‘Making Black More Beautiful’: Black Women and the Cosmetics Industry in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

‘Making Black More Beautiful’: Black Women and the Cosmetics Industry in the Post-Civil Rights Era Abstract

This article explores how the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement transformed attitudes towards beauty standards within black communities and how the cosmetics industry tried to capitalise on these shifts in their marketing strategies. It charts how redefined beauty standards generated a proliferation of cosmetics companies and products exclusively for black women, and their success attracted widespread attention from across the industry. However, this article demonstrates that while the cosmetics industry removed certain racialised barriers to mainstream American beauty culture, the commodification of the language and imagery of “Black is Beautiful” in cosmetics advertising often reinforced gendered expectations as well as heightening tensions within black communities in regard to colourism and business ownership.

At the end of the 1960s, newspapers across America announced the arrival of cosmetics for black women with headlines such as ‘New Cosmetics to Make Black More Beautiful’.1 The wording was significant. An industry based on artificially enhancing women's bodies in pursuit of a white, European ideal was attempting to engage with a cultural movement which represented its antithesis: ‘Black is Beautiful’. The popularisation of the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’ represented the politicisation of African American culture in the late 1960s, as black leaders sought to translate the legislative successes of the Civil Rights Movement into a wider protest against the institutionalised white supremacy which underpinned the United States. The phrase thus represented the rejection of Eurocentric, white models in favour of more Afrocentric and black norms. An important part of this transformation was the reinvigorated celebration of dark black skin and tightly curled hair, which had historically been the diametric opposite to white beauty ideals. Yet the redefinition of beauty standards within African American communities paradoxically became a key way in which the cosmetics industry sought to engage with black women.

The prominence of intersectionality as a category for analysis has produced some crucial scholarship on the specific pressures borne by black women in regard to beauty standards. Scholars have, in particular, charted the relationship between the hair-care industry and black women, illustrating how the shift in popularity from straightened hair to the afro in the late 1960s was indicative of wider changes in attitudes towards race and gender.2 However, there has been no scholarly study into how these changing attitudes affected the relationship between black women and the cosmetics industry. Thus, this article explores how the cosmetics industry responded to the changing notions of race, colour and gender that were bound up in the emergence of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement. It shows that while the rise in the visibility of black women and pride in black skin created a flurry of black cosmetics lines and products, the celebration of blackness was short lived as beauty ideals retracted by the 1980s. Nonetheless, during this time, the high level of success of black cosmetics increasingly caught the attention of white corporations, which eventually monopolised the industry, strangling smaller, black-owned business.

Black women have documented the difficulties they faced in regard to American conceptions of beauty before the emergence of ‘Black is Beautiful’ in the late 1960s. Actress Whoopi Goldberg explained how she grew up with unattainable beauty standards.

When I was a little Whoop of a thing, the Breck girl was considered the standard by which beauty was judged. You had to have good hair – which meant straight, flowing and ponytail adaptable – light skin and thin lips. If you were like me, you knew you stood a better chance of winning a Nobel Prize than of waking up beautiful.3

Activist Assata Shakur recalled similar experiences in her formative years, detailing the drastic ways in which black girls and women would attempt to adhere to white definitions of beauty, ‘[T]here was one girl in our school whose mother made her wear a clothespin on her nose to make it thin. There were quite a few girls who tried to bleach their skin white with bleaching cream’.4 Shakur stated that black skin had been disparaged so much so that the adjective ‘black’ was deeply insulting, as they ‘had never heard the words “Black is Beautiful” and the idea had never occurred to most of us’.5 White projections of beauty had ‘brainwashed’ black women so much so that the painful processes of straightening hair and bleaching skin had been normalised and black girls ‘were taught that women had to make great sacrifices to be beautiful’.6 The severe, yet routine, processes black women would go through to align with white, Eurocentric ideals demonstrate the dominance whiteness had on American definitions of beauty until at least the Civil Rights Movement.

Historians have investigated the racialisation of beauty ideals and how this complicated the industry's relationship with black communities. Maxine Leeds Craig's Ain't I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race uncovers how defining the meaning of beautiful was a historical process in which white skin was revered and dark skin was disparaged. Craig argues that beauty, much like race, is actually a social construct that is based on ‘a culturally and historically specific set of attributes’.7 In her study of beauty in the American South, Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth Century South, historian Blain Roberts agrees that the meanings of beauty were rooted in racial difference. In fact, Roberts traces the origins of beauty definitions in the region as being wholly removed from physical attractiveness, but rather defined and measured using the intersections of race, class and gender.8 Roberts explained that white womanhood was thus imbued with beauty and virtue, while black womanhood was created as its inversion.

Although American definitions of beauty excluded black women, the consumption and production of beauty products based on these ideals offered black women social and economic benefits that were hard to ignore. In her seminal study of American beauty culture, historian Kathy Peiss explains that from the late-nineteenth-century, the industrialisation of products and treatments to straighten black women's hair generated enormous profits and gave black women a rare, yet lucrative, opportunity to become successful in business.9 By equating straightened hair with good grooming and respectability, black women such as Madame C. J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone made their fortunes in the black hair-care industry.10 Tying the pursuance of beauty with respectability especially appealed to black women who sought to defy hypersexualised stereotypes that persisted since slavery.11 However, although both Walker and Malone avoided using the term ‘straightening’ and instead posited their businesses as ‘hair cultivation’, which could be easier reconciled with the popular ideals of racial pride and uplift popularised in the early-twentieth-century, the black hair-care industry still faced criticism that it was based on the emulation of whiteness.12

Black women's relationship with cosmetics was even more contested than that with hair care because the former aggravated additional issues pertaining to colour, class, race and gender. As Roberts notes, ‘hairdressing, at least, had deep roots in black culture. Making up did not’.13 This was partly because the association between cosmetics and prostitution alienated black women from the beauty industry, as drawing attention to their sexuality was the very thing they sought to avoid.14 Even as national attitudes towards cosmetics relaxed in the interwar years, and as some prominent race women such as Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Charlotte Hawkins Brown promoted their use as tools for economic and social success, Roberts asserts that ‘the conviction that cosmetics were at odds with respectability persisted’.15

Issues of morality aside, as cosmetics became a mass-market industry following the First World War, Peiss points out that their popularity cut across racial lines, although the market remained largely racially segregated.16 In the first two decades of the twentieth-century, the black-owned Overton-Hygienic Manufacturing Company began to thrive, drawing the attention of both entrepreneurs and established businesses. By the 1920s, some black hair-care businesses, like those of Walker and Turnbo, had introduced cosmetics for black women into their production lines, along with cosmetics companies, such as American Products and Boncilla Laboratories, which traditionally sold and marketed towards white women.17 However, skin bleaching cream, one of the most popular products that cosmetics companies – both black and white – sold to black women, epitomised for black leaders that the beauty industry remained a euphemism for white emulation.

From the late-nineteenth-century, the small number of cosmetics offered to black women were mainly skin bleaches and powders to make skin look lighter.19 As the businesses and products catering to black women multiplied from the 1910s, so too did the offerings of bleaches and whiteners. Indeed, Roberts points out that from this time, white companies, like the Plough Chemical Company and the National Toilet Company, took advantage of their greater distribution through national drugstores and larger advertising budgets to weigh in on the market with their skin bleaching creams, the Black and White Cream and Nadinola.20 Although Madame C. J. Walker refused to sell skin bleaching products, following her death in 1919, and under pressure to compete in the drugstore market, the company's general manager, F. B. Ransom, introduced bleaching cream ‘Tan-Off’, which quickly became their bestselling product.21 Moreover, even though the most popular black-owned cosmetics line, Overton-Hygienics's High Brown Face Powder, was not marketed as a skin lightener, Roberts points out that from the shade descriptions it is possible that black women would have used them for that purpose.


That cosmetics included products designed to change skin tone made the industry contentious in black communities as it exacerbated extant tensions regarding colourism.23 Scholars, such as sociologist Verna Keith, have shown that colourism, defined as the stratification by skin tone which almost always privileges light-skinned people of colour over their dark-skinned counterparts, has – and continues to have – significant influence in the economic, educational and social positioning of African Americans, and that historically, skin colour was used as a marker of class and social status within black communities since slavery.24 The prominence of skin bleaching products within cosmetics companies supposedly for black women reinforced this stratification, even at a time when racial pride was at the fore.

Historian Laila Haidarali's Brown Beauty: Colour, Sex, and Race from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II demonstrates that the hierarchies of colour within black communities shifted between the World Wars as a new ideal of brown beauty emerged. Haidarali explains that an expanding black middle class, buoyed by urbanisation, increasingly promoted brown skin ‘as fundamentally connected with racial progress and social mobility’.25 Brown skin thus became representative of middle-class ideals, particular the figure of the ‘New Negro Woman’, which included beauty culture as part of a modern and progressive identity for black women. Cognizant of this, cosmetics companies used ‘colour-inflected language’ to reach out to black consumers; white-owned The Golden Brown Company used ‘brown’ to that effect, as did black-owned Kashmir Chemical Company in their Cream Brown Face Powder line.26 In doing so, companies that advertised brown skin could bypass the allegations of white emulation and more ably position themselves as supportive of African Americans and racial uplift. Nonetheless, Haidarali notes that while definitions of ‘brown’ were both real and abstract, they nonetheless excluded dark-skinned women, and as Peiss points out, even as cosmetics companies marketed brown beauty, they did not introduce cosmetics for dark-skinned women.27 Thus, although brown beauty signalled a shift in the colour hierarchy within black communities and an expansion of ideals, it did not denote the radical and uninhibited celebration of blackness that would come later with ‘Black is Beautiful’.

In the late 1960s, the phrase ‘Black is Beautiful’ became a popular slogan which expressed the celebration of black skin and afro-styled hair.28 This celebration defied white norms of beauty to be sure, but it also represented the wider attempt to reject the more implicit and intricate ways whiteness shaped and defined American culture. The growing radicalism within black communities fostered by Black Power and the Black Panther Party broadened the scope of the equality struggle as black revolutionary leaders increasingly sought to connect the political and the cultural. As a result, the African American aesthetic became an accessible means through which people could participate in the struggle against racism.29

Specifically, Roberts states that generational changes encouraged the emergence of ‘Black is Beautiful’, as younger activists denounced the trope of respectability as conducive to equality, instead arguing that looking respectable was simply a euphemism for looking white.30 Craig finds that ‘Black is Beautiful’ also developed in response to social science research which determined that African Americans suffered from low self-esteem. Craig points out that while the research may have been flawed, its widespread acceptance at this time gave rise to the importance of ‘Black is Beautiful’ as a means to combat the psychological effects of racism on African Americans.31 In addition, Craig notes that similar research revealed the disparity between attitudes towards skin colour and the lived experiences of people with dark skin. Craig cites studies which show that from the 1950s, African Americans ‘knew it was inappropriate to favor light skin’, yet simultaneously marriage and employment rates reflected that light-skinned black men and women still held advantages.32 Craig consequently argues that ‘when African Americans of all shades declared that “black is beautiful”, they were defying a racial order that had held all blacks down but had granted some advantage to blacks who were physically closer to whites’.33 Therefore, ‘Black is Beautiful’ sought to upheave the racist underpinnings of the United States and to simultaneously shatter the colourism which continued to permeate African American communities.

The emergence of ‘Black is Beautiful’ signalled the decline – at least temporarily – of the black hair-care industry, but for cosmetics, it meant the opposite. As ‘Black is Beautiful’ expanded beauty standards to include dark-skinned black women, new cosmetics companies flooded in to market products to meet the newly modified standard. Indeed, between 1964 and 1969, more than six new cosmetics brands launched exclusively for black women.34 Flori Roberts’ eponymous brand, established in 1965, became the first cosmetics company exclusively for black women to be stocked in department stores two years later.35 Despite the existence of black cosmetics companies and products before Flori Roberts, Roberts maintained that there had been a gap in the market, claiming ‘women would come to me complaining about the selection, not only were the make-up bases on the market too oily for black skin but the eyeshadows and blushes were too pastel and garish for black women with darker complexions’.36 Roberts thus drew attention to the fact that unlike other companies, hers included all black women, especially those with dark skin.

From the early 1970s, black women described how the change in beauty standards affected their relationship with cosmetics. Roscoe Dellums, Development Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, stated ‘the liberating sixties freed us from the shackles of white beauty standards’, with the effect that ‘we began to define beauty in terms of ourselves … we began to accept our look, not as a mistake to correct but an attribute to appreciate. And cosmetics became something to enhance, not to disguise, what we are’.37 Alyce Stoney, a make-up artist from Wichita, directly connected ‘Black is Beautiful’ and black cosmetics, declaring, ‘it really proves Black is beautiful. With it, a woman can get confidence, make the best of her looks and with the confidence it inspires, many doors open for her’.38 Thus, while the redefinition of beauty ideals damaged the long-established relationship between black women and the hair-care industry, the cosmetics industry capitalised on it. As the treatments and products to straighten hair became pinned to oppression, cosmetics companies were able to emerge as new entities entirely created as, and in response to, the new celebration of blackness.

Beauty editors welcomed the influx of cosmetics for black women with enthusiasm, but this also highlighted the shift from the pre-Civil Rights Movement era. Beauty columnist Jennifer Anderson announced that ‘cosmetics companies are finally waking up to the fact that black women with their fragile extra fine hair and brown skin need beauty products especially for them’.39 Others noted the generational change as younger black girls now had access to an industry that was still quite alien to their mothers. Beauty editor Raymonde Alexander emphasised this, asserting ‘until recently, few cosmetics were formulated to enhance black skin. Therefore, it was more attractive to go without any. This their mothers did. But young black women are finding it's a totally different outlook for them’.40 This changing relationship was demonstrated clearly when a young woman wrote into the ‘Ask Jennifer’ column of The Sun to say: ‘My mother doesn't know anything about cosmetics because when she was growing up there weren't any designed for black women. Now I see these products advertised and I would like to try them. Where do I begin’?41

Marketing ‘Black is Beautiful’

Although ‘Black is Beautiful’ signified the rejection of artificial, white-centred beauty ideals, the cosmetics industry – which was built on these very standards – increasingly used the slogan, and some of the ideas it represented, to target the black female demographic. Historian Susannah Walker notes that there were other reasons, both industrial and societal, which also accounted for the upsurge in black cosmetics, including new technologies to improve colour selection in cosmetics and the recognition of increased buying power of African Americans. But ‘Black is Beautiful’ gave the industry a ready-made marketing strategy.42 New companies exclusive to black skin made a point of highlighting their racial solidarity. In order to secure black patronage, companies advocated black economic nationalism, which, although extant in black communities for decades before 1960s, was reinvigorated by the economic ideologies of Black Power. Even as the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in outlawing political and social discrimination through the introduction of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s, by the end of the decade, the aims of the movement had evolved to also highlight structural economic inequality in America. As a result, activists like Stokely Carmichael called for African Americans to support their own communities through their own consumerist practices.43

Companies like Libra and Flori Roberts, despite being white-owned, adapted to the renaissance of black economic nationalism by emphasising that they were created exclusively for the African American woman. Moreover, Walker observed that Libra, a range of luxury cosmetics for black women launched in 1969, used race in its employment and marketing practices to attract black customers.44 Roberts used the same strategy and made it known through her advertising. One advertisement read: ‘Discover the Black and Beautiful You. The look is natural, the style is yours, and these shades won't change your colour. Visit your trained Flori Roberts consultant. She knows what to do … you see, she's black too!’45

Other companies tapped into the renewed connection with Africa, a central theme of Black Power rhetoric, to sell their products. Zuri, a drugstore cosmetics company created in New York, emphasised its connection with the African American woman and Africa in their launch campaign stating, ‘At last! Cosmetics a black woman can call her own. You've waited for it. We've created it. A complete line of cosmetics for you, the black woman. In Swahili – ZURI means beautiful. And isn't that what cosmetics are about’.46 The use of Swahili demonstrates how the ethos of the early 1970s, in which African Americans increasingly sought to celebrate their African ancestry, was employed as a marketing tool for the cosmetics industry.

New cosmetics companies separated themselves from the established industry in their marketing, thereby glossing over the historical neglect of dark-skinned African American women in the industry. Advertisements for Libra claimed, ‘it's the first-class cosmetic collection designed for deep skin tones … It makes up for all the years you never had great make-up’.47 In 1973, Fashion Fair Cosmetics launched as a subsidiary to the Johnson Publishing Company, which also owned black magazines Ebony and Essence. Eunice Johnson, one of the founders, echoed Flori Roberts, stating that she was frustrated by the amount of mixing of colours her black models had to do in the Ebony Fashion Fair, a travelling fashion show which aided black charities.48 In their marketing, Fashion Fair Cosmetics relayed this frustration, taking aim at the neglect of black women at the hands of white cosmetics companies. One advertisement stated: ‘one of the biggest problems all black models have is finding a cosmetic that's really right for them … when a black women wears just the token colours of the white cosmetics, she has a tendency to phony-up instead of make-up’.49 In emphasising their originality and innovation, these companies avoided questions about their past positions in the cosmetics industry and instead positioned themselves as part of the solution, albeit delayed, to black women's exclusion.

In contrast, long-standing, mass market companies found themselves in a more awkward position. Having only previously included a small selection of products for black women, which new cosmetics companies were castigating as inadequate, cosmetics giants were torn between whether to augment their existing ranges or develop separate lines exclusively for black women. Attracted by the potential value, both in monetary and publicity terms, of explicitly including black women, by the mid-1970s, cosmetics giants Max Factor, Avon and Revlon had launched cosmetics campaigns exclusively for black skin tones.50

Avon, the oldest of these companies, was founded almost a century earlier in 1886 as a perfume company using door-to-door sales agents. Over the next eighty years, Avon had come to represent white, middle-class, suburban America through their sales ladies and their promotional campaigns.51 It was not until the 1960s that Avon began to advertise using black models in black magazines in what historian Lindsey Feitz calls ‘separate but equal’ advertisements – campaigns identical to those in white magazines – and it was not until 1975 that they introduced their ‘Shades of Beauty’ range exclusively for black women.52 Avon's advertising highlighted their attempt to include all black women, affirming ‘Avon introduces an exciting group of cosmetics especially designed to flatter the skin tones of Black women … fabulous colours created to complement dark skin tones’.53 Max Factor also ran ‘separate but equal’ advertisements but not until even later.54 Although becoming a mass market brand from the 1920s, from its founding in 1909 Max Factor was primarily used for movie and television make-up, and black women's exclusion from that industry compounded Max Factor's disregard towards cosmetics for black skin. It was not until 1963 that Max Factor introduced the shade ‘Light Egyptian’, inspired by actress Lena Horne, for African American women, and over a decade after that for black women to get their own cosmetics line, ‘Beautiful Bronzes’.55

By the 1960s, Revlon was the market leader for cosmetics, having experienced massive growth from its inception in 1932, particularly after 1945.56 However, Revlon's first black cosmetics line ‘Polished Ambers’ received significant backlash because of their advertising content, which critics argued was cultural appropriation. Polished Ambers advertisements featured supermodel Iman wearing African-style clothing and jewellery and in a foreword, Revlon announced:

Over many millenniums the massive, gaunt topography of Africa has clearly affected the arts, the lives, the faces and the ways of black people. This is the story of that evolution of the men and women who felt the grandeur of their world and flowered into a race of considerable ethnic beauty. Revlon, in an expression of its time-honored belief that beauty is evolutionary, offers tribute to a noble heritage. This is the story of the Polished Ambers of Revlon.57

In this way, Revlon euphemistically characterised its introduction into black cosmetics as evidence of the righteous ‘evolution’ of beauty standards.

Unsurprisingly, Revlon's marketing campaigns did not sit well with black communities. One writer for the Chicago Metro News condemned ‘Revlon's cursory attempt to manufacture symbols of Africa’, and reminded consumers that ‘it is important when buying a product to understand that this is a way of approving of a company, their products and their philosophy’.58 George Johnson, co-owner of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, echoed these statements, rebuking opportunistic white companies looking only at the market potential of black women, ‘Until the Johnson Products Company went public in 1969, the major cosmetic companies looked upon the Black beauty industry as just a nickel and dime business. Today, when whites look at the Black beauty industry, they see that it is not only beautiful but green and plenty green’.59

Revlon's offensive attempts aside, other white companies continued to pursue the ‘ethnic’ cosmetics market, and to better effect. As mass marketed, white-owned companies competed with smaller black-owned companies on price, they emphasised that their greater financial muscle meant they were able to pour more money into black communities, thereby undermining the argument that supporting only black businesses would be beneficial for black communities. Feitz finds that Avon ‘seemed saintly’ in comparison with Revlon because the former engaged with African American customers on a community level from the mid-1960s in three key ways.60 The first was by supporting African American employment within their company.61 Indeed, Avon stressed this in an Essence advertisement, which affirmed, ‘Someone you know sells Avon. That's not surprising. Many thousands of black women are Avon Ladies’.62 However, as shown earlier, Avon was not unique in doing so. White-owned Flori Roberts and Libra also emphasised that the saleswomen were black. Second, Feitz states that Avon consulted black marketing firms on how to best target the African American market.63 In 1973, Avon announced their partnership with UniWorld Group Inc., a black advertising agency founded in 1969, to promote the employment of minority communities in the marketing sector:

Avon Products Inc. has retained UniWorld Group Inc., as agency for its 1974 black orientated advertising programme. According to Phyllis Davis, Vice President, Sales Promotion & Advertising, Avon has had a long and close working relationship with the black community through its acceptance of our many thousands of black representatives and our broad line of cosmetics and personal care products. The selection of UniWorld represents another step toward maintaining our continued growth in this important market.64

However, from this announcement, it seems that the focus was not just on gaining knowledge of black consumers, but also in underlining that Avon, irrespective of being a white-owned company, was still investing in black businesses. The third way Avon engaged with black consumers beyond production and advertising was in collaborating with organisations within black communities that sought to address economic and social inequalities.65 Again, Avon was not the only company to do this. In fact, collaborating with community organisations became a common theme into the 1980s as competition stepped up in the ethnic cosmetics industry.

As well as black businesses facing increasing pressure from newly interested white companies, black women continued to struggle in relating to beauty standards as ideals fluctuated throughout the 1970s. As shown before, the emergence of ‘Black is Beautiful’ celebrated dark black skin, and for a brief period this was certainly the case, so much so that light-skinned African Americans complained that they then felt excluded from the new celebration of beauty within black communities. In a letter to the editor of Ebony magazine, two fifteen-year-old girls contended:

Everybody's running about yelling black power, black beauty is where it's at. We agree but how about your ‘light’ black brothers and sisters? I always thought black was a culture as well as a colour, so why don't you dark skinned brothers and sisters stop looking at our skins and start looking at our souls.66

This drew in numerous subsequent letters from light-skinned readers who expressed their own feelings of exclusion from redefined beauty standards in African American communities. One woman from Pennsylvania wrote in to voice her agreement with the girls, recalling, ‘when I was in school, I think I got into more fights about my “thinking I'm so cute with that good hair” than anything else … I say stop putting us down. Our skin and our hair may not say black, but on the inside our souls say we're “black and beautiful and proud”’.67 Thus, although ‘Black is Beautiful’ was developed to combat colourism, in some ways it heightened these distinctions.

Light skin is beautiful: The re-emergence of colourism

However, at the same time, while ‘Black is Beautiful’ clearly had significant impact on African American conceptions of beauty, it failed to completely sever the old conceptions and practices of beauty from the pre-Civil Rights era. Instead, what developed was a pluralism in which the cosmetics industry adapted the rhetoric of ‘Black is Beautiful’ to attract black customers but still reinforced ideals based on white, or at least light, skin. While there were more benevolent forms of commodification, such as in advertising new make-up brands, the more insidious form was in how ‘Black is Beautiful’ changed the promotion of the skin bleaching business.68 In one striking example, an advertisement reads ‘Remember Cleopatra? The Ancient African Beauty … She bathes in oil and exotic perfumes … really an artificial beauty. Today beauties are natural, beauties with clear, exquisite complexion. Many of today's beauties have discovered creamy white Palmers “Skin Success” Bleach Cream’.69 Equally as paradoxical was how Nadinola repeatedly exploited the language of black pride to sell their products: ‘Black is Beautiful. Naturally beautiful. But there's one requirement: naturally beautiful skin. That's where Nadinola comes in. Nadinola brings out the natural beauty of your complexion … Black is Beautiful. What makes it even more beautiful? Nadinola. Naturally’.70 The use of ‘beautiful’ and ‘natural’ simply masked the continuance of white beauty standards. Despite the major shift in how African Americans defined beauty in the late 1960s, the cosmetics industry failed to seriously engage with changing standards.

Into the mid-1970s, contemporaries warned that ‘Black is Beautiful’ would ‘become meaningless commercialism unless fundamental changes take place in our attitudes and behaviour’.71 Indeed, soon after, critics condemned black cosmetics as the ‘the commercial spin-off of the “Black is Beautiful” thrust’.72 In some cases, women likened cosmetics to hair straightening in reaffirming white beauty standards. One woman wrote in to Essence to highlight the failure of ‘Black is Beautiful’, saying, ‘we try to make our hair straighter, skin lighter and through camouflage with cosmetics, attempt to make our noses and lips thinner’.73 It is not hard to see why the cosmetics industry came in for criticism given that, in regards to race, by the late 1970s they had made little real change to beauty standards. Indeed, many argued that standards were reverting back to the pre-1965 era, and that the only significant change was that skin bleach was no longer advertised as a means to achieve whiter or lighter skin, but rather increasingly as a method to draw out one's ‘natural’ skin tone.74 Scholar Simone Puff argues that in the early 1970s, ‘Black is Beautiful’ forced companies to ‘tone down their language’.75 This meant that companies halted the use of ‘whitener’ in their products and promotions as to avoid calling attention to the obvious pressure to become whiter. Instead, companies created ‘fade creams, even tone creams, dark spot correctors’.76 This change aptly reflected the changes surrounding race and the cosmetics industry at this time; the language and the labels changed, but the products were as white as ever.

Throughout the 1970s, the paradoxical messages black women received from the beauty industry multiplied. On the one hand, black women were recognised as being doubly oppressed by race and gender, and the solution offered was pronounced in statements like ‘Black is Beautiful’ and in encouragement for women to embrace their natural selves. Yet at the same time, advertisements placed in key black cultural institutions like Ebony and Essence used ‘natural’ to continue the selling of white beauty. One example can be found in a 1974 Ebony special issue in which an article titled ‘Stresses and Strains on Black Women’ detailing the precarious position of black women – drawing attention to their increasing suicide rate and poor records of mental health – was placed alongside an advertisement for skin bleaching cream which was designed to bring out ‘natural skin tone’.77 The juxtaposition of these columns reflects that although there was increasing recognition of how discriminations intersected to disproportionally affect black women, they nonetheless continued to face racialised beauty standards.

By the late 1970s, the influence of ‘Black is Beautiful’ was waning. In her study of African American women and body image, scholar Tracey Owens Patton attributes this decline to the wider exchange of black separatism for assimilation in the later 1970s into the 1980s.78 Indeed, thanks to Title XII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, which barred employment discrimination and the introduction of affirmative action programs, black women were increasingly able to move into occupations traditionally reserved for their white counterparts. However, Patton argues that the pervasiveness of white norms in these spaces restored the pressure on black women to conform.79 As a result, Eurocentric norms regained popularity, in regard to both hair style and skin colour.80 Letters to beauty columnists in the mid-1970s reflected the faltering popularity of dark skin. One woman wrote in asking for advice, saying: ‘I am a 19 year old black girl. During the summer I teach at a camp for children. Last year my skin turned very dark and I would like to avoid that’.81 Similarly, another wrote in to ask, ‘I am a black teenager with a pretty shade of brown skin … How can I avoid this darkening?’82 These letters convey the sense of anxiety black women faced surrounding their skin tones. Keith explains that because of the aversion to darker skin, black girls have historically been cautioned about playing in the sun because of the potential of skin darkening.83 That these fears were still evident well into the 1970s reveals that colourism was not eradicated by ‘Black is Beautiful’. Black may have been beautiful, but only if it was the right shade.

The tension surrounding skin tone in the beauty industry was so palpable that black magazines tried to shore up black unity by explaining that beauty could be as diverse as skin tone. In explaining the changes in beauty pageants in historically black colleges, Ebony declared that while the 1950s queens were light skinned and those of the late 1960s were dark skinned, the 1970s offered a chance for all skin tones to be embraced.84 Ebony framed this as a success of the Civil Rights Movement in that ‘that the young are more secure in their blackness and therefore can tolerate variation’.85 Yet these messages did not make much impact. In 1980, Ebony tried again to dispel tensions over colourism in beauty ideals by publishing an article titled ‘What is Black Beauty?’86 The author maintained that ‘black beauty is evolving and cannot be defined with finality. Black beauty is black beauty … black beauty is beauty defined by its relationship to blackness’.87 This was an attempt to remove skin tone as a variable in black beauty ideals. In this way, an African American woman could represent black beauty, regardless of her skin tone, simply by embracing her blackness.

However, the attempts to allay disputes over colourism was undermined by the fall-out over Vanessa Williams’ victory as Miss America in the 1983 beauty pageant. Since the pageant's founding in 1921, African Americans had been excluded both formally and then informally. It was not until 1970 that an African American woman, Cheryl Brown, won a state title.88 However, African Americans criticised the black women who were allowed into the pageants because they ‘could pass for whites’.89 The first African American to win the national pageant was not immune to this criticism. The reaction from African Americans to Williams’ win was mixed, as many rejected her as being truly representative of being black. One reader wrote in to contest her victory as a milestone for African Americans, stating: ‘Vanessa Williams is proof that the old 1940s and 1950s standard of what is an “acceptable Negro” to the white race still exists. The day of skin bleach and light-skinned Blacks who could go either way has dawned once more’.90 Others agreed that there had been some attempt to redefine beauty standards, but they maintained that ‘the White or Caucasian standards of beauty are still greatly preferred by most Black people’.91 This reveals the disappointment from African Americans, particularly those with darker skin, not only towards the beauty industry, but also towards their own communities. Although there is an acknowledgement that some change had occurred since the 1960s, these letters show that dark-skinned blacks felt colourism still plagued beauty standards into the 1980s.

Six months after the pageant, Ebony tried once more to calm the furore by re-releasing their 1980 article ‘What is Black Beauty?’ in June 1984. But the reaction this time was one of frustration. One response said that the article ‘overflowed with vagueness, redundancy and inconsistency’.92 Realising that the tensions could not be glossed over by emphasising a spiritual connection to blackness, Ebony decided to tackle the conflict of skin colour head on. In December 1984, one year after Williams’ win, they published ‘Is Skin Colour Still a Problem in Black America?’93 The author argued that while issues were accentuated by the beauty industry, colourism still had serious psychological and sociological effects on black communities. It postulated that although there had been a change within African American attitudes to beauty, within wider (white) American society, there was still an overwhelming amount of ‘media messages that suggest, day in day out, that to be beautiful is to be fair-skinned and blue eyes with long straight hair’.94 The reaction to this article further opened up the conversation within Ebony readership to their opinions and experiences of colourism. Dark-skinned blacks took aim at the beauty industry for maintaining white beauty standards, drawing attention to the drastic things young black Americans continued to do in order to look white. One response to the article said:

While I was growing up in New York City in the 50s and 60s I caught hell from my lighter peers … I truly believe that this problem still exists among our people in America. Look around you and see how our youths measure beauty – by using skin lighteners, hair straighteners, curling and waving their hair and having nose operations to get that European look.95

The continuance of these practices indicates that by the latter half of the 1980s, beauty ideals had contracted after the brief period of expanded options offered to African Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Although cosmetics companies continued to use the rhetoric of Black Power and ‘Black is Beautiful’ into the late 1980s, there were more signs that beauty ideals were regressing rather than evolving. In April 1987, Ebony reported that there had been a recent resurgence in racism.96 Two months later, the first advertisement in over a decade for a product that explicitly used ‘bleach’ in its name was placed in the magazine.97 In the same month, Essence began to advertise Ultra Bleach and Tone Cream.98 If this did not denote the decline of black cosmetics as a symbol of racial equality clearly enough, it was made unequivocal when Fashion Fair, a cosmetics company created by and marketed exclusively for African Americans, announced its new product in 1988: Vantex Skin Bleaching Crème.99

Competing for the black cosmetics consumer

While beauty consumers and commentators were preoccupied with issues surrounding skin tone and appropriation in cosmetics and advertising, black cosmetics businesses faced problems of their own, as the 1980s brought further interest from general market cosmetics brands.100 By this stage, the cosmetics available to women of colour diversified to reflect how African American women's income had changed after the 1960s. At the top end, there was a growing number of middle-class, professional women with more disposable income than ever before. Beauty columnists asserted that companies, new and old, were targeting ‘the keen fashion sense and increased buying power of upscale professional black women as their tickets to profits in the $4 billion cosmetics industry’.101 The increased buying power of black women certainly began to catch the attention of high-end beauty brands, and from the end of the 1980s, luxury brands such as Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent began to advert in Essence. At the same time, black commentators cautioned that while the middle class was growing, those worse off in the 1960s were continuing the fall further behind.102 Black beauty columnists related this to the beauty industry, contending that although black beauty had come a long way from the 1960s, it was still ‘often disguised by poverty’, something which they reminded African Americans still suffered from disproportionately.103 Nonetheless, beauty columnists pointed out that despite the varied incomes of African American women, it was estimated that they spent about $500 annually on health and beauty aids compared with $180 from their white counterparts.104 Thus, the cosmetics industry recognised two things. First, African American women were not homogenous. They came from different backgrounds, had different occupations and subsequently had different levels of money available to spend on cosmetics. Second, and more important for the industry, regardless of what they did have, they disproportionately spent on cosmetics.

In recognising both the diversity of the consumer base within the ethnic cosmetics bracket and the increasing attention from white companies, black businesses were warned that ‘they are going to have to fight harder to keep, let alone increase, their share of the pie’.105 Beauty editors advised black businesses that it would not suffice to rely on racial solidarity but that ‘their lines must attract the more price sensitive consumer of “mass-marketed” cosmetics’.106 However, black businesses continued to ignore the economic arguments and instead honed in on using race to attract customers. In 1981, an alliance of black beauty businesses, the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute (AHBAI), was formed. Director Lafayette Jones claimed that the motivation behind the association was that black companies faced ‘an ever-widening encroachment of general-market firms onto their turf’.107 The AHBAI outlined their agenda declaring:

When AHBAI was formed in 1981, our members set four priorities that continue to guide us 1) To promote the industry 2) Represent our industry's interests before government agencies 3) Strengthen communication between industry leaders, Black cosmetologists, and consumers 4) Contribute to business and social growth in the Black community.108

The message was clear that spending in black beauty businesses meant more than supporting just one business. In patronising black businesses, consumers invested in their own communities’ social, as well as economic, well-being. Consuming cosmetics from black-owned companies therefore became a statement of racial politics.

As black companies promoted race as the central factor determining which companies black women should patronise, it would make sense that this would have put white companies in an uncomfortable position. But white companies denied that simply because they were white-owned meant that they did not support black employment or black communities. Avon had done this for years, emphasising their many black women representatives. In addition, they continued to publicise their support for non-white communities, including funding minority banks and scholarships through their philanthropist arm, the Avon Foundation.109 By the end of the 1980s, when the market was becoming crowded, Avon redoubled their efforts to emphasise their contribution to communities. In 1989, they released an advertisement in Essence which declared:

We never stopped at beauty. At Avon, beauty is just the beginning. For over one hundred years, Avon has stood for opportunity. We've always supported women in their quest for growth, independence and, of course, beauty itself. Working with hundreds of non-profit organisations we touch most areas of your life; from health and employment to education and the arts, Avon is committed to making the world a more beautiful place. For women and for everyone.110

This advertisement spoke to all classes of black women: from those women who had been able to develop into a new professional class of black women, to poorer black women who would have made use of non-profit organisations. In this way, Avon made it clear that it supported all black women regardless of their white ownership or history.


As usual, Revlon was as different and as provocative as ever, denying the place of race in consuming cosmetics altogether. In 1985, a representative from the company stated ‘it's not a matter of race, it's a matter of economics. The black consumer doesn't know who makes the products, they only know which one works better’.111 A year later, Revlon president Irving Bottner repeated these sentiments in an interview with Newsweek, but this time they went too far. Bottner predicted that ‘in the next couple of years, the black-owned [beauty] businesses will disappear. They'll all be sold to white companies’ because ‘black customers buy quality products, often their black brothers didn't do them any good’.112 Pointing out that white companies were cheaper was one thing, but overtly deriding black businesses crossed a line. Black communities were furious. The Chicago Metro News admonished:

The statement by Revlon was the latest in the war that white-owned companies have been waging against Black companies … If Black people, through a deep sense of racial pride, just like that promoted by other groups, were to redirect their $200 billion-a-year consumer power into Black owned enterprises a lot of white companies that have been exploiting this market for years would go under.113

Operation PUSH, a non-profit organisation headed by Reverend Jesse Jackson, organised a boycott of Revlon. Jackson stated that Bottner's words were the result of the wrongful assumption that ‘black women will choose lipstick over liberation’.114 This indicated the continued significance of the language of the black equality struggle. Moreover, it reaffirmed that the beauty industry was another arena in which the politics of race was played out.

Revlon reacted by taking a page out of Avon's book. Finally realising the significance of community to black consumers, in late November, Revlon announced that they would invest $5 million in minority banks.115 Shortly thereafter, they promised to review hiring practices to include more minorities and leave apartheid South Africa.116 Two years later, they teamed up with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, donating $25,000 to support their scholarships and stay in school programs.117 The lesson Revlon learned was that while economics may have been a key factor in the consumption of cosmetics, companies who wanted to appeal to black women could not underestimate the importance of race in how they conducted their businesses.

However, any potential growth black businesses may have garnered from the Revlon boycott was short-lived. The coming of the 1990s saw more companies delve into the ethnic cosmetics business. Black women had become the cosmetics industry's ‘new darling’ and in 1993, for the first time, the ethnic cosmetics market grew at a faster rate than ethnic hair-care market, growing by fifteen per cent.118 This growth reflected the interest from major players in the industry, but this also indicated the demise of smaller, minority-owned enterprises. Although the AHBAI had announced a $3 million annual deal to promote black businesses at the end of the 1980s, by the early 1990s, beauty editors doubted that they had the ‘deep pockets needed for massive advertising campaigns as well as the financial clout to demand adequate shelf space’.119 This was especially noticeable as the entrance of premium brands such as Estée Lauder and Clinique around this time spelt disaster for smaller companies.120 In addition, these companies had learned from Revlon's mistakes as beauty editors highlighted that ‘there is a growing recognition that cultural preference and values influence what black consumers buy’.121 This was validation of Avon's strategy with UniWorld Group Inc. back in 1973, and consequently while black cosmetics companies may have suffered, black marketing and advertising companies thrived through opting to consult with major firms.

The changes in the relationship between black women and the cosmetics industry in the post-Civil Rights era were anything but superficial. In some ways, this reflected the success of movements in the 1960s to expose and eradicate inequality. This paved the way for the brief but uninhibited celebration of blackness, popularised by the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’, which called for African Americans, particularly those with dark skin, to be considered beautiful as part of the political project against racism. However, while this briefly caused a redefinition of beauty ideals which included black women of all skin tones, some of these changes created more damage down the line. Removing racialised beauty standards was positive and important, and this democratised access to beauty culture – an important institution for American women – across racial lines. Conversely, though, this change meant that while black women were more represented in beauty ideals, they still were not liberated from them. Indeed, the redefined standards granted the cosmetics industry access to black women as consumers in unprecedented ways, with some negative consequences for both women and their communities. The often-disingenuous promotion of redefined beauty standards which idolised dark skin, coupled with the continued selling of skin whiteners, made the cosmetics industry fertile ground for conflicts surrounding skin tone and colourism to fester. Moreover, as the ethnic cosmetics market became crowded, issues surrounding ownership and appropriation accentuated class and racial tensions, which ultimately lead to the demise of smaller black businesses. Thus, the relationship between the cosmetics industry and black women does not begin and end with make-up in darker shades. This complicated relationship symbolised equality and increased representation, but also manipulation and exploitation. 

Reference:Melissa L. Baird: Wiley Online Library:

Subscribe to Newsletters
Please wait

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.


Right Click

No right click