Black women in advertisements: Identity Crisis
In the early 1800’s during the times of slavery in the U.S. Black women were seen as one thing: bodies. Bodies to pick cotton, bodies to nurse and raise the ‘masters’ children, and bodies to be sexually used whenever a white male deemed necessary. Now in the year 2000 if you pick up a magazine or look at a flyer you can see an innumerous amount of Black women on advertisements. However one thing is still prevalent. The perception of the Black woman from in the 1800’s when used for picking cotton and used sexually by a slave owner, to Black women today in advertisements half naked in a seductive pose the message has remained the same. A Black woman is still just seen as a body.
For some research for myself on the topic I decided to do something simplistic to further enhance my idea of Black women in advertisements. My experiment was to go to the Google search engine and type in the phrase ‘Black woman’. After typing in my phrase, instead of getting women like Oprah Winfrey, the famous talk show host, Gabrielle Union, a movie actress, or just a photo of a pair of Black girlfriends hanging out, I got exactly what I expected. The very first images that came up were those of black women in bikinis or limited clothing, in sexual poses. This really says something about the media and the perception that every Black woman is an overly sexual being with little value other than what you can physically see.
No matter what you learn about construction of knowledge is all about in the perception of the teacher. The point of view the teacher believes about a subject or the point of view was taught to them, so the students will be taught. The imagery of Black women that is used in advertisements has had the same themes throughout history. It is as if the first advertising agency created its image of Black women and ‘taught’ the other advertising agency’s of today to continue the traditions.
When looking back at Black women in advertisements, one name in particular comes to most people’s minds. Aunt Jemima from the pancake box, is one of the most historically remember first images of a Black woman. Back in the time of Aunt Jemima, the late 18-early 1900’s, Black women were still being oppressed by slavery and an attitude of white superiority. Aunt Jemima’s physical attributes, being a dark-brown, hefty black woman wearing a red bandana and a smile gave mixed a mixed message. To some black people it was a great feat having a Black woman be seen in on an advertisement at all. But looking deeper into it Aunt Jemima actually was another form of oppression. In order to have the construction of what beauty is, you must also have a construction of what unattractiveness is. Aunt Jemima showed the stereotypical Black woman with the big lips, nappy hair, and was of course used on a box of food, which was seen as one of the few things Black women were good for at that time in history. In American in the late 1800’s, European features were used as the standard of beauty. Therefore, the opposite of European women, Black women, had to be put down and considered unattractive to uplift White women.
Studies have shown that White women suffer from lower self-esteem and more prone to eating disorders than Black women are, despite women of color being more overweight. When Black women looked in a magazine and were shown pictures of white models they did not feel as bad about themselves as White women did after looking at the same advertisements. Women of color have been known throughout history for there undying perseverance and high personal regards. However, in advertisements these attributes are hardly exposed. The majority of Black women in advertisements are for hair chemical and hair coloring systems. The women on the boxes are usually light skinned women wearing a hair color that is obviously not attainable by nature. The pictures on the boxes give off a need of having Eurocentric features to achieve beauty. Also a lot of hair products have advertisements meant for Black women that encourage women to get their hair straightened. The ads on the boxes or bottle of the product have happy light-skinned women with bone straight hair normally. Again these ads go back to feeling like the more Eurocentric you are the more attractive you are. The advertisements for products to straighten hair are used to lower Black women’s self esteem.
The main controversy over black women in advertisements is in Black magazines. Magazines like Vibe, The Source, and other hip-hop run magazines often do spreads about ‘video vixens’, or Black women who dance in rap videos. The stories on these women usually talk about the women’s lives, goals, and aspirations. Normally the video vixens will express a want for higher education or have goals of owning a business or being the CEO of a company. Aside these high goals and great plans for their life, the women normally are in pictures right next to their articles standing seductively in lingerie or in a wet swimsuit. The irony in this is that the editors obviously have no regard for the women themselves and intend to make the women look distasteful and incredible in their goals. Imagine looking at a woman saying that she would like to be secretary of state in her underwear, with a ton of makeup, and tossed up hair. The first thought that goes through your mind is ‘yeah right’ or something along those lines. The advertisements of today make it hard for other Black women to advance in upper level business and get good jobs. In the back of everyone’s mind when they look at Black women are the images of the video girls that they see on television.
On the other side some people would say that like with Aunt Jemima, just having a Black woman in advertisements is a major feat and should be celebrated. Black women are just now being recognized for their beauty and modeling talents in the advertisement industry. Having at least some images of Black women, although not the most flattering images, is better than being non-existent in the eyes of the public. Just being able to go to the store, or drive down a highway, and see a billboard with an African-American woman on it is an empowering feel. However, just being satisfied with being represented, even if misrepresented is not good enough.
Black women, throughout history, have been unfairly and untruly labeled by the advertisement industry. It is time for Black women to stop relying on the pictures in the magazines and billboards to tell us who we are. It is time for Black women to write their own history and begin to show ourselves the way that we want to be seen in. It is crucial for us to take back our identity from the hands of the video producers and Vibe magazine writers and make ourselves seen what we want to be.
- Lurie, Karen. Anorexia and Race. 25 July 2003
2. Grisby, E-Ben D and Maine, Jean M. Past Perceptions of Black women in advertising. October 2005
- Grisby, E-Ben D and Maine, Jean M. Current Perceptions of Black women in advertisement. October 2005
4. Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press. 1992