TPII Editor Maggie Levantovskaya kindly gifted me a copy of Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick last week. (I took a selfie with the book to send Maggie as part of my thank yous, and we had a moment of appreciation for the way my lipcolor (BeautyBakerie Lip Whip in Take Me to Pomegranate) picked up the color of the subtitle. OK, that’s the makeup part of this post. Beauty Bakerie is black woman owned and dedicated to makeup for ALL. Support them! Moving on.)
The book is a tour de force, written by the author, who is a Professor of Sociology at VCU, to encompass, as the Kirkus Review says, “the whole range of her being” – her academic expertise and her pain and fury living as a black woman in America.
I am stepping through the book slowly, taking the time to sit with each chapter. I hope you will read it. This week, for #MakeupMonday (I’ve been working on it all week!) I want to share the second chapter, “In the Name of Beauty.”
The chapter makes a simple and devastating claim: a black woman cannot be ‘beautiful’ in America in 2019. This has nothing to do with how any individual black woman actually looks. It has everything to do with the fact that in a society dominated absolutely by the valorization of whiteness, anything that contradicts whiteness must be seen as un-beautiful. The origin of the chapter is a piece McMillan Cottom wrote in 2012 stating “blithely,” in her words, “the observable fact that I am unattractive.”
This claim produced an intense reaction from black women, white women, and black men. Nobody was happy with it, or with McMillan Cottom for making it. The chapter walks us through why. But she’s not having it.
“For beauty to function as it should, it must exclude me. Big Beauty-the structure of who can be beautiful, the stories we tell about beauty, the value we assign beauty, the power given to those with beauty, the disciplining effect of the fear of losing beauty you might possess–definitionally excludes the kind of blackness I carry in my history and my bones. Beauty is for white women, if not for all white women.”
McMillan Cottom’s claim is not, emphatically, about acquiescing in, ie, internalizing, negative white judgment about black looks – hers or anyone else’s. It’s about objectively observing that in a racist white society, whiteness circumscribes the bounds of “beauty.” As she writes, “I sound like I am internalizing a white standard of beauty that black women fight hard to rise above. But my truth is quite the opposite. When oppressed people become complicit in their oppression, joining the dominant class in their ideas about what we are, it is symbolic violence.”
Beauty in this way is always in the service to property, specifically, white monopolization of capital.
In other words, attempts to reclaim particular kinds of black beauty reenact the violence of capital that is always, in the end, in the service of whiteness.
“That’s why beauty can never be about preference. ‘I just like what I like’ is always a capitalist lie. Beauty would be a useless concept for capital if it were only a preference in the purest sense. Capital demands that beauty be coercive. If beauty matters at all to how people perceive you, how institutions treat you, which rules are applied to you, and what choices you can make, then beauty must also be a structure of patterns, institutions, and exchanges that eats your preferences for lunch.”
Shorter version I: “(if) I believe that I can become beautiful, I become an economic subject. My desire becomes a market.”
Shorter version II: “If beauty is to matter at all for capital, it can never be for black women.”
Thus it doesn’t really matter that this or that individual black woman has been elevated as beautiful, or that beauty standards evolve, seemingly becoming more embracing of variety. Because in the end beauty-capital – and all capital – only flows in one way.
“When white feminists catalogue how beauty standards over time have changed, from the ‘curvier’ Marilyn Monroe to the skeletal Twiggy to the synthetic-athletic Pamela Anderson, their archetypes belie beauty’s true function: whiteness. Whiteness exists as a response to blackness. Whiteness is a violent sociocultural regime legitimized by property to always make clear who is black by fastidiously delineating who is officially white. It would stand to reason that beauty’s ultimate function is to exclude blackness…. As long as beautiful people are white, what is beautiful at any given time can be renegotiated without redistributing capital from white to nonwhite people.”
Leading to the gut punch: “When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it.”
So, all this alone would be a chapter.
But this is not the end of the chapter.
Because then McMillan Cottom invites us to share the ways that white women (and some black men) reacted to this claim. Reacted, that is, “with impassioned cases for how beautiful I am.” She writes,” [White women] offered me neoliberal self-help nonsense that borders on the religious. They need me to believe beauty is both achievable and individual…”
White women’s desperate efforts to show beauty as individual and achievable have an implicit (and likely unconscious) agenda: to make the author the object of revision, rather than white capitalist supremacy.
“It may seem to privileged people,” McMillan Cottom observes, “that it is easier to fix me than it is to fix the world.”
“I live to disabuse people of that notion,” she notes, in one of her countless devastating seemingly throwaway lines.
Why do white women need to individualize, or personalize, beauty? “Because the alternative makes them vulnerable. If you did not earn beauty, never had the real power to reject it, then you as much a vulnerable subject as I am in your own way.”
To which McMillan Cottom remarks: “deal with that [vulnerability] rather than dealing with me.”
I had a sudden thought for how a conversation would go, among my liberal white women friends who have “good” politics, if I were to, say, report to them the point of this chapter: “This black sociologist says that in the eyes of America, she is unattractive.” “Oh no! No no no!” they would respond in utter, wide-eyed, horror. “Of COURSE not! She’s BEAUTIFUL!” “Yes but she’s claiming that to say that only white women are defined as ‘beautiful’ due to the dominance of whiteness, ie, white supremacy, in the service of capitalism.” “Well that’s just WRONG! *I* don’t believe that! Maybe before but not now! Look at Lupita Nyong’o! She’s GORGEOUS!”
This is exactly what McMillan Cottom is writing about. I know she’s right. Why would this happen? Because, I can feel in my very bones, without literal years of dedicated anti-racism work, we white women will always disavow the privilege that we KNOW (at very deep and unspoken levels) we have.
And again, all of this is in the service of capital. “All of the admonishments that I should ‘love myself,’ and am ‘as cute as a button,’ from well-intentioned white women stem from their need for me to consume what is produced for them.”
“White women need me to believe I can earn beauty, because when I want what I cannot have, what they have becomes all the more valuable.”
“I refuse them,” McMillan Cottom responds.
This chapter does much more than my brief summary here, especially around the responses by black men. But this is a #MakeupMonday post, so I’ll stop here.
This chapter is about makeup and not about makeup. The author expresses no opinions on that point. I’ve seen her chat about makeup on Twitter, and she seems to have no issue with it. Use makeup or don’t, you are still operating in the field of “beauty” that will exact its price regardless of what you want. Nobody gets secure access to that field because even “beautiful” white women occupy it only temporarily, and meanwhile it evolves continually to constantly renew its markets by destabilizing consumers.
So, what’s the right move, here?
“I want nice people with nice enough politics to look at me, reason for themselves that I am worthy, and feel convicted when the world does not agree. God willing they may one day extrapolate my specific case to the general rules, seeing the way oppression marginalizes others to their personal benefit.”
The issue is less about what you purchase, and more about, purchasing or not, you are situated in a beauty economy that must exclude blackness, as part of its determination to elevate whiteness and make black girls and women abject.
“It is actually blackness, as it has been created through the history of colonization, imperialism and domination, that excludes me from the forces of beauty.”
Black girls and women are deprived of childhood, never seen as young and innocent, considered simultaneously incompetent and dangerous, punished excessively, deprived of safe childbirth (the subject of another devastating chapter in Thick), and in grave danger when seeking medical care. Because black women are seen as not deserving. As Tressie McMillan Cottom shows us, the lie is in denying this reality, not trying to cover it over with a good (indeed even a Fenty) foundation.
Well, Lupita N’yongo IS gorgeous! 🙂 I’m an unattractive white woman. That used to bother me; now I don’t care. I dress for comfort, cut my hair for convenience. Makeup? Yuck. (Your mileage may vary!) Too much work, and there’s such a thing as gilding the turnip. While this author’s perspective is valid and important, I see another layer of oppression in the message sent to white women that they should devote time, money, and intellectual effort to scrabbling to be attractive by standards traditionally set by heterosexual men.
I think it was John Stuart Mill who commented sadly on how much of Victorian women’s mental energy was wasted on the need to keep up with fashion. If you are dealing with others as an intellectual being, who cares, or should care, what you look like, as long as you are not actually disfigured? Male professionals in most fields are not expected to be more than basically well groomed; they don’t have to look like Tom Cruise (or Idris Elba), nor spend half an hour every morning in front of their mirrors. If you happen to personally enjoy making yourself a work of art, by all means enjoy it as a hobby – but we shouldn’t let ourselves be pressured to consider whatever nature and time have made us to be Not Good Enough.