What are "Good Looks?"

Pittsburgh Courier Skin Lightener Ad

"Within the context of ethnicity and the formation of the African-based community, it is highly significant that not only Africans recognized their differences, but others did as well. The implications of the ability to distinguish were profound...."
-Michael A. Gomez

o what exactly are "Good looks?" There are, and have always been, certain physical aspects that are considered to be particularly attractive within the black community. The archetype of black good looks has undergone several changes and revisions over the years, but a few underlying themes have always remained present and influential. Skin tone and hair texture played a articularly important role in determining standards of beauty. Whether you were dark skinned or "high yellow" proved very important in the quality of life and chances for success for early blacks. Light skin also offered the opportunity to "pass" as a white person and to gain access to the privilege of white America.

Black and White advertisement

Birmingham Newspaper Skin Lightener AdSkin tone has always played a large role in what African Americans cosider to be good looks. It is still a common conception within the black community that blacks with lighter skin are more attractive. Even in the days of slavery, skin color could indicate the region in Africa from which slaves came. Whites as well as other blacks thought of some African groups with lighter skin as more intelligent, cooperative or beautiful. Mulatto slaves, who also had lighter skin, were more likely to be house slaves than their darker-skinned contemporaries, who more often endured the grueling physical labor of work in the fields. From these origins one can see the commodification of light skin within the Black community.

Beauty as Power

"They [blacks] coped with job discrimination partly by setting up their own businesses. In doing so, they developed their own status hierarchy, with self-employed service businesses at the top of the ladder. Throughout the 19th century, barbering was their most prestigious occupation, and community leaders often were barbers who operated downtown barbershops that catered to the city's elite."

Beauty served as a means to empowerment for early African Americans. Not only did beauty and the beauty industry provide means for obtaining social privilege, but they could help African Americans gain economic stability.

Due to the low capital required to start business and the consistent demand for black hair care, barbering and beauty shops became self-sustaining professions.

The power and privilege that came with being light or white is what is actually attractive.

Before Barber Shops
and Beauty Salons


Before African American- owned barbershops and beauty salons lined the business districts in Pittsburgh and Birmingham, blacks often did each other's hair in kitchens or basements. Especially before the 20th century, blacks had scarce access to products that suited their hair, and they adapated materials at hand.

For example, blacks sometimes washed their hair with dishwater, or with turpentine of kerosene mixed with lard, or they used grits, powdered charcoal or coarse corn meal for a "dry" shampoo.
African Americans cooked apple leaves and chicken fat together, or rinsed their hair with "bluing," as homemade conditioners.

African Americans also learned that warm grease could soften hair braided too tightly.
Utensils like forks could comb hair, and a hot knife could curl hair.

Blacks straightened their hair by heating strips of burlap or other coarse materials, and pressing the cloth against their hair.

"It's Going to Come" 1916

Makeup and Cosmetics

Makeup IconAlthough many women did not actually use skin bleaches on a regular basis, if at all, almost all women used cosmetics of some sort. African Americans in Pittsburgh—and almost everywhere in the United States—had few choices for commercial make up. One of the few cosmetics that came close to approximating African American skin tone was "Nut Brown Powder," which gave everyone who used it the same reddish brown tone. The same lack of variety applied to hosiery and even lipstick. Almost every woman Shirley Anderson knew wore ruddy-colored "Red Fox" stockings and used "Black Berry" lipstick, a popular deep brownish red shade.

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