Cosmetic Companies Should be held Accountable for their Racist Depictions of Black Women’s Hair and Skin
By Professor Rozena Maart
On Monday 7 September, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema asked security guards and police not to intervene against EFF members when they entered the Mall of Africa to protest outside the Clicks store. Clicks’ online advertisement for hair products by TRÉSemme depicted White women with shiny, glossy hair and Black women with hair considered dry, damaged and frizzy. On the same day, the protests went national and the advert became a topic of discussion across the country. With consumers now turning to online shopping, products, along with the accompanying fine print are being scrutinised more than ever; this racism is thus coming into your home.
TRÉSemme is not the only company to use a racist and sexist marketing strategy that denigrates Black women; this practice has been used by make-up and beauty companies for decades. I use the term Black as all-inclusive within the South African context. In similar vein, on 25 April 2019, the BBC ran the story of Dom Apollon, a 45-year-old man who works for a non-profit racial awareness organisation who took to Twitter to share how, for the first time ever, he was able to use a plaster (“band-aid” in the United States and Canada) that matched his skin tone after he cut his hand. He received 96 000 comments on the first day, including one by Mister Star Wars himself, John Boyega, who noted that when he cut himself on set the make-up artists painted the plaster to match his skin tone. Only recently the Black child who was left confused by the “flesh” colour crayon was given a range to choose from. Since 2019, the little ballerina in the UK has been able to purchase different shades of “bronze” ballet pumps. Until the late 1980s, make-up companies made foundation that did not even consider the varied skin tones of Black women and what are referred to in the United States and Canada as women of colour, yet still referred to shaded foundations and blushers as “normal”, thus asserting that if your skin colour did not match what they sold, there was something wrong with you.
The TRÉSemme (from the French word trés-aimé, meaning “well loved”) brand was first manufactured in 1947 by the Godefroy Manufacturing Company in New York. It was named after hair care expert Edna L Emme, a cosmetologist and founder of the National Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association, a then all-White association in the United States that only encouraged diversity in its membership in the past few decades.
In the early 1900s shampoo companies only considered women of European heritage as their customers. The TRÉSemme advert today uses the same message as their competitors of the 1960s, even as the afro blossomed among women in the Black Panther movement in the United States, as worn by Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis, who publicly pronounced that “Black is Beautiful”. In the 1960s, the main products for Black women were hair straighteners called “relaxers”, as though your hair, like you, was angry or aggressive and needed to be relaxed in order to be considered normal. The term “normal” still features prominently in the language of cosmetic companies, hinting at the psychological and mental state of the person who needs to purchase the product.
Whilst I am not suggesting that all Black women go through any of the stages I discuss here, the TRÉSemme message is clear:
• It provides you with an image that you identify with
• This image suggests that your hair is the way it is because of your heritage
• You are racialised and deemed unfortunate
• You’re a consumer, you have buying power, and want [to buy] glossy hair
• Through your buying power you can move closer to the image that you admire – the image of the White woman.
The thinking process that generates action in order to obtain the ultimate look, one that the Black woman is expected to pay for, is as follows: identification, recognition, realisation, arousal of interest, shaming and responsibility, consumer consciousness then back to disappointment when the product fails, self-doubt, and self-hatred.
If you’re a Black woman, advertising of the kind used by TRÉSemme operates on the basis that you have internalised the racism that has been inflicted upon you. The TRÉSemme advert digs into that internalised racism, often unspoken, that lies within the unconscious, by offering visual images of what you experience on a daily basis. Black women are then offered an opportunity to buy out of that racialised experience into another.
Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was born in Vienna and moved to the United States with his family when he was a young boy. His uncle teased him about not reading his books and said that he would find everything he needed for his work in public relations by reading his uncle’s work on the unconscious. After taking up the challenge, Bernays who had a contract with a tobacco company and had promised that his campaigns would bring them great profit, tapped into what he perceived as the insecurity of White women in the United States, who he believed wanted to see themselves as feminists. In 1929 he devised a campaign that called cigarettes “torches of freedom”, and encouraged White women to carry packets of cigarettes in the garter of their stockings as they marched. As the women walked, their skirts showed the forbidden masculinised item – the pack of cigarettes – which drew an analogy between and among the Statue of Liberty, a form of daring femininity with cigarettes in a garter belt, and that freedom could be attained by challenging men who smoked and saw cigarettes as powerful phallic symbols reserved for their pleasure, from which women were barred. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Let us take a quick look at the history of shampooing hair. The English word shampoo originated in India, as a Hindi word, almost 400 years ago in the middle of the 1700s during the British colonial era. Indian men and women had been washing their bodies and their hair for centuries. In the 1700s, as they grew their empire, the English were ignorant not only of washing their hair but also of bathing; they also did not have a food culture as sophisticated as the Indians. The latter, as we know, was one of the incentives for colonisation as the colonised elevated the palate of the coloniser. In the 15th century Queen Isabella declared that she had only bathed twice in her lifetime. Queen Elizabeth the first stated that she bathed once a month and her successor James the sixth, never bathed nor did he wash his hands before eating because he had an aversion to water. Queen Victoria bathed once a year on her birthday and certainly did not wash her hair. It was common practice a few decades ago for the less fortunate in England to bath once a week, with the father, mother, then the oldest child entering the bath in that order, and the baby left for last. This meant that when the baby was bathed, the water would be a muddy colour, hence the expression, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Africans, Greeks, Asians, the Japanese, and South and Central American indigenous peoples as well as South Pacific and Islander people bathed by pouring water and scented plants and oils over their bodies and hair. They understood the elements and the world their bodies lived in and did not need colonisation to understand how to be human.
Today in the year 2020, with decolonisation a national imperative, and part of our approach to teaching and learning, it is appropriate that we question and interrogate what we are sold and at which price. In particular, we need to ask whether as people who make up the majority in our country, we are still being duped into believing that our hair needs to be relaxed, and that it is damaged. Every child growing up in this country needs to understand that racism is everywhere, and that the marketing of products for bathing and cleansing is still riddled with the racist assumptions exhibited during the apartheid years. We have to put an end to this and there is no time like the present.
Professor Rozena Maart is an academic in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her work examines the intersections between and among Political Philosophy, Black Consciousness, Derridean deconstruction and psychoanalysis, all of which address questions of race, gender and identity.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.