By H. Fields Grenée
I’ve never really thought much of beauty. As an African American female raised among an extended family where every skin tone, eye color and hair texture was represented – beauty was a rich texture of various shades.
Maybe this is why writing an article about the perceived increase in use of Ethiopian models by advertisers to appeal to the African buying audience seemed an easy task. But in actuality the subject proved to be a scorching hot potato issue. Few if any wanted to discuss the topic openly because it scratched the surface of an uncomfortable dilemma.
Since the early seventies, marketing budgets spent to attract African American consumers has steadily increased. Commercial plot lines went from rarely showing minorities to, in many cases, showcasing them, or more accurately – pushing an encapsulated ideal minority.
“With the recent interest in Ethiopian women, or women from the “horn” more broadly, it is amazing how almost blatantly Social Darwinist ideas get espoused,” noted Professor Davarian L. Baldwin, a Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, who focuses on African Diaspora issues.
“So in the case of Ethiopian women, I hear talk about an “Ethiopian” skin tone, facial features, and bone structure. I hear so much about the beautiful skin of Ethiopians, not in terms of blemishes or smoothness but because it is seen as the perfect balance between darker sub-Saharan Africans and whiter Caucasians,” said Baldwin. “I also hear they are the perfect beauty blend because of their brown skin and yet long (more Caucasian-looking) hair.”
Though Baldwin purports “ideal beauty standards” for any ethnic group are ridiculous, his research clearly shows that “dominant” beauty types within groups both emerge and tend to change over time.
He notes an example of this found in the shift in Italian beauty standards from Sophia Loren, a “southern” Italian beauty of the ’60s revered for her smoky full-figured “dark” look versus the now popular fair-skinned, blond waif. Then there is the ever evolving face of Jennifer Lopez. Since first garnering attention in the late ’80s as a dancer on In Living Color, she has softened her look, lightened her hair and become the benchmark for “voluptuous” curves in Hollywood.
“To be sure something must be made of personal choice,” contends Baldwin, “but it seems far from coincidental that (JLo’s) personal choices move her closer and closer to the dominant beauty standards of U.S. media outlets as she has grown in “acceptance.”
“Yes the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder may be true,’” he says, “but it’s also true that beauty standards have emerged based on the repeated dissemination of certain types and the pay scales and contracts given to models based on particular features.”