- Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South by Blain Roberts
Blain Roberts’ examination of beauty pageants, beauty parlours, and beauty ideals in the twentieth-century US South underscores the sixties’ slogan that “The Personal is Political.” The definitions of beauty and the institutions that supported these cannot be separated from contemporary concepts of race, gender, and class or from the struggles to maintain (and to undermine) Jim Crow. “What it meant to be beautiful in the Jim Crow and civil rights South was determined largely by the presence of a racial other” (p. 7).
Roberts emphasizes the centrality of segregation to the understanding of what beauty connoted in the twentieth-century South. Although she discusses white and black women in alternating chapters, she deftly illustrates how conceptions of beauty for each group of women are integrally connected. In chapter five, with the advent of the Civil Rights movement, [End Page 603] Roberts brings the racially charged definitions of beauty together demonstrating how beautiful white women became symbols of white supremacy and resistance while beautiful black women became symbols of black progress and racial pride.
Chapter one traces the way the cosmetics industry helped democratize the beauty archetype of the Southern plantation mistress in the first decades of the twentieth century. Bleaching creams and face powders provided white Southern women from all backgrounds the “lady’s aristocratic whiteness… a racialized beauty… that afforded all the benefits of white racial identity and class privilege but that carried none of cosmetics’ threatening gender or sexual implications” (p. 40). Because beauty was equated with whiteness and whiteness symbolized purity and innocence, it followed that black women could not be beautiful or virtuous.
Not surprisingly, black women — stigmatized by these racialized definitions of beauty — were determined to demonstrate both their attractiveness and their respectability. Chapter two examines the role that Southern black beauty parlours played in personal and communal uplift. Black beauticians provided skin and hair treatments that “helped their clients construct a femininity that blunted the harsher edges of Jim Crow” (p. 58). In addition, black women with a little capital were able to set up businesses that provided economic independence for themselves as well as an affirming environment for women in their communities. Roberts tells the stories of Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker, two entrepreneurs who developed hair-care and face-care regimes based on folk remedies that not only improved the appearance of black women but also made these two beauty culturists extremely wealthy. The products Malone and Walker promoted were viewed ambivalently by some black leaders who felt that efforts to lighten skin and straighten hair were accommodating white ideals of beauty. Others argued that if such remedies served to raise white opinions of black women, they were an effective way of combating racism. Roberts contends there was another important aspect of black beauty shops — along with institutions such as the black church and school, the black beauty shop “nurtured debate and activism” (p. 102).
One of the “most enduring symbols of white southern culture,” Roberts argues, was the beauty pageant (p. 106). She traces the origins of these contests back to May Day celebrations, ring tournaments, agricultural competitions, and civic festivals such as those commemorating the Lost Cause. Increasingly, white women’s bodies were employed to symbolize the wholesomeness of the region’s agricultural and rural economy and society in an increasingly urban and industrial nation. Agricultural boards found that “Crop queens offered… an alternative picture… [that countered] unflattering images of the Depression-era South” (p. 142). [End Page 604]
Black communities in the Jim Crow South organized their own beauty pageants at “colored” agricultural fairs, at home demonstration club meetings, and at historically black colleges. “Body rules and rituals for black women… show how race leaders self-consciously utilized black women’s bodies to prove not just their individual capabilities but the capabilities of the race itself” (p. 151). Contests rewarded those who rejected the...