The field of psychology is not very good at understanding how and why people develop body image issues. We tend to think it’s because a person compares themselves to others too much or maybe has the wrong kind of thinking patterns. We’re even worse at understanding Black women’s body image issues. We often have the idea that Black women are immune to developing body image issues because of our own racist ideas about Black culture and booty sizes (as noted by Bordo, 2003).

Previous research has also suggested that media effects are generally minimal and that individuals are responsible for their own body dissatisfaction; I and colleagues know both of these ideas need challenging and so recently we systematically looked at the way in which Black women were represented in popular women’s magazines. We wanted to better understand the appearance pressures Black women face and to show that these pressures are culturally driven (via media imagery) rather than from the individual.

We coded every image of an adult women for her age, body type, skin shade, hair type and nose size across eight issues of mainstream women’s magazines available in Britain (Elle and Vogue) and Black women’s magazines (Essence and Ebony) from 2015 to 2016. We also coded the number of appearance adverts and articles featured in the magazines.

We found that, of the 539 images of Black women in the magazines examined, 83% were young, 62% were slim, 66% had light skin, and 60% had straight hair (see Figure 1 as an example). Very few Black women were featured in Elle or Vogue (n = 64, 11%) and when they were represented, they generally had straighter hair, narrow noses and lighter skin tones than images of Black women in Essence and Ebony.  

An unexpected finding was that 16 (25%) of the total images of Black women in the mainstream women’s magazines were of one, single Black woman – the US-based actress Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o happens to have darker skin and afro hair which skewed our analysis somewhat (in that the Black women’s magazines were generally better at featuring more diverse Black women than the mainstream magazines except for Nyong’o). But Nyong’o wasn’t featured because she represents diversity but because she is the face of Lancôme, a French subsidiary of cosmetic giant L’Oreal and that both companies are prominent advertisers in Elle and Vogue.

Figure 1 Front cover of Ebony Sept 2015 magazine depicting 6 Black women, four of whom have relaxed hair and 5 of whom have light skin

Traditionally those of us in the body image research field have noted that appearance ideal images (ie young, thin and athletic) represent an unrealistic standard for the majority of women. Some of us recognize too that appearance pressures are gendered, that women experience this more often and more deeply than men (Buote, Wilson, Strahan, Gazzola, & Papps, 2011; Jankowski, Fawkner, Slater, & Tiggemann, 2014; Jankowski, Slater, Tiggemann, & Fawkner, 2016). However, we’ve said little about how these standards are even more unrealistic for Black women where Black women not only face appearance pressures to be slim and youthful but also to lighten their skin, to narrow their noses and to relax their hair. This study starts to do that.

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