Invisible Women


One of the biggest stories to captivate entertainment headlines this year has been the emergence of Lupita Nyong’o. Her Oscar winning performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave catapulted her to the forefront of the public eye. Once there, she has developed almost a second career as the Queen of the Red Carpet, appearing at film festivals looking flawless in stunning gowns that designers are falling over themselves to dress her in. This summer she landed the cover of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful issue. Her Oscar acceptance speech about what defines beauty sparked a wave of affirmation from women around the world who fight daily to be seen as attractive and desirable within themselves when bombarded constantly with a narrow standard of beauty. Lupita is the most recent black female star to explode into pop culture but obviously she isn’t the only one. From Michele Obama to Olivia Pope, from top grossing movies like The Best Man franchise to About Last Night, Black women are everywhere, looking beautiful. Why then, with all the highly visible women of color in mainstream media, are so many people who work in the media so blind and tone-deaf when it comes to their beauty?

The past few months have been rife with cringe-inducing gaffes from writers who should know better. Patricia Garcia wrote an article for Vogue that attributed the acceptance of the big rear end to Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea. According to the article, a big butt was something to be ashamed of until these ladies made having one acceptable. The writer lives in Miami so I don’t know how she missed seeing all the confident, curvy Latin American and Caribbean women walking around. It was a fairly clueless premise but it did give the world the sadly hilarious twitter hash tag #voguearticles

On the heels of that faux pas, Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times managed to stumble not once, but twice in an article about the huge success of Shonda Rhimes by suggesting that the title of any future autobiography Miss Rhimes chooses to write should be “How To Get Away With Being An Angry Black Woman”, and referred to the star of Shonda’s new show How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis, as “less classically beautiful.” Never mind that the article itself is full of praise for what Shonda Rhimes has accomplished, those phrases derail the article like a turntable needle scraping across a record.

Whether by design or carelessness, There is a definite lack of awareness of the origin of many cultural trends that become commodified by other cultures. Until very recently, when it comes to African Americans and the cultural and artistic statements they create America has always followed a definite pattern: Love the creation, ignore the creator. It’s a pattern Black people know all too well. Back in the 1950’s, as R&B evolved into Rock and Roll, Pat Boone became famous by releasing milquetoast covers of the raucous, powerhouse songs of Little Richard, Fats Domino and Ivory Joe Hunter. When Bo Derek made her bikini-clad run down the beach with her hair in microbraids in Blake Edwards’ “10”, Middle America magically became aware of and copied a hairstyle that Black women had been wearing in great numbers for decades. Whenever shows like Friends, Sex and the City and most recently Girls are heralded as true depictions of young people navigating city life they are always set in a New York City where people of color don’t exist except as a sassy sidekick of the type that Wanda Sykes has cornered the market on. People of color have been the ghost in the machine of American social and cultural life; a rich reservoir of creativity that could be sampled by mainstream media, as long as the source was kept out of sight.

What defines beauty? What’s interesting about this is that while the last two decades have seen women of color featured more prominently than ever in mainstream media,it’s no secret that the gatekeepers of American fashion and media are overwhelmingly white. When you are not used to seeing people from different cultural places and getting different ideas about what is beautiful, you end up recycling the same images of beauty to a market that is no longer satisfied with them. Part of what makes Shonda Rhimes’ characters so compelling is that she writes black women with all the flaws, depth of character, inner turmoil and sexuality as their white counterparts. The instances of black characters being written so well are rare and maybe that’s why there has been so much cultural cluenessness in mainstream media’s handling of their presence. It’s as if the idea that black women are physically beautiful, multifaceted real women never occurred to them.

Viola Davis responded to being called “less classically beautiful” by refrencing the comment during her People’s Choice Award win. The concept of what is beautiful is expanding. It would be in the best interests of the people who consider themselves the gatekeepers of beauty to catch up.

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Author: Torraine Walker

I'm a writer based in Atlanta, GA.

121 thoughts on “Invisible Women”

  1. Fortunately, I have eyes to see with and my value system does not permit me to idolize anyone based simply on our unnatural, American standard of beauty. Our culture overvalues physical beauty and undervalues the core of a person. As a woman, I have been judged harshly for not being tall, large breasted and a size 2. I am not a Barbie I am a real live woman. I am so pleased to see women of color at the beginning stages of gaining greater visibility on the American stage. We are black and white, short and tall, thick, curvy, skinny, chubby, brown and green eyed. We cone in all shapes, sizes and colors. I am 5’0, 138 pounds, 47 years old and I am beautiful just the way I am. Stop comparing us to an unrealistic and boring ideal that does not allow for the beauty of nature in all of it’s variety. And, if I have to see or hear Katherine Heigll refer to herself a “full figured” again, I’m going to scream!

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  2. This is spot on. Although, when I saw Lupita on the cover of People magazine it was bittersweet. I was proud, but also taken a back by this notion that Black women had finally ‘arrived’ and that society was finally accepting us as the beautiful human beings that we are. Why does a black woman need to be validated by People magazine in order for society to recognize her beauty? (Any woman for that matter)

    I am so thankful that Shonda Rhimes is able to capture the complexities of Black women in her characters. If not for Shonda, Love and Hip Hop and The Real Housewives of Atlanta would be the main depiction of Black women on television. I love both shows, but no thanks! Great post!

    Liked by 18 people

  3. Great post! I recently watched a clip of the extraordinarily beautiful Viola Davis in her new television series, ‘How to Get Away With Murder’. In it she sits at her dressing table, preparing for bed. The camera focuses in on her neck and fingers as she removes her wig, revealing her God-given, natural hair. She says she insisted that shot be part of the episode’s end. Brilliant and full to overflowing with meaning.

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      1. Gotta admit, I found myself literally holding my breath! It wasn’t just that she did those things, it was the weight of centuries present in the gestures and the knowledge that this beautiful ‘actress of color’ INSISTED on that scene being there. My hope is that many years from now, all people have a better understanding of the meaning(s) behind the action(s). It deserves as much!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t have a TV at home and haven’t watched tv for past 4 years. And prior I only had tv in total….20 yrs. of my life (out of 50+ yrs.), so maybe I’m just not attuned to that black women’s beauty as something “new”. Seriously???

    I quit reading fashion magazines about a decade ago, so I wasn’t aware of the ongoing beauty dominance in the modelling world and fashion industry as much ….EXCEPT as an Asian-Canadian woman living an ordinary life even someone like myself is aware that desired “beauty” traits by mainstream society even among Asians tend to be “white” oriented: delicate nose, lips, paler skin, etc.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Very well said. Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. Did you see the photo experiment someone did? A plus-size blogger sent a picture of herself to 21 countries and asked them to Photoshop her image. Interesting how different cultures view beauty but she looked pretty in all of them!

    Liked by 5 people

  6. I’m so tired, and bored, with society’s limited ideas of beauty. For the last how many thousands of years men, not women, have created the rules for females around marriage, religion, and yes, even what is considered sexually alluring, after all if we’re not bed-able we’re forgettable.

    It’s time for women to strip away the old ideas and images of what beauty is and see themselves as they really are, powerful and creative beings, with crazy value to offer this world, and not props or toys. Many women are so attached to these shallow images that they don’t want to admit these prejudices exist. I guess if your pretty, or light skinned, this system works in your favor…until you age and become invisible. But trying to take credit for being pretty or light skinned is like trying to take credit for the weather. It’s ridiculous.

    Some black women have been so wounded by these lies about beauty that they reject themselves based on color. I guess this sort of caste system has been around for a while, but one would hope that we would have the intelligence and heart to see through this BS by now.

    I enjoyed your article. Thanks for posting.

    I’m also looking forward to reading, Shonda Rhimes work. Thanks for the tip.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. The above video is a must see if you want to discuss this all reasonably. It’s part of a lecture series with bell hooks- called “Are you still a slave? Liberating the black woman’s body”

    Related to awards… and regarding recent golden globe award dresses the black female award winners are lifting up the bodies of work belonging to the fashion designers. None of whom are black. Mary Katrantzou is Greek and lives in London. Donna Karan is a white Jewish woman, Randi Rahm is a white woman, Carmen Marc Valvo is of spanish italian descent and a NYC Parsons trained designer. Armani is an italian man. Zuhair Murad is Beirut based, Lebanese educated in Paris and first based in Rome and so on…

    Some more current black designers are Laqaun Smith, Sammy B. Designs, Kimberly Goldson (Harlem Fashion Show), Azede Jean-Pierre, Charles Harbison, Hassan Pierre and one of the more known is Tracy Reese. There are others… but these were selected from a more current list created by New York’s fashion week.

    Although the fashions designed by famous musicians who like to brand everything such as Sean Combs and Beyonce etc. don’t count in my book as real designers (as it’s not their passion or preferred art form), they too could have been designing for the community of black actors, directors and celebrities.

    There’s no problem with the designers they’ve chosen to be ornaments for, but where were the black fashion designers? Because the fashion empire is still mostly a patriarchal showcasing of women in clothes that don’t reflect how they feel about their own beauty, and hollywood and music industries use fashion as power, just as kings and presidents wives do.

    As for Shondra Rhimes she panders to men and sells it to women. She is like Tina Fey that way. They are both over rated and writing to the “base” level of entertainment. Both are writing about stereotypical ways of relating to men. There isn’t anything complicated about selling sex.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. It shouldn’t be just about liberating the black woman’s body. I am Native American and still there are Latinas, Asians, and many more ‘women of color’. Perhaps one day it will be recognized as not one perpetually limited black and white war to one of actual substance. Until that time this merely restates and agitates the black versus white versus black versus white etc. shamble that seems to pop up on every street corner.

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    1. Hi brirpac, I disagree with you and I’m white.

      It’s okay to be interested in ones specificity. It’s okay to identify with people and voices that belong to your own culture and to mobilize those voices so that they can find equitable conditions. Not just “equal” but actual ownership. That matters. Ownership of one’s own histories and images and who gets to tell the truth of your story or what aspects. So asking for black voices and lives to matter isn’t being racial. It’s about belonging to themselves.

      The same thing goes for Native Americans, Asians, Latinas and so on.

      Until we actually acknowledge the specificity of people and what they know is wrong, then we don’t listen to anything but the status quo. And that’s white patriarchal ownership. Hollywood, music, and sports are mostly owned by white people who definitely like to perpetuate the slave stories. Italian fashion is huge on the new show fox show Empire. It’s loaded with stereotypes and image is really big in it. Black people are being made to look like gangsters no matter in hip hop or television… albeit well dressed like Al Capone and that’s something to at least question as more black actresses and actors are becoming visible. Fashion is and always has been a form of slavery. From uniforms to ballroom gowns you can’t sit down in, there is male control smacking within it all.

      When I say these things, I’m not trying to divide anyone… I’m just not willing to be complicit.

      Peace to you. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  9. This is so well written and with so many great examples that I can’t even choose a point on which to comment! Black people have got to wake up and realise that ‘black IS beautiful’ and has ALWAYS been beautiful. The “gatekeepers of beauty” are forced to recognise this but will never give credit where it is due, instead continue to perpetuate the idea that one must be white or very light – skinned to be considered beautiful. WE must embrace our God- given assest and wear them with pride!

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  10. Your observations are on point. Now I know where to look for stream-of-consciousness inspiration. The only thing I’ll share is:

    When I look at Lupita, I see an elegant young woman who is comfortable in her own beautiful, melanated skin and under her own natural glorious crown. I imagine she wants her sisters of the diaspora to take note of her demure demeanor and quiet confidence that belie today’s fabricated impressions of sisterhood.

    Viola, on the other hand, just serves it up saying, “This is who I am. I haven’t arrived; but I’m on my way. Take me or leave me.” And Shonda
    is just a force to be reckoned with. She’s reveling in her spectacular moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you so much for making this post. It is rare to see anyone glorify women of color, as they should be, as any woman should be, and it is rarer still to see someone speak out about it! Thank you for bringing to light the oversight our media makes when assuming a woman has to look, basically, like I do, to be beautiful! Yes, I am beautiful, but so is everyone else! So is Lupita, so is Laverne Cox, so is Oprah, for goodness sakes! This was a lovely read, and one I greatly enjoyed.

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  12. Black people are a minority in the US and in the west in general so when black culture and fashions transfer over to white culture it will always become a bigger more visible, more mainstream phenomena simply due to the larger number of white people in the west.

    The same thing happens in places like India or Japan. When white or black (or mixed) western culture like western pop music or skateboarding or rap music transfers to Indian or Japanese culture it immediately assumes an Indian or Japanese identity.

    It’s just basic social / economic reality and it’s perfectly natural.

    > It’s a pattern Black people know all too well. Back in the 1950’s, as R&B evolved into Rock and Roll, Pat Boone became famous by releasing milquetoast covers of the raucous, powerhouse songs of Little Richard, Fats Domino and Ivory Joe Hunter.

    And there are thousands of Japanese thrash metal bands and their fans today who know very little about the origins of thrash metal in the bedrooms of white kids living in suburban England in the 80’s.

    It’s great to learn about the cultural / racial roots of particular art form or fashion, but it’s not necessarily a form of insult or oppression or exploitation or unfairness to be completely ignorant and not really care.

    As for beauty specifically, the fashion industry has always promoted unrealistic women who are nothing like most white women. So it’s not as if white women are that over-represented, if you think about it. The whole point of fashion is to promote unrealistic ideals and standards to make women (or men) feel inadequate and inferior … and this motivates them to go out shopping for clothes, make up (and now cosmetic procedures) in order to not feel so wretched.

    IOW the whole thing is driven by MONEY, and the fact that black women are a minority in the west means fashion and entertainment in the west is inevitably going to target white women more because there are more white consumers than black consumers. There is more money to be made.

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    1. Hi Curiosetta,
      You’re wrong. There are not more white women consumers. White women are not the majority ones buying fashion.

      When I travelled to Japan to see J-rock bands like Dir en Grey and Nightmare and Penicillin and Merry and Gargoyle… etc. they were not ignorant at all of their western influences. Dir en Grey even toured with Korn in the states as well as Marilyn Manson has always accused J-rock of stealing from them… If I know this about J-rock, so do the other fans.

      Fashion of course gets adopted into other cultures, appropriated and lost… blues, gospels, ragtime, to Jazz to swing to bebop to rock which all experienced fusion… so did soul to funk and so on… before we get to any other music it was black music and the radio industry changed all that… they wanted to get rid of speakeasies and crack down on the races mixing among other things… records kept people at home. White people owned it… and you want to say this is perfectly natural?

      Ok, so slavery is perfectly “natural” as well as robbing cultures. Guess what else is perfectly natural? Revolution. Changing the status quo. Getting out from under kings and robber barons and monopolies and your complicit attitude.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. > You’re wrong. There are not more white women consumers. White women are not the majority ones buying fashion.

        For the sake of a quiet life I will accept your claim that there are more black people living in the west than white people. Happy now?

        > If I know this about J-rock, so do the other fans.

        Then will you also accept that most fans of rock music (at least those over the age of, say, 16) will also understand it has its roots in blues? Or are the Japanese the only race with a sense of cultural history?

        > Changing the status quo.

        Is promoting racial stereotypes changing the status quo?

        > Getting out from under kings and robber barons and monopolies and your complicit attitude…

        Yadda yadda I’m such a guilty oppressor / helpless victim / social justice warrior ….. everybody look at me …..

        FYI slavery was (and to an extent still is) practiced in Africa too. This is because Africans are EQUALS to Europeans and therefore just as capable of doing evil.

        The whites (and other races) who came to Africa shopping for slaves bought their African slaves from black slave owners. The slaves had already been captured and enslaved by their own race and the spare ones were taken to the coast to be sold.

        But facts like this don’t jibe with playing the role of victim/ historical oppressor or with race baiting so let’s just agree to never discuss this again!

        Let’s just divide the world up into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ like when we were kids! And let’s do it by skin colour to make it easier! Then we won’t even have to think or refer to facts.

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        1. QUIET LIFE?!!!!!!!!
          I didn’t say there were more black people in the west curiosetta. I said white women were not the majority buyers. But neither matters. Black women are buyers of fashion and there are enough of them to have a say in what goes. So your argument, weak and unproven by any stats is nil.

          What ever you are trying to say and ask about the Japanese culture being the only ones having a sense of cultural history… um… nobody said that… but you. At J rock shows all generations go. I was standing next to grandmothers at one show in the balcony where 16 years old were down in a mosh pit. They have a sense of western culture because after we dropped the damn bomb on them we helped rebuild Japan and you can see evidence of that in the architecture as well as they use a lot of our history books to teach from that era… because we propagated it and they learned to become our allies and friends by adopting fashion, music, food, etc. There are different fashion and music movements like the “twisters” who where fifties rocker fashion. Merry was mentored by Dir en Grey but has a distinct jazz influence. They have maintained a sense of their culture as is easier to do on a homogenous island however. So no they aren’t the only ones with a sense of their cultural history or how ours effects theirs.
          I’m not promoting racial stereotypes so I have no answer to your question about whether or not promoting them is going to change status quo.
          This will help you:

          Transgression in Public spaces : a dialogue between bell hooks & arthur java

          This will also help you:

          Sal Masekela on Racism in Surfing – The inertia
          This is fun and will help you with music and fashion:

          Erykah Badu – Love of my Life (and ode to hip hop) ft. Common

          After you view these… we can have a real and honest discussion. But you gotta get into shape for this.

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  13. I do not see how this should concern average people. It is all the time the same story throughout the history – the rich and the famous are trying to look ridiculous in order to demonstrate that they do not belong to the herd that is below them. You can read some of the Thorstein Veblen’s thoughts on this matter in his brilliant socio-economical essay The Theory of the Leisure Class. The only thing that we need to do is to find our own value system, which stays independent of the values that were induced to us through the media. In other words, it is not about how you look, but about how you feel. And if you want to drink another beer, just do it. The only hope we have is to finally move forward and forget about all the beauty/ugliness competition that is nothing more than a way to distract us from the real life issues.

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    1. You never have to consider your whiteness or your patriarchal entitlement, John Berk. You aren’t required daily to experience the psychic violence of racism much less the gender inequity of females so that’s why you and average people don’t care. And that’s the problem. You won’t even bother.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Correct. But I struggle with my Eastern European accent. So don’t worry. I know well enough how it feels to be observed as some kind of alien being. Anyway, my point was different. I just wanted to point out that there are deeper structural forces which influence our value system, and that the best way how to deal with it is to get rid of it completely.

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        1. Thanks for clarifying. But…Get rid of “our” value system? The value system of the oscar academy? The value system of the beauty and fashion industry? The value system of capitalism? The American “value” system? All of the above? The deeper structural forces you speak of should be made clear, I think before we can actively work on deconstruction.

          And being black in america or a person of color in america is a different experience than eastern europeans have here. You may still experience systemic prejudices, but white males blend in and or assimilate first and foremost.

          I was reading a blog of a black woman from Kenya. She was an exchange student here and wrote about being so happy to return home where “black” wasn’t something she had to consider. She complained that she had never felt such hatred before and also that she did not want to be looked down upon when she did not join the Black Lives Matter movement. She did not define herself by anything other than her abilities. She explained that in Kenya it is about classism. Racism doesn’t factor into her daily life. In Kenya her family is wealthy and she wears western fashions in her self produced music videos. So in her homogenous homeland her people benefit from white privilege via global markets and trade and yet they have cultural equity which is “access” and “mobility” and “ownership” so that she does not have to “consider” being black unless she comes to the United States. And the most important factor in her post was, she felt “safe” being herself in Kenya. In the U.S. “race” is a question on almost every business/legal form. If it has to be a question it means there is an obvious imbalance in benefits or privilege, even if those questions intend to compensate. The united states did not eliminate slavery. Outsourcing jobs has simply moved our plantations. Sweat shops for the fashion industry is slavery.
          So if you mean structurally work on all of that… I get you, but it is not so simple.

          We all know what it’s like to be an “alien” some where. So I do worry. Because I know what it’s like, I do worry. And because it’s worse for black women here, I worry more. Because racism and sexism is painful.

          Thanks for the discussion.

          Liked by 2 people

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