The Beauty Myth

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One seemingly obvious, but still notable, aspect of Southern antebellum ladyhood, is the necessary and explicit disqualification of black women. The sphere of Southern ladyhood largely consisted of personal beauty and moral reform, with the first seen as evidence of the second. Personal beauty proved personal morality. In the 19th century white mind, whiteness was an essential component of female beauty, and thus, ladyhood.

From historian Mary Cathryn Cain's article "The Art and Politics of Looking White: Beauty Practices among White Women in Antebellum America"

Antebellum white Americans interpreted visible whiteness as an outward projection of inner virtue or, as the Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion maintained, ''the face is the mirror of the soul.'' A beautiful white face, then, reflected an unstained heart, and the skin's translucence was no longer valued solely for its physical beauty: it was valorized as evidence of moral rectitude that allowed a woman's inner light to shine for any observer. Likewise, the Book of Health and Beauty declared that ''a hand white and smooth, diversified with bluish veins, presenting to the touch the softness of satin, and to the eye the grateful color of milk'' could be read as a clear index of a woman's ''moral accomplishments.''

In his Analysis of Female Beauty, Wilson Flagg reinforced the attitude that female whiteness was incompatible with negative personal traits. The book consisted of a series of poems, each of which depicted an ideal woman who bore the physical attributes associated with a particular feminine virtue. Flagg describes ''Sylvia,'' the personification of Innocence, by alluding to ''her complexion's pearly hues,'' while ''Cecilia,'' the embodiment of Constancy, looked ''as white and spotless as new-drifted snow.'' Perhaps Flagg's characterization of Piety in ''Ophelia'' is his most telling: ''You cannot think beneath a brow so fair, /One sinful thought was ever harbored there.'' Here Flagg explicitly equates whiteness with the absence of sin.

In the Southern antebellum white mind, no black woman could ever qualify as a lady, because whiteness was beauty and beauty was moral cleanliness. But like most of the societal components of white supremacy, as surely as patrolling the boundaries of ladyhood meant keeping blacks locked out, it also meant keeping whites locked in. And so whiteness became not simply a sign of beauty and morality, but a sign of an aristocratic mien. Obviously being white does not, automatically, gift you with skin that is "spotless as new-drifted snow." For such an affect, a healthy industry of powders and cosmetics existed to help affect the illusion of moral cleanliness. 

But many such cosmetics were railed against by the white aristocracy as unnatural, and the women who applied them were roundly denounced as "painted ladies." Instead, it was advised that white women find other ways to perfect themselves--like a ingesting white chalk and arsenic:

To achieve the desired complexion, middle-class white women ritualized the practices described in beauty manuals--not all of them well advised. Some women dieted, slept with their windows open, or abstained from sleep altogether. Some women swore by warm baths. Others swore by warm beverages; still others swore off hot drinks completely. Some women ate chalk, drank vinegar, wore camphorated charms, bled themselves with leeches or even ingested arsenic to get the desired result. Many refrained from drinking alcohol and reading at night. And almost all middle-class white women avoided the sun.

African-American women from the South, and perhaps from Detroit, Chicago and Harlem, might find that last bit about avoiding the sun particularly poignant. In another era, it was not at all atypical for black people to advise their children to do exactly that for fear of them moving from "colored" to "black."

Some of this was raised, a few weeks back, while discussing Kanye West's album, and hip-hop's occasional embarrassing reinforcement of aesthetics born of a phrenological age. Ladyhood isn't what it once was. But the notion that lighter skin confers upon the owner some deeper power is very much with us. We like to call it colorism. But this understates things. It's white supremacy. When black rappers exalt the "sexy young ladies of the light skin breed," they are participating in an exercise inaugurated with their arrival to the West in chains. They are patrolling the borders, caging off women for sure, but just as surely, caging off themselves.

Image taken from "The Three Species of Beauty, as affecting the head and face,'' Alexander Walker, Beauty: Illustrated Chiefly by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman (New York: W. H. Colyer, 1845), pl. 16. As cited in Cain's article.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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