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Proclaimed as a “Movement” on its website, Proctor and Gamble’s “My Black is Beautiful” Campaign has toured across the country, providing black women with massages, empowerment talks, free hair services, free makeovers, free beauty products, and in it’s own words: “celebrating the diverse collective beauty of African American women and encouraging black women to define and promote their own beauty standard – one that is an authentic reflection of their indomitable spirit.”

But before I could get too excited for my upcoming massage, something stood out to me: the same companies (Proctor & Gamble, inclusive of its brands: Pantene Pro-V and Oil of Olay) that have perpetuated Eurocentric beauty standards for ages, and amassed considerable profits, are now encouraging women to embrace their “black” beauty. The most notorious of these companies is Pantene Pro-V. They have created a decade’s worth of commercials that depict women who undergo personal transformations by turning their split ends into glowing tresses that reach past their shoulders. These commercials never present a diverse image of what beautiful hair constitutes, lest it shines and swings from side to side. So why now are they attaching themselves to a campaign that supposedly advocates that “every” black woman is beautiful? And why are other companies, such as Oil of Olay, who slyly markets skin whitening lotions, becoming active proponents in the campaign as well?

Could it be for same reason that the issue of skin color within the black female community has spurred the success of these companies? Age-old beauty standards that lighter skin and straighter, curlier hair are more desirable have been strong selling points for these companies, as they manufacture products that reinforce these standards. Now, to advocate that all skin tones, from dark to light, and all hair textures, from kinky to straight, comprise beauty, would expand the company’s consumer base, all within the guise of self empowerment. Clever.

An excerpt from the campaign’s manifesto states:

“From the color of my skin, to the texture of my hair, to the length of my strands, to the breadth of my smile To the stride of my gait, to the span of my arms, to the depth of my bosom to the curve of my hips, to the glow of my skin… My black is beautiful.” Here, blackness is once again enveloped into the same rigid skin color, hair dialectic that the advertising campaign claims to forego. The campaign seems to be pushing for alternative conceptions of black femininity, inclusive of natural hair, weight differences, and age expansion, but it stops there. The campaign encourages black women to resist the mainstream media’s depictions of beauty, but fails to recognize the insistence of this media in their very own campaign. Sadly, the dialogue doesn’t reach beyond how black women can bond together on issues that fall outside of our skin color and hair, and delve into a fuller conception of personal, political, and social identity.

Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think a bald black woman, a black woman wearing hijab, or a black woman who refused to undergo the gloss-fest of the advertising campaign, would even be included in “My Black is Beautiful.” The pictures on the website confirm this. Or how about the black woman whose hair is not her main priority, and instead focuses her attention on areas of identity that don’t directly correlate to her physical look, such as writing, thinking, or even breathing. Hard to imagine? In the midst of a black femininity shaped by the dominant gaze that it claims to thwart, I can see why. This inability, or refusal, to conceive of blackness beyond readily identifiable traits of hair and skin color, makes this campaign no better than the hegemonic advertisements of its sponsors.

Instead of using this national campaign to pinpoint some of the most pressing issues that pervade many black women’s lives, and how they are depicted in the media, the campaign has been used as an empowerment machine that operates within a patriarchal, heterogeneous discourse, trading massages for worthwhile dialogue. How about recognizing the mainstream media’s continual dismissal of black women who are physically terrorized or abducted, and who receive, at best, one full segment on the TV news? Specifically, a black woman named Megan Williams was brutally tortured in West Virginia by a white family whose heinous crimes reflect the complete devaluation of the black female body, not in a “beautified” context, but in a global, social context. Why not include discussion items on how to reclaim and strengthen our bodies, minds, and identities in the midst of this racist, sexist ignorance and trauma? As I looked through the online “Discussion Guide,” I saw that one of “Action Activities” instructed women to: “Intentionally affirm Black women and girls by reminding them how beautiful they are. Be specific. Gift a girl with her own subscription to a Black beauty-affirming magazine. Make the celebration of your inner and outer beauty a daily practice, perhaps during prayer or meditation.” The conflation of “inner beauty” with purchasing a beauty-affirming magazine is but one way to reinforce that beauty, and ultimately self-worth, can be bought. Now it becomes blatantly clear why Pantene Pro-V and other big named beauty-pushers are attached to this campaign. Their ads run in the beauty affirming magazines and can be included in the wave of media that encourages “My Black is Beautiful,” while also promoting the same beauty standards that influence many young black girls to runaway from their blackness.

“My Black is Beautiful,” while a much-needed campaign for black women, operates within a safe, easy paradigm for the advertisers that sponsor it. While skin color and hair dynamics are of importance to the black female community, they are in no way the sum total of its existence. They cannot be divorced from a larger discourse on black female identity that takes into consideration the role of advertisers and media, specifically those who back this campaign, in perpetuating sexist norms. To advocate for the expansion of how we frame physical beauty is fine, but to limit a statement such as “My Black is Beautiful” to these terms, not only does a disservice to the cause, but also leaves out a large proportion of women who identify as black, but who don’t define their “beauty” according to those tenets.

Thus, this campaign doesn’t offer new, provocative ways to look at blackness within a feminist space because in doing so, the very campaign, in all of its corporate splendor, would not exist. Ultimately, the campaign has co-opted one of major ideologies of the black power movement (“Black is Beautiful,”) in a way that empties its meaning, and pushes it further from what a movement, in its truest sense, entails.

There’s not too much beauty in that.

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