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.

Author: Torraine Walker

I'm a writer based in Atlanta, GA.

121 thoughts on “Invisible Women”

  1. This type of cultural dismissal is something that isn’t accidental but also something that most people who don’t look beyond the mainstream can help. There’s a great TED talk – Chimamanda Adiche: the danger of the single story – which captures the essence of this failure of white western cultures to recognise. Great posting.

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  2. Instead of judging who is beautiful and who is not, I would much rather discuss who is accomplishing what. The reason that the “not as classically beautful” comment is offensive is because her looks should not even be a part of the story. I am a white woman, so I’m sure I don’t understand all of the complexities of the issues that you covered here; but in my experience, as soon as you are seen as “beautiful,” all you want is to crawl out of that limiting category as soon as possible. I agree that people of color are oftentimes not given credit where credit is due and are not given fair representation in media and film (and court of law), but make sure you are fighting for what you actually want. Do you want credit and recognition for your achievements? Or kudos for doing your hair and being attractive?

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  3. I read posts like these and I feel like I can relate but not on the same level. I’m a white women in a world where white women don’t have too many problems. Yes, we still face our own problems but I think it’s on a completely different level. All I hope is that one day posts like this don’t exist. I sit here and I don’t understand why these problems still exist. I loved your post! Very thought provoking.

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  4. Unfortunately I think racism will always exist. But you are right, the fashion, entertainment and media world are full of mostly white people. But even worse than that in my opinion is that they are full of people who set dangerously unhealthy and unnatural ideals of what beauty is and should be. If they had more models who weren’t so gaunt and ghostly looking, fashion runways would look a lot more vibrant and less like a procession of glammed up walking dead.

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  5. I was wondering about Lupita when I saw her at the Golden Globes and thought…what happen to her? She was America’s IT girl last year, but her flame seemed to dwindle. It also goes to show you how people (media) transition between story spins. I enjoyed your post, valid points. Do you remember the show Girlfriends starring Traci Ellis Ross. For those that dont know about the show it depicted African American women from various educational and socioeconomic background navigating city life in LA. The show was a hit among young adult African American women or as the media would say urban community. The show also display the diversity of beauty within the African-American community. As an African-American woman I know that sometimes our image of beauty is not displayed in the media and to see it on the show in such a way that made me feel beautiful and also celebrate the beauty of other women was powerful. And I love how it showcase the women’s natural beauty as well. The today show has been running a campaign all week for women to embrace their natural curls and not flat iron or relax their hair. This is another huge issue that has caught headlines in recent years as more women or as I know more African-American women are embracing their natural hair instead of relying on relaxers to straighten their hair and define their beauty.

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  6. let me start off by saying great article love where you’re going with this. I totally agree the American standard of beauty is evolving and changing and change is good as well. also America as a whole is changing. Black women has always been beautiful and its time that we embrace our beauty and stop embracing everyone else’s beauty. Thank you for this beautiful article that you post.

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  7. Hello everyone, I just want to say thank you to everyone who is reading, responding and commenting on my blog. I never expected “Invisible Women” to resonate with so many people! The subject of who and what defines beauty for women of color, and women in general, seems to inspire a lot of passion. I hope you check out my previous and upcoming SUM City articles, and comment and debate on those as well. I plan to keep it interesting.

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  8. Great post! No matter how you look through the lens you will always have a different view point.#Beautiful

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  10. Great post … For I can not be placed the standard mold of society. I am not 5’5 with brown eyes but instead I am a strong women. Thick in the waist and curvy in taste. For a walk not by the rules of society but rather by beats of my own melody !

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  11. Excellent post!
    It makes me sad that this issue is not only prevalent here in the U.S. but also in other places as well. Black model Jourdan Dunn is on the front cover of British Vogue’s February 2015 issue and she’s one of the very few (if not the only) black people that have been featured on the cover. As a black woman it makes me not only sad we don’t generally get recognized for our beauty — especially if we don’t look like Beyoncé — but also that we don’t always receive credit for the things we’ve contributed to.
    I actually hate that people cite Kim Kardashian as one of the people who put “big butts” on the map and made them acceptable. I’m still not sure hers is even real, lol.

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  12. Awesome post, and so true…I remember reading about how Black inventors would attempt to have their creations patented or otherwise recognized, but would be turned down – – only to have a Caucasian with a similar idea get all the attention and credit that should’ve gone to them instead.

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