesbians intermingled. Lillian Faderman argues that lesbians identified in this way simply because they had no other models, and that 1950s gender roles proved so pervasive that they permeated even lesbian relationship dynamics. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis disagree with Faderman’s explanation. Rather than viewing butch-femme culture as aping heterosexual paradigms, they argue that butches defied convention by overturning male privilege while femmes challenged hetero-normative society by creating a sexual relationship within which women were not under male control.

Kennedy and Davis’ work examines butch-femme culture during the 1950s through the lens of committed relationships. However, the two authors give more attention to butch lesbians because they argue that it is their visibility that played a critical factor in the creation of a working-class lesbian community. Because femmes could more easily “pass” as heterosexual than their butch lovers, Kennedy and Davis privilege butch dress and mannerisms. This dissertation differs from previous queer scholarship in a number of ways.