Black and beautiful: African-American women haven't had an easy time in the fashion world

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Steven Meisel, Vogue
This May 2007 Vogue cover features only one black model as one of the world's next top supermodels.
By LaMont Jones
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The national debate sparked by broadcaster Don Imus' use of the term "nappy-headed hos" to describe black players on the Rutgers women's basketball team has raised an unintended, seldom-discussed question:

Mark Mainz, Getty Images for IMG
Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek, here at New York Fashion Week in February, was called ugly by some Americans when she hit the big time in the mid-'90s.
Click photo for larger image.

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How have African-American women maintained their femininity and sense of beauty after centuries of dehumanization?

They survived the inhumanity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the indignity of being separated from their families on slave auction blocks. They endured abuse and rape by slave masters and overcame the injustice of being bred and worked like animals.

During segregation and after desegregation, they suffered doubly for being black and female in a culture that esteemed neither.

More recently, the physical attributes historically possessed by black women were deemed undesirable by America's wider society -- until women of other ethnic groups began to exhibit them. Cornrows weren't chic until Bo Derek got them, curvaceous derrieres weren't sexy until Jennifer Lopez came along, and full lips were unattractive until Angelina Jolie's kissers showed up and sparked a cottage industry of lip-plumping potions.

Black women are least likely to be perceived as attractive and worthy of respect, some observers say, which may be why groups ranging from black rap artists to black comedians to white radio hosts have no problem denigrating them.

And the darker her skin and the kinkier her hair, it seems, the less she is valued.

"The truth of the matter is, black women in general are almost demonized, both by African-American men and the greater culture," said former fashion journalist Roy Campbell, a book author and celebrity event planner with offices in Philadelphia and Miami.

Mr. Campbell, who was fashion editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer for a decade, is also a frequent guest judge on the hit CW show "America's Next Top Model."

Mr. Campbell and others perceive the marginalization of black women in the fashion and beauty industry as a reflection of general lack of appreciation of black women's beauty in wider society.

While terms such as "tramp" once were used only in reference to loose women, he said, similar terms are now used routinely to describe black women in general.

"Imus showed that regardless of accomplishments and achievements, in the minds of so many whites, we are still nappy-headed black folks, period," he said. "The basketball team was reduced to what they think of us all the time -- nappy-headed people who shouldn't be there, anyway."

When Sudan-born model Alek Wek emerged on the international fashion stage in 1995, many Americans beheld her Hershey complexion and short, kinky hair and pronounced her ugly.

Although Ms. Wek still enjoys a successful modeling career, black models with her skin tone and hair texture seldom get high-profile work and are not the cover subjects for mainstream U.S. fashion magazines or the faces in fragrance and cosmetics ads.

Setting the tone

On the other hand, the black women who enjoy the greatest prominence in the industry -- Beyonce, Halle Berry, Liya Kebede, for example -- nearly always are fair-skinned with smooth hair.

The May issue of Vogue has a double front cover that features 10 women as "The world's next top models ...." The lone black, Chanel Iman, sports long, straight hair in the photo and a complexion only slightly darker than the other nine women.

Adrianne Andrews, an anthropologist and Afro-American studies lecturer at the all-women's Smith College in Massachusetts, said African-American women tend to be perceived in modern-day incarnations of three historical stereotypes: the large dark-skinned, headrag-wearing "Mammy," the domineering and overly assertive "Sapphire," and the overly seductive "Jezebel."

She said these images are created and perpetuated by the media and lead to stigmatization and exclusion of black women, especially dark-skinned ones.

"Biracial, multiracial, ethnic ambiguity is what I'm seeing more and more of for men and women, from adults to children on TV, in commercials," said Dr. Andrews. "The illusion of white ancestry [in blacks] is just enough to tweak people, to conjure up images of illicit sex. The color dynamic has a huge influence on who is actually presented, unless there's some exoticism in terms of dark skin. Even among whites, it's the extreme Scandinavian look that still has favor one way or another."

Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan, who last year became the first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize for fashion criticism, described a "weird display" at the Givenchy fall 2006 fashion preview in Paris.

The show opened with six black models wearing black outfits and black accessories, some carrying black luggage-like bags. They were followed by white models and were not seen again in the show.

"I joked with someone about the black girls, saying, 'Were they the porters?' " said Ms. Givhan, who is black. "My guess is that the designer, Riccardo Tisci, wanted to separate those pieces, the little black dresses that are so iconic to the label. He also, I'm guessing, wanted to show the accessories. Honestly, I don't think it got much more complicated than that in the designer's mind. I guarantee you that the designer didn't for one second think that what he was doing could be seen as offensive."

How black models are used -- or not used -- seems the result of a creative point a designer wants to make rather than intentional racism, suggested Ms. Givhan.

"As someone I interviewed a long time ago said, in fashion, race is nothing but a color chip. It's not conscious 'racism.' The designers see a difference and use those differences to illustrate a point, completely oblivious to the fact that those are the characteristics of feeling human beings."

Routinely at New York Fashion Week, many womenswear designers hire only one black model, or none. BCBG's Max Azria is among a handful of designers who never send black models down their runways.

A conversation in Paris with a black booker for a modeling agency helped Ms. Givhan understand one of the reasons black models have trouble getting highly visible gigs.

"He said he was trying to get more black models work in Paris," she recalled. "The problem, he said, is that [magazine] editors and designers will say that if they put the clothes on black models, people don't notice the clothes, they notice the girl -- as if the sight of a black model is so rare and distracting that people will gawk."

Even as they grapple with social obstacles and cultural oppression, black women revel in their beauty. From hair and makeup to clothes and accessories, everything is meticulously maintained to present an image of loveliness that time and adversity have been unable to erode.

This is something that black poet Maya Angelou alludes to in her poem "Still I Rise," published 20 years ago:

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I'll rise.

'Do it ourselves'

Many of the high-profile groups and individuals who successfully pressured NBC to fire Imus are turning their outrage toward the hip-hop music industry and rappers who persistently denigrate women.

Oprah Winfrey, who has verbally sparred with black rappers about the issue in the past, last week devoted two days of her hugely popular talk show to the topic. And in the May issue of Essence, author Jill Nelson criticizes how black comedians -- Flip Wilson, Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry -- have donned drag and presented demeaning images of black women for decades.

"I will not, I repeat, I will not, pay my $9 to see 'Norbit,' " Mr. Murphy's latest movie, in which he portrays an obese, dark-skinned, boorish black woman, said eBay style director Constance White, a former fashion journalist who has dark skin and wears her hair naturally kinky.

"How can we see as funny a man -- a black man, at that -- playing a black woman as ugly, vulgar and just a huge joke? What the Imus debacle has brought about, whether permanent or temporary, is a look at what roles blacks themselves play in depicting black women as less than beautiful, less than alluring, less than sexy. Racism is systemic and systematic in America, but that doesn't mean we should be perpetrators."

In 1999, Demeatria Gibson-Boccella co-founded Utopia Modeling Agency in Pittsburgh, which specializes in diverse models of color. She sees it as an important way to address black under-representation in the fashion and beauty industry.

"We can't wait to be accepted," she said. "We just have to go out there and do it ourselves, run our own businesses, run our own agencies. They will never accept us for who we are."

Mrs. Gibson-Boccella, who is tall and striking with a deep-brown complexion, said she began wearing her hair naturally more than a decade ago to "embrace my own beauty and who I am as a black woman."

A more wholesome view of black women, she added, is tied to "healing that we as black people have to do.

"We have to embrace who we are. Once we've reached that point of embracing who we are and loving and respecting ourselves, then others will respect us, too. The positive outcome to the whole Imus controversy is that there is dialogue now taking place, and we're having a positive conversation."

Louis Lanzano, Associated Press
Models take the finale walk in February at the fall fashion preview of Matthew Williamson, one of a number of designers who used no black models during New York Fashion Week.
Click photo for larger image.

Post-Gazette fashion editor LaMont Jones can be reached at ljones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1469.


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