“Andromeda, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world, was however from Nubia and therefore black.” My memory of this “however” in a Greek mythology textbook, it has haunted me – through my adolescence, and long into adulthood – with its assertion, both explicit and implicit, of the contradiction between being black and being beautiful.
While many in the feminist movement rightly spoke out against the objectification of white women, they largely failed to notice an entirely different exclusion – of black women. There are many valid criticisms of the fashion and beauty industry: the pressure on girls, and increasingly boys, to match unhealthy body images, the airbrushing of reality from the pages of glossy magazines, the impact of packaging on the environment – but it has an important role to play in the normalisation of blackness.
That is why I am hosting tomorrow’s launch of the Black Beauty and Fashion Awards 2017 in parliament. The awards aim to promote equality and celebrate diverse beauty, giving consumers of black beauty products a voice that can be heard clearly.
We have come a long way since I was growing up – there are now supermodels with darker skin tones, and just about every fashion advert has the apparently obligatory Afro. But there is still a long way to go.
The norm remains white, even for me. When I was first elected as an MP in 2010, I did not feel I could wear my hair in its natural curly state in the chamber. I thought it would not be seen as “professional”: my expectation of normality was set, like Andromeda’s beauty, on white terms. It was only after a (white) constituent insisted I looked so much happier at home in Newcastle with my hair “out” – rather than scrunched up and straightened in the chamber – that I finally screwed up the courage to go natural.
And there were obstacles even to that, whether it was being labelled a “moptop” by internet trolls – or the more subtle reaction of mainstream beauty salons. I was told that none of the (many) hairdressers in a large salon could cut my hair as that wasn’t part of the standard training; it was only on the advanced course, apparently, that hairdressers learned how to “do” Afro hair. Just last week, when trying to book a salon appointment over the phone, I was informed a blow dry was obligatory for “health and safety reasons”.
This denigration of blackness has consequences here, in the way that black people can still struggle with their sense of self-worth – and this can be linked to the disproportionate levels of mental health issues in the black community. It is also reflected in the way black people are described, and indeed trolled, online. On social media racist memes regularly compare black men and women to apes of one kind or another, while the vitriol heaped on Diane Abbott during the election campaign was often rooted in her appearance.
And it has consequences globally. In developing countries, supposedly reputable cosmetic firms maximise their profits by claiming to make their customers whiter – Garnier Men’s PowerLight and Unilever’s Fair & Lovely for women are just two examples.
Global companies are making billions feeding racial stereotypes, while in the UK alone it is estimated that black and Asian women are forced to spend on average £137.52 more per year on beauty products due to lack of choice.
It is particularly appropriate to launch the Black Beauty and Fashion Awards in the new parliament that has followed the general election. While there is certainly more progress to be made, today’s Commons is more diverse than it has ever been, with 51 black and minority ethnic MPs, 25 of them female. We have a range of black images and representations, many variations of black beauty and black hair, just as in the country that we seek to represent.
But it is true that the chamber does still not have a full-on Afro. I may see if my hair is up to it.