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“Independent Livings Made”: African American Beauty Culturists as Negotiators of Race, Class, and Gender Identity

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Abstract:

At the center of the story of African American beauty culture in the middle decades of the twentieth century were the black women who dominated the industry. These women were the mediators between commercialized beauty culture and standards, and the African American women who were supposed to be buying the products and visiting salons. African American beauty professionals embodied the conflicts and contradictions their business presented within black communities. On the one hand they were businesswomen who wanted to make money, who shared the consumerist ethos that beauty could be bought, and who sincerely believed that the products and services they provided helped black women. On the other hand, in promoting beauty culture, these women faced challenges and controversy from within African American society even as they fought discrimination and racism outside of it.
Selling commercialized beauty culture to African American women was problematic on many levels. The products and services were expensive for most working class black women, even though, in spite of their popularity, the profit margins of most African American beauty entrepreneurs, remained narrow. Hair straightening and use of complexion creams and powers were, moreover, extremely controversial in African American society, and received criticism from a various corners, including those who accused African American users of beauty products of wanting to look white. African American beauty professionals, therefore, walked a thin line. They were financially, intellectually, and emotionally invested in a business that, some argued, black women did not particularly need, that many could not afford, and that, from some points of view, did them considerable harm. Black beauticians negotiated and helped to shape commercial beauty standards for black women that addressed, even if they did not completely solve, these problems. To them, beauty culture, as a business and an occupation, offered a solution to black women’s financial woes rather than an additional and unnecessary expense. Black beauty culturists also fought accusations that their business eroded race pride. Still, black beauticians failed to escape this issue entirely. Assertions that hair straightening was not about emulating a white beauty standard, for example, did not always ring true, and beauticians themselves did not speak as one voice on the issue.
In addition, because of race and gender discrimination that limited employment options in the middle decades of the twentieth century, beauty culture attracted African American women across class lines. Middle class salon-owning beauticians sought professional status for beauty culture, while working class beauticians sought the economic security and occupational autonomy beauty culture seemed to offer compared with domestic service work. While middle- and working-class beauticians shared a desire for occupational independence and job satisfaction, significant class differences emerged among African American beauticians between the 1920s and the 1960s. These differences sprang from increasing class segmentation of African American beauty salons due to the Depression, New Deal legislation, state regulation, and the growth of upscale salons in big cities after World War II.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318970_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Walker, Susannah. "“Independent Livings Made”: African American Beauty Culturists as Negotiators of Race, Class, and Gender Identity" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C., <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318970_index.html>

APA Citation:

Walker, S. "“Independent Livings Made”: African American Beauty Culturists as Negotiators of Race, Class, and Gender Identity" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C. <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318970_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: At the center of the story of African American beauty culture in the middle decades of the twentieth century were the black women who dominated the industry. These women were the mediators between commercialized beauty culture and standards, and the African American women who were supposed to be buying the products and visiting salons. African American beauty professionals embodied the conflicts and contradictions their business presented within black communities. On the one hand they were businesswomen who wanted to make money, who shared the consumerist ethos that beauty could be bought, and who sincerely believed that the products and services they provided helped black women. On the other hand, in promoting beauty culture, these women faced challenges and controversy from within African American society even as they fought discrimination and racism outside of it.
Selling commercialized beauty culture to African American women was problematic on many levels. The products and services were expensive for most working class black women, even though, in spite of their popularity, the profit margins of most African American beauty entrepreneurs, remained narrow. Hair straightening and use of complexion creams and powers were, moreover, extremely controversial in African American society, and received criticism from a various corners, including those who accused African American users of beauty products of wanting to look white. African American beauty professionals, therefore, walked a thin line. They were financially, intellectually, and emotionally invested in a business that, some argued, black women did not particularly need, that many could not afford, and that, from some points of view, did them considerable harm. Black beauticians negotiated and helped to shape commercial beauty standards for black women that addressed, even if they did not completely solve, these problems. To them, beauty culture, as a business and an occupation, offered a solution to black women’s financial woes rather than an additional and unnecessary expense. Black beauty culturists also fought accusations that their business eroded race pride. Still, black beauticians failed to escape this issue entirely. Assertions that hair straightening was not about emulating a white beauty standard, for example, did not always ring true, and beauticians themselves did not speak as one voice on the issue.
In addition, because of race and gender discrimination that limited employment options in the middle decades of the twentieth century, beauty culture attracted African American women across class lines. Middle class salon-owning beauticians sought professional status for beauty culture, while working class beauticians sought the economic security and occupational autonomy beauty culture seemed to offer compared with domestic service work. While middle- and working-class beauticians shared a desire for occupational independence and job satisfaction, significant class differences emerged among African American beauticians between the 1920s and the 1960s. These differences sprang from increasing class segmentation of African American beauty salons due to the Depression, New Deal legislation, state regulation, and the growth of upscale salons in big cities after World War II.


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