As the number of African-American women in the media increases, many tend to think that the issue of equal representation has been solved. With several successful programs showcasing black female leads such as “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “Being Mary Jane”, it is easy to see why people think so.
The true cause of the lack of black female representation is the exclusive beauty standards for women, a problem that many have ignored. These beauty standards tend to celebrate certain hair styles, eye colors, and body types that most black women do not have. However, this problem is gaining more attention. “Networks are finally catching up to something that I’ve always known,” said Mara Brock Akil, creator and executive producer of “Being Mary Jane” on TV network BET. “There are beautiful stories to tell through the eyes of a black woman.”
Despite black women gaining opportunities in television, they are significantly less noticeable in fashion; an industry built on beauty. For example, during this fall’s New York Fashion Week, over 78% of runway models were white while only 9% were black, according to Jezebel.com. Although the number of black models has increased over the years, there is still an overwhelming imbalance.
So why is this imbalance important? What effects do beauty standards have? Many say the lack of representation and the exclusivity of beauty standards have negative effects on young girls.
Iman Abdulmajid, model and wife of David Bowie, said to CNN, “The absence of people of color on the runways and photography reinforces to our young girls that they’re not beautiful enough, that they’re not acceptable enough.”
At this year’s Essence Woman of the Year awards Lupita Nyong’o said, “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned.”
Research indicates that European beauty standards can cause black women to form internalized self-hatred. This can have dangerous impacts on the trajectory of their lives; not only affecting their self-image, but also their relationships, and even education.
A famous experiment that proves this are the Clark Doll tests, run by Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie Clark for her master’s degree thesis. The couple published papers between 1939 and 1940 on children’s self-perception related to race. In their experiment Clark showed black children two dolls, one white and one black, and asked them a series of questions ranging from, “Show me the doll that you like best or that you would like to play with,” to “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll.” The experiment was used to argue that segregation was leading to self-hatred in the minds of black youth. Media representation has similar effects.
As a society, it is important that we recognize our achievements, as well as acknowledge our problems. In order to solve this problem, all aspects of the media must take black women into account. Although society’s views on beauty have progressed, until all types of women are celebrated as being beautiful regardless of race, body type, and hair type, beauty standards are more exclusive than anything.
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