Sunday, 4 March 2012

Less is Not More When It Comes to Black Women and the Media

In today’s Observer newspaper Victoria Coren kindly lets it be known that following from her readings of an article headlined ‘Black women ‘more confident in their bodies’ that, as a result, we are ‘300 miles further down the road of liberation than [our] paler sisters’. It is admirable that she is clearly such a fan of the strength and determination exhibited by ‘darker sisters’, however her analysis of the figures in the article above demonstrate that it is probably best for black women themselves to tell the world about their issues around self esteem. White middle class women, whose analysis of purely statistical data fail to recognize the complexity of our experiences, are not best placed to give a nuanced analysis.

In her piece Coren sites the fact that ‘in the survey, 67% of "overweight" black women said they had high self-esteem, compared with only 41% of "average-sized or thin" white women’. This is chalked up as evidence of the fact that black women need not ‘complain’, as we have been doing for so ‘long’, about the near lack of representation of us in the beauty industry. Despite bemoaning the fact that not enough black female figures are used in the ‘women’s market’, she tells us that ‘the bigotry in fashion, cosmetics, advertising, TV and Hollywood hasn’t damaged black women, it’s saved them!’ That is truly a bold statement to make, especially by someone who has no real experience of what she is writing about.

Any black person will tell you that the skin lightening industry is alive and kicking both here and abroad. Walk into any cosmetics retailer specializing in products for black people and you will find a wealth of creams declaring they will make you the lighter, brighter you, you have always wanted to be. And sadly, for far too many black people, that statement is in no way ironic. In India alone, the skin whitening market is growing at a rate of 18% a year. The nation’s leading research organization, AC Nielsen, believes that this figure will rise to 25%, making the market worth approximately £272 million. Globally the market is set to reach an estimated £6.3 billion by 2015. Yet, for Coren, black women are ‘mad to keep campaigning for greater visibility in Vogue or light entertainment, now it's clear that absence has made a lovely free space for them to form their own healthy self-image.’ Wishing that you are whiter and being willing to risk your health for the sake of doing so is not my example of a ‘healthy self-image’. Declaring to the world that it is a petty and ridiculous desire of black women to link our lack of representation in the media to these deeply harbored and negative self-images is, ever so slightly, annoying. It’s like someone adamantly insisting you’re absolutely fine when you know you’re not.

Coren goes on to argue that the fact that 68% of black women say it is ‘”very important’ to have a successful career’ as opposed to 45% of white women is testament to our ultimate well being. Not a second thought is given to the fact that this figure might be related to class. Could it possibly reflect our understanding that as women from, predominantly, working class backgrounds we recognize that financial independence is of paramount importance? The precedent being set by many of our mothers who continued to work as a necessity when their white counterparts could afford to stay at home. Therefore, could we just possibly take it, not as a token of our adamantine ability to emerge unscathed by prevailing beauty norms? Is it more a marker of how we have been triply disenfranchised through race, class and gender, recognize this and are resolute in doing something about it?

Neither does Coren understand the fact that though 62% of black women consider it ‘very important’ to have ‘free time to pursue other interests – compared with …55% of white women’, this does not necessarily mean that we are unbound from assiduously trying to reach the very distant ideals of white beauty shoved down our throats on an hourly basis. Ask any black woman with straightened hair, that’s many, Victoria, if you didn’t know, and you will see that in fact, we are OBSESSED with Western notions of beauty. The truth is that many of us, in order to retain the mystique of long, straight white hair, will forgo activities we love, like swimming, for the sake of maintaining a beauty myth that insists on perceiving our natural hair, out for all to see, as a sign of rebellion or attitude, rather than just another hair style.

As a white woman, Coren in what is well intentioned, wants to reassure us, in the way often, only white people can do, that black women really do need to stop complaining, things aren’t as bad as we think they are. Well, my answer Victoria is that I think we’re the better judges of that. We need more black women in the media affirming the fact that black is beautiful and intelligent and all other positive adjectives you can think of that we are never readily attributed to us.

by Lola Okolosie


  1. [from Victoria Coren]

    Hi Lola. Just to say - of course I wasn't saying in the piece that black women have NO body / self-esteem issues. I mean look at Beyoncé: such a rare creature, a black woman of massive international fame, who does those weird album covers in bright light that make her skin look paler and with her hair all straightened and blonde. I have no idea if that's her personal lack of faith in her own beauty, or a cannier idea of what's needed to make money, but either way it seems a sad thing to do with the spotlight. And the survey didn't say *0%* of black women had issues, their figures just looked a lot healthier than the white ones.

    I respect your right to say I shouldn't even comment on matters like this but I think what I think and it's my personal belief that there can't be an EMOTIONAL difference between black and white women, only a difference of experience / treatment / life etc. So I was looking for cultural reasons why there was such a discrepancy in the figures for "self esteem" and it struck me that maybe white women are more screwed up *because* they (we) appear to be represented in mass media but actually it's a false representation we can't live up to.

    I really wasn't trying to "reassure" black women that they should stop complaining!! That line about saying they'd be mad to want more visibility in Vogue was a bitter comment about Vogue. I think these media have the potential to damage all women, the black women who are ignored and the white women who are misrepresented - it's just my view, and I'm sorry if you were offended by it.

  2. Good on Victoria for addressing the points made here.

    I think the point about class being important in whether or not women think it's important to be financially independent is interesting. But the words 'a successful career' makes it sound to me like something more than financial security (as opposed to, say, 'having a well-paid job' - but maybe that's just my reading of the tone. It would be really interesting to see the racial and class differences between the answers of those two questions (the job vs career ones)

    I'm trying to work out what your argument is about the pursuing other interests stats. I get that those stats don't mean no black women are obsessed with beauty, but it does mean that black women put more significance on other interests - that's just what the figures mean. As VC said, it doesn't mean that black women have nothing to complain about - just that they seem better-adjusted in this particular metric than white women. I agree that it's not as simple as it seems and it would be fascinating to see some more contextualised research on why this might be the case.

  3. I too am pleased to see that Victoria has responded to this. Since her article is the only one in the mainstream press, that I am aware of, that has looked at the original data. It would have been good to see here a blog post that looked at the similarities and differences that might occur between responses from Black British women and the results of the survey - or even between black and white women of the UK. Instead we have an attack on the journo, who her jokes aside, has actually produced a very thoughtful piece - all be it based on what African-American women think. The original survey collates the responses of American men & women – black and white.