Aesthetic Resistance to Commercial Influences: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Black College Women*

Article excerpt

The present study investigates Black women's perceptions of beauty, and how those perceptions are influenced through commercial means. A discussion of the literature on Eurocentric beauty standards and their impact on Black women is presented. Through a mixed-methodology of a 33-item survey, individual interviews, focus groups, and document review, the development of this study's participants' (n = 229) standard of beauty is explored. The theory of aesthetic resistance emerges from the data. The implications of aesthetic resistance for education are discussed.

. . .even though I could tell from the way my grandma touched my scalp / she loved me / what she was lettin' me know / maybe god didn't love me & my brown krinkly short head of hair was a mark / lettin' the whole world know / god is not on this chile's side. . . (Ntozake Shange cited in Harris & Johnson, 2001, p. xvii)

Beauty has vastly varied definitions and certainly one's sense of personal beauty is greatly impacted by one's definition of beauty. That beauty is in the eye of the beholder is an interesting double entendre. Certainly one can reasonably assume that the beholder of beauty can be both the person herself or himself and an entity outside of the person. In other words, my beauty can be beheld by others or by oneself. Typically, however, standards of beauty are dictated by others through the media, cultural traditions, fashion trends, and emanate from anywhere, it seems, but one's own eye. How much freedom of expression does an individual woman have with regard to her own personal sense of beauty? From where does that sense of beauty come and how does it impact her life? How does a woman's responses to externally imposed standards affect her? Questions such as these were the impetus for the present study.

REVIEW OF LITERATURE

Popular literature, media, and informal discussions in the United States, make the standard of beauty very clear. Fashion experts suggest how we can minimize, enhance, and draw attention to and away from particular physical characteristics. A cursory look at print media gives specific messages as to what is beautiful and what is not. Although styles change, what is considered beautiful in this country has been fairly rigid in my lifetime (the past 36 years). The United States has a long history of both ever-changing fashion standards and long-standing standards related to ideal physical beauty (Brand, 2000).

Alan Mazur (1986) suggests a closer connection between fashion standards and beauty standards. he documents U.S. trends in feminine beauty as they are impacted by art, magazines, fashion, and other external sources. Mazur argues that trends have often resulted in "overadaption" by women in an effort to meet changing standards. While Mazur attends to some class-based differences in terms of trends, he makes no mention of how standards might vary among the many ethnic and/or racial cultures of the United States. In fact, he refers to ideal feminine beauty standards as "ever-changing." However, each of the eight pictures Mazur uses to demonstrate these ever-changing standards depict White women. So, from a Black woman's perspective, there is not much change. More recent work has addressed this issue as it manifests in Black women specifically. Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2003) write about the phenomenon of "shifting." Shifting is described as "a sort of subterfuge that African Americans have long practiced to ensure their survival in our society" (p. 6). They go on to say that "Black women are relentlessly pushed to serve and satisfy others and made to hide their true selves to placate White colleagues, Black men, and other segments of the community" (p. 7). They devote an entire chapter of their book on beauty and shifting.

Both popular and scholarly media and literature suggest that the concern girls have for their appearance has an impact on the quality of their life experiences (see Averhart & Bigler, 1997; Breland, 1998; Harris & Johnson, 2001). …