- Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture by Cheryl Thompson
Cheryl Thompson writes that “beauty is not just about ‘putting on a face’ or ‘tightening a hair weave.’ Beauty is a historical, racialized, gendered construct that has played and continues to play a role in how black women think and feel about ourselves in addition to shaping how and what we consume” (33). Thompson uses personal anecdotes of her childhood in Scarborough, Ontario, alongside well-researched historical evidence to craft a sorely needed cultural history of Black beauty as a transnational phenomenon and viable field of business in Canada during the twentieth century. Over the course of five chapters, she argues that the gradual inclusion of Black women in Canadian newspapers and magazines during the twentieth century reflected a transnational understanding of “African Americanness,” whereby Black communities exerted social, cultural, and economic agency as beauty suppliers, producers, and consumers in a flourishing beauty industry. Additionally, Thompson establishes important connections among Black North American print media to highlight the respectability politics of a burgeoning Black beauty market. Historically tied up with racial uplift, this market started with the New Negro Woman of the 1920s (the informed voter and active citizen) and ends with the expansion of Black models and celebrities creating lines of cosmetics and hair products for other Black women in the twenty-first century.
Thompson begins with a discussion of the importance of Black Canadian newspapers in negotiating racialized meanings of “blackness” associated with Black women’s skin, hair, and sexuality in advertisements and editorials, including the “Black Is Beautiful” beauty campaigns of the 1960s. She effectively uses ads, editorials, and product reviews of Black beauty products, which were found almost exclusively in Black newspapers such as Contrast and the News Observer, to highlight the invisibility of Black women as consumers in more popular publications, such as Chatelaine and the Globe and Mail. While doing so, she simultaneously reveals the ways in which Black women’s beauty and respectability were constantly redefined by advertisers. Thompson then examines the arrival of Black beauty products in the 1980s and the arrival of Black beauty ads in [End Page 133] white Canadian magazines and newspapers as the underpinnings of a global beauty culture that witnessed multinational conglomerates like L’Oreal and Estée Lauder acquire smaller Black beauty companies. In this latter exploration of a global beauty industry, readers would have benefited from a deeper analysis of how this shift in ownership – from Black capital and Black-owned enterprise to predominantly white corporations – resulted in a new standard of Black beauty that was fundamentally different from the New Negro Woman of the early twentieth century. For instance, Thompson argues that this “black” becomes replaced with ‘“ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’” following the entrance of white business in Black beauty culture, but she never explores what these fundamental changes are or how they reflect the relationship between patriarchal-economic forces and black femininity (171).
The transnational scope of Thompson’s work should not be understated. Indeed, she does an excellent job of showing the late growth of Canada’s Caribbean diaspora following the Second World War as a primary reason for the delayed development of a distinctly Canadian Black beauty culture. However, a more explicit engagement with theories of visual culture and race, such as Edward Said’s theory of “otherness” in art, would have benefited readers, particularly when the book examines (white) notions of respectability in Black beauty advertisements. Additionally, while Thompson is clear that this is a monograph focused on Black women, one cannot help but wonder how men donning afros or Jerry curls (courtesy of Johnson Products’ precise relaxer) saw their own masculinity in relation to these images of femininity appearing on boxed products and in advertisements. These moments are fleetingly discussed yet extremely fascinating, and they raise awareness that Black beauty products, notably hair products, were also consumed by Black men.
Considering consumption more broadly, Thompson’s painstaking research on Black beauty products and...